Mauritania: Islamic Response to the Sahel Drought

Drought conditions have led to a food crisis in the Sahel region. Source: UN OCHA.

By Alex Thurston

The Sahel region of Africa faces severe drought and hunger this year, affecting as many as 18 million people. The crisis touches Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad.

A familiar list of organizations has rushed to help, including the United Nations, Oxfam, and CARE. Also present are Islamic agencies: On Sunday, the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) announced a program (Arabic) to help people affected by the drought in Mauritania. The program involves “distributing quantities of food and provisions to the neediest families in the targeted areas.” 600 families in Rosso (map) and 200 families in the capital Nouakchott have benefited so far. The IIRO hopes to expand its activities in Mauritania and respond not just to the drought, but also to problems like the influx of refugees from neighboring Mali.

The IIRO (Wikipedia page, official site) was founded by Saudi Arabia in 1978. By one account (p. 43), “By the 1990s, it had become the largest Islamic relief agency, enjoying the personal patronage of senior Saudi princes. In 2001, it is reported to have spent some $33m on 2,800 projects in about 95 countries. Funding is largely from zakat (the Muslim tithe) contributions from Saudi citizens and businesses.” Today, the IIRO works in some 48 countries, especially in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa. Within Africa, the IIRO has offices in the Sahel (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Chad), the Horn (Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti), and elsewhere. The Organization’s stated mission is “pioneering the humanitarian and institutional work in a way that serves man and achieves reconstruction and development.”

It appears part of the reason why the IIRO works in fewer countries today than in the 1990s is the effects of 9/11. The period from roughly 1980-2000 saw a blossoming of international Islamic aid agencies, Arab governmental development projects, quasi-governmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations in sub-Saharan Africa. Gulf Arab wealth provided much of the financial muscle for these organizations. A desire to win new allies (especially against Israel), an ideology of global Muslim solidarity, and reactions of sympathy to Africa’s humanitarian crises helped motivate the effort. The Charitable Crescent and the chapter “Islamic N.G.O.s in Africa: The Promise and Peril of Islamic Voluntarism” in the volume Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa tell this story in greater detail.

9/11 changed the trajectory of Islamic humanitarian agencies in Africa and around the world. (It is worth noting that Washington began raising concerns about Islamic charities as early as the 1990s, in response to charities’ involvement in conflicts in Bosnia, Palestine, and elsewhere, but 9/11 dramatically heightened these concerns). The US government suspected some Islamic charities of not really being charities at all, but rather fronts for transnational terrorist funding. The IIRO did not escape accusations of links with terrorism. In 2006, the US Treasury Department added the IIRO’s branches in Indonesia and the Philippines to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist groups.

The IIRO’s Mauritania office is not on that list, and the office has distributed aid in Mauritania since 9/11. But the scale of the current crisis and the particularly tense political atmosphere in the western Sahel this year mean that the IIRO will encounter both challenges and opportunities. The Sahel is currently receiving more than its usual share of attention due to the rebellion in northern Mali, and in particular due to the strength of the armed Islamist group Ansar Dine (Arabic, Ansar al Din: “Defenders of the Faith”) there. Headlines are beginning to scream about the arrival of foreign fighters and transnational terrorists in Mali. In the worst case scenario for the IIRO, its work during the drought would draw scrutiny from observers suspicious of any foreign Muslim involvement in the Sahel. In the best case scenario for the IIRO, the crisis would offer the Organization an opportunity to show whether an ethic of Muslim solidarity contributes to good relations between local populations and aid agencies. In any case, with 9/11 over a decade behind us, situations like the drought in Mauritania offer case studies of how Islamic aid agencies are adapting to new global conditions and new local problems.


Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. Alex has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. He blogs at Read Alex’s previous writing for The Revealer here.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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