Bassikounou is a moughataa (district) and town of Hodh el Chargui region in Southeastern Mauritania, almost 1,200 kilometres from the capital Nouakchott. On the border with Mali, the landscape is dominated by sand dunes. Rain and pasture have become sparser over the last few years, and yet large herds of cows, sheep, goats, donkeys and camels roam the scant grasslands. They represent the livelihoods of the mostly nomadic communities on both sides of the border.
Like in many parts of the Sahel, the border here is invisible, and Mauritanians and Malians are linked by family ties, religion and trade. Since the start of the conflict in Mali in 2011, Malians have crossed the border and have not yet been able to return because of ongoing instability. Over 50,000 Malians live in a refugee camp about 20 kilometres from Bassikounou, effectively doubling the population of the district and making it Mauritania’s second largest urban area.
The increased pressure on natural resources and social services can lead to conflicts between refugees and hosts. And while tensions do exist in Bassikounou, the local population has been remarkably effective in ensuring that peace prevails. There is mediation by village elders, or through the local prefect, and more recently also the village committees. Shared religious values and a century-old culture of hospitality have also helped. And the government and international partners have done their utmost to support both refugees and locals.
However, there is always the risk of escalating tensions because of a continuous influx of refugees due to persistent insecurity and conflict in Mali, the very real risk of climate shocks, and limited public services and economic opportunities.
A “peace lens”
The international community has started to look at a more long-term approach, thinking about a developmental instead of a purely humanitarian response. This requires, among other things, deciding how refugees and their hosts can live together in dignity and harmony.
So how can we, as the UN contribute to sustained peace in Bassikounou? Together with the government, the UN has convened locals and the international community to start thinking about planning for the district, considering likely climate scenarios.
To put a “peace lens” into this development thinking, we deployed to Bassikounou as part of an interagency mission comprised of UNDP, UNICEF, FAO and OHCHR to jointly develop a project proposal to respond to the challenges they face.
We met both the international community and local leaders, including political and administrative authorities and mayors. We also met village committees, women’s cooperatives, teachers and parents, as well as youth representatives from the district and the refugee camp.
Their main concern? Contested natural resources, such as water, pastures and firewood. Vulnerable groups, including rural communities, women and youth, have limited work and limited government services. However, it also became clear that the village committees and networks of women and young people are important for building social cohesion. One way the UN can contribute to social cohesion and the prevention of crises in Bassikounou is by building on these local strengths.
The mission developed several approaches for this:
- Support a joint plan to manage scarce natural resources. The participation of village committees — especially female members — will ensure inclusivity. They will monitor implementation and resolve disputes.
- Enable district authorities to encourage local economic development, including a diversification of the economy. Joint cooperatives and shared value chains can create benefits for both refugees and hosts. One example is the production of leather goods by nomadic herders and local communities.
- Support young people, in particular women, both in and out of school, to become peace agents and leaders. This involves training for non-violence and community leadership, joint activities between refugee and host community youth, and shared spaces to exchange economic and other learning skills.
Bassikounou demonstrates the often-overlooked potential for sustaining peace. It also illustrates the complexity of the challenges that communities across the Sahel face when the effects of instability spill over and affect their fragile livelihoods. Crucially, our experience taught us that working in these contexts requires UN agencies to pool their expertise and resources and work with national and local partners. Given the cross-border nature of social, community and economic life in Bassikounou, a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace could, as a next step, involve communities in Mali.
There is still much to learn about the ways in which the UN can work with governments and societies to sustain peace, where challenges are complex and — as is the case in Bassikounou — are compounded by regional instability, and the effects of climate change. A first step is to ask locals what works best.
About the authors
Tanya Pedersen Sierra is a programme analyst working with UNDP on local governance in fragile and crisis settings.
Laura Rutishauser is a political scientist who formerly worked as a programme analyst specializing in governance and peacebuilding at UNDP.
Henrik Hartmann is a specialist in peacebuilding, risk and resilience, formerly working with UNICEF.