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Over the past 50 years, a large number of development initiatives have addressed the diverse social and ecological challenges in the Sahel, often focusing on a single entry point or action, resulting in only a limited degree of success. Within the last decade, the international development discourse has evolved to incorporate resilience thinking as a way to address more complex challenges. However, concrete examples as to how to operationalize resilience thinking are lacking. The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (GGW), a pan-African program with a strong reforestation focus, is the latest and most ambitious of these development programs to date. The GGW represents an ideal opportunity to apply resilience thinking at a large scale, but in order to do so, it must intelligently gather and centralize pre-existing interdisciplinary knowledge, generate new knowledge, and integrate knowledge systems to appropriately navigate future uncertainties of the diverse social-ecological systems along its path. Herein, after a brief description of large-scale reforestation history in the Sahara and Sahel and the conceptual evolution of the GGW, we propose a transdisciplinary research framework with resilience thinking at its core. It includes analysis of complex social-ecological systems, their temporal and spatial cross-scale interactions, and outcomes focused on the supply of abundant, diverse, equitable, and durable ecosystem services to support livelihoods in the region. If the research areas that comprise the framework were to be properly addressed, they could conceivably guide GGW actions in a way that would contribute to desirable future pathways.

The Great Green Wall as a potential game-changer in the Sahel

The Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel (GGW) is a reforestation effort to halt land degradation across the African continent. It is a multibillion-dollar initiative involving a range of stakeholders including national governments, international organizations, the business sector, and civil society. The GGW is designed to enable these actors to collectively manage natural resources in the Sahel region from Senegal to Djibouti (Fig. 1, see light green line for original GGW path). Several factors have merged together and provide the GGW with the potential to be a game-changer in the Sahel. First, with its pan-African coordination and impressive geographic scope, together with the sizeable financial investments at the national and international levels, the GGW has the potential to contribute to change at a large scale. Second, the fact that researchers have bought in as stakeholders at the early stages of the GGW means that science can be designed to inform, test, and help navigate the GGW at all stages of the decision-making and monitoring processes.

Finally, there is now a window of opportunity to rethink development actions in the region as there is a consensus that business-as-usual development efforts are ineffective, and where the concept of resilience becoming increasingly embraced in the high-level discourse of development agendas (United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability 2012; SWAC/OECD 2013; UNDP 2014; USAID 2018).