Health, education, employment, migration, and women’s empowerment: Rising to the challenge of supporting Senegal’s response
21 January 2022
2030 Agenda and the SDGs
The United Nations Resident Coordinator in Senegal, Siaka Coulibaly, went with the UN country team on a field mission to the regions of Saint Louis and Matam in Northern Senegal from 15 to 19 November 2021. He shares his perspectives.
1. What was your perception of the communities living in Saint Louis and Matam, and how would you describe your interactions with them?
Saint Louis and Matam are cross-border, culturally diverse regions where several communities with different ethnic background, including Wolof, Fulani, Soninke, Moorish, and Toucouleur live side by side. When a border crisis arose between Senegal and Mauritania in 1989, a number of Mauritanian nationals, Wolofs, Fulani, Toucouleurs and Soninkes became displaced to Saint Louis and Matam. The majority of these people decided to remain in Senegal. Some kept a status of refugee while others became naturalized or are in the process of getting their naturalization with support from national authorities and UN agencies such as UNHCR.
Meanwhile, it was delightful to see that these communities are living side by side in peace and perfect harmony with their Senegalese counterparts. The two groups live in solidarity, sharing matrimonial ties, but also issues related to economic, agricultural, commercial and herding activities along the banks of the Senegal River. The warm welcome we received, especially from women, was very touching. It was a poignant reminder of Senegal’s spirit of hospitality, known as the "Land of Teranga", that will remain engraved in my memory.
2. What kind of support are the UN country teams providing to ensure the integration of these communities?
It is encouraging and rewarding to see that the work done by our agencies is making a tangible contribution to strengthening harmony between communities and improving the lives of refugees more specifically. In Woudourou, for example, a UNHCR programme allows local people to facilitate refugees' access to land by offering them 10-year leases under which they can cultivate plots while being provided access to water pumps and water barriers through UNHCR’s support. This type of initiative that promotes farming and ranching encourages young people to remain in the country instead of engaging in illegal immigration activities, thanks to the income they can raise to sustain themselves. The UN must continue to implement such programmes to boost integration while encouraging communities to work together for sustainable development.
3. Can you tell us about the challenges that communities living in remote areas away from more developed urban centres are facing?
Saint-Louis is 256 km away from Dakar and the road leading to it is in relatively good shape. Matam, on the other hand, is nearly 600 km away from the capital and, with road works currently underway on different legs of the trip, the region is not easily accessible in many ways. Our engagement is therefore crucial in boosting the livelihoods of local communities living in these remote villages and in transforming their living conditions.
For example, in Wassacodé, near Matam, expecting mothers had to choose between traveling several kilometres by car or on the back of a bicycle to give birth at a proper health facilityor giving birth at home, increasing the risks of death for the mothers and their children. With UNFPA’s support, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and an NGO, the village of Wassacodé opened a new health centre, which has transformed the lives of women in the village and surrounding communities by mitigating the risks associated with emergency labor and delivery situations. Women in the village have also set up a solidarity fund to support with these issues. These are programmes and initiatives that we must continue.
4. Saint Louis and Matam have long had relatively low school enrollment rates, especially among girls. How is the UN contributing to changing this?
You are right. School enrollment rates are relatively low in these regions. The causes are often structural, linked to poverty, unemployment, and migration, when fathers leave the home [in search of better opportunities]. These situations compel many children to stay home and help with domestic work or take on activities related to farming and herding [to support their families].
To address this challenge, UNICEF is helping several schools in Matam to set up bridging classes that integrate several levels of education, and is supporting, in collaboration with the local education authority (in French: "Inspection d'académie”), a project that provides children attending daaras (Koranic schools) an opportunity to follow a similar, foundational academic track.
At the same time, with support from WFP's school canteen programme, thousands of children in the Matam region, like those enrolled in the Ogo2 school that we visited, are provided with a hot meal every day. Implemented in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the programme has made a significant contribution to getting children, especially girls, back to school, and to reducing absenteeism and the number of school dropouts due to the long distance to travel.
5. Women and youth are priority targets for the UN in Senegal. Can you tell us more about the support they are offered in Saint-Louis and Matam?
Indeed, the empowerment of women and youth is one of our priorities. And we have been noticing tangible progress in this area. I experienced it first-hand on the ground.
In Ross Bethio, for example, FAO and UN Women are jointly supporting a project that helps the Northern Women Farmers' Network (in French: "Réseau des femmes agricultrices du Nord”) organization promote women's leadership and economic empowerment in agriculture. Women become more independent as they are provided with an opportunity to grow rice and, in the process, are contributing to creating employment opportunities for young people who are, in return, less inclined to engage in illegal immigration activities.
Speaking of young people, we have set up an IOM-led platform funded by a joint IOM-UNDP global programme called “Making migration serve sustainable development” (in French: "Placer la migration au service du développement durable") in Saint-Louis. This initiative has enabled the establishment of an orientation and information system that helps young people find a job.
Also, in Saint-Louis, thanks to UNFPA’s support, the local Youth Centre (in French: “Maison des Jeunes”) has set up a standard health facility, which receives an annual grant for the purchase of medicines, to provide medical care to young people, including teenage girls, and women.
Finally, UNICEF has also worked with partners on an initiative to engage with young people, including teenagers, to be proactive and get involved in decision-making processes that directly impact their lives.
6. What was most memorable from your visit?
What sticks with me, and as vividly captured by my own personal experience during this trip, is a renewed sense of purpose and belief that the work of the UN team in Senegal has a direct impact on the lives of the people we serve, including those most vulnerable who live in remote areas. And we have more opportunities to boost our activities, from continuing to mobilize a whole-of-UN approach within our team to strengthening our engagement across multiple sectors such as education, health, nutrition/school canteens, women's empowerment, migration, and employment. This joined-up approach in our work is what will optimize our ability to effectively support Senegal in achieving its development priorities towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), contributing to localizing the Goals and applying them towards our fundamental principle of "Leaving no one behind" (LNOB).
This is precisely what the UN Country Team is working towards, under my leadership – activating and leveraging partnerships [for sustainable development] across the country. A joint project on rolling the SDGs throughout Senegal is on-going with our teams from the different UN entities on the ground. It aims to integrate the Global Goals into the National Development Plan at the municipal level.
7. Any last words?
We must do everything we can to ensure that the UN's support to the Government and the people of Senegal is as coordinated and effective as possible. This is at the heart of my mission; the reason for my engagement with the UN as a Resident Coordinator; and it is also an honour and a great responsibility. And I intend to bring my best on this engagement by ensuring that the UN in Senegal team delivers an effective and coordinated support that Senegal could rely on to rise to the challenges it is facing now or in the years to come.
Interview originally conducted in French by the team of the United Nations Resident Coordinator Office (RCO) in Senegal. A first version of this interview was published in French on UN News. This adaptation was produced and translated to English by the Development Coordination Office (DCO). For more information on the UN Country Team's work in Senegal, please visit Senegal.UN.org.