West Africa is making great strides on the path to democracy. The region is also rich in natural resources, including diamonds, gold, oil, wood, and fish. However, West African communities continue to suffer from severe poverty.
Subsistence agriculture is the main economic activity, but dry weather and the ever-expanding desert are limiting agricultural opportunities for a lot of people.
Petty trading is another major activity in West Africa. Women in particular prepare or sell food, sew and dye clothing, and create other handicrafts. Many find it difficult to go beyond subsistence-level activities. They have no access to financial resources, information, technology, or markets.
Most governments in the region are not yet stable democracies, and have no tradition of citizen participation in politics. In spite of this fact, Mali, Senegal, and Ghana have had peaceful democratic transitions, and enjoy a wider political participation. Other states are less open, control information, and impose restrictions on freedom of expression. Donors like the World Bank are exerting pressure on governments to decentralize their services, and give more management responsibility to local communities. This should create new opportunities for citizen participation in government, but it can also impose a heavy burden on unprepared local authorities.
In West Africa, human resources are the best asset. There are dynamic farmer, women, youth, and human rights activist networks in the region, all working to improve their living conditions, increase their incomes, and build a better future. Citizen organizations are emerging, keen to voice their needs to their governments and other decision-makers.
An alternative educational movement is developing across the region. Adults are learning to read and run businesses, and learning about their right to be heard, their right to information, economic opportunities, and peace and safety.
Young people and women, who are not usually in touch with power centers in West-African societies, now demand that their concerns be taken into account.Despite this political progress, several countries in West Africa suffer from serious and continuing conflicts, as well as from squabbles among local groups over water and land. Readily available small arms and light weapons compound instability in the region.
West African communities use both new and traditional forms of conflict resolution to negotiate peace, analyzing factors that provoke conflict in order to better understand it, and act on its main causes. Women's organizations, in particular, are learning how to assess their role in transforming conflict into dialogue.
Economic and political opportunities
The greatest asset in West Africa is its people. They are creating vibrant networks of farmers, women, youth and human rights activists, all seeking to improve their lives, increase their incomes, and create a better future.
- Citizen organizations are emerging, eager to articulate their needs to government and other decision makers.
- A thriving alternative education movement across the region is helping adults learn to read and understand their rights to be heard.
- Youth and women, not usually well-connected to power centers in West African society, are demanding to have their concerns acted upon.
Despite this political progress, several countries in West Africa endure severe conflict and on-going, low-level fighting between local groups competing for water and land. Small arms are readily available and are increasing the instability of the region.
West Africans are using both new and traditional forms of conflict resolution to negotiate peace. They are analyzing the reasons for conflict so they can better understand and act upon the root cause. Women’s organizations in particular are learning how to assess the role women can play in transforming conflict into dialogue.
Oxfam in West Africa
Oxfam America's West Africa regional office is in Dakar, Senegal. The office employs more than a dozen staff people and is a well-respected and influential program in the region.
Oxfam is an active participant in the Oxfam International Make Trade Fair campaign, and has helped launch an influential National Coalition for Trade Equity. The coalition includes peasant federations, academic institutions, and student organizations.
The National Coalition for Trade Equity is partly responsible for the emergence of a national student movement for fair trade, and the creation of the National Coalition of Students for Equity in Trade. This group has helped collect hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions calling for fair rules in international trade, including that of Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, who visited the Oxfam exhibit at a national agriculture fair in March of 2004.
The government of Senegal has also used Oxfam's research and policy recommendations to formulate its own trade negotiation positions for meetings with the G8 and WTO. The government invited Oxfam to be part of its National Commission for International Trade Negotiation, and consulted with Oxfam staff, partners, and trade justice coalition allies before attending the most recent WTO meetings.