The so-called TerrAfrica partnership aims to attract at least $4 billion in 12 years to improve the sharing of ideas about how best to combat land degradation, officials told a news conference in the Kenyan capital Nairobi on Monday.
"Its objectives are to improve the policies and governance that affect the management of land, to augment the analysis of the causes of land degradation and the solutions that actually work on the ground," said Karen Brooks, the World Bank's Africa regional manager.
Brooks said the money for TerrAfrica, described by its creators as the largest anti-desertification alliance, would be administered initially by the World Bank and made available thorough a trust fund to be established by donors.
After two years, officials expect the partnership's head office would be moved to a base somewhere in Africa.
According to the UN, 65% of Africa's 800 million population is affected by land degradation, mainly in areas where forests have been cleared to make way for agriculture and overgrazing.
"Land degradation and the low productivity in the agricultural sector are interlinked and important reasons for food shortages experienced in many of our African countries," Kenya's Environment Minister Kalonzo Musyoka said.
Around the world, a total of two billion people live in drylands vulnerable to desertification, ranging from Northern Africa to swathes of Central Asia, UN experts say.
Land degradation affects 65% of
Africa's 800 million population
Storms can lift dust from the Sahara Desert and cause respiratory problems for people as far away as North America.
Overgrazing and overplanting of crops, swelling human populations, and misuse of irrigation all contribute to the advance of deserts.
But Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai warned that the initiative would not be successful without the involvement of local farmers.
"No matter how many policies we put in place, how much we talk in these international fora, until we can go down to work with those farmers down there in the valley, stop the deforestation and protect these very fragile environments, we can talk but I can assure you there will be another TerrAfrica in another 30 years," Maathai said.
Her grassroots Green Belt Movement has campaigned for years to plant trees in Africa, saying plants slow desertification, preserve forest habitats for wildlife and provide a source of fuel, building materials and food for future generations.
"Land degradation and the low productivity in the agricultural sector are important reasons for food shortages experienced in many of our African countries"
The partnership is made up of African governments, an African Union project for economic revival known as the New Partnership for Africa's Development, the World Bank, the European Commission, the UN and other donors.
Formed in response to calls to action by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), TerrAfrica aims to increase agricultural productivity by 6% a year and encourage governments to allocate 10% of their national budgets for agriculture, they said.
"It promises to be a real shot in the arm to restoring the health of the continent's fragile lands and overcoming the seemingly relentless slide," UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer said.