The ‘rain use efficiency’ (RUE) may be defined as the ratio of above-ground net primary productivity (ANPP) to annual precipitation, and it is claimed to be a conservative property of the vegetation cover in drylands, if the vegetation cover is not subject to non-precipitation related land degradation. Consequently, RUE may be regarded as means of normalizing ANPP for the impact of annual precipitation, and as an indicator of non-precipitation related land degradation. Large scale and long term identification and monitoring of land degradation in drylands, such as the Sahel, can only be achieved by use of Earth Observation (EO) data. This paper demonstrates that the use of the standard EO-based proxy for ANPP, summed normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) Global Inventory Modeling and Mapping Studies 3rd generation (GIMMS3g)) over the year (ΣNDVI), and the blended EO/rain gauge based data-set for annual precipitation (Climate Prediction Center Merged Analysis of Precipitation, CMAP) results in RUE-estimates which are highly correlated with precipitation, rendering RUE useless as a means of normalizing for the impact of annual precipitation on ANPP. By replacing ΣNDVI by a ‘small NDVI integral’, covering only the rainy season and counting only the increase of NDVI relative to some reference level, this problem is solved. Using this approach, RUE is calculated for the period 1982–2010. The result is that positive RUE-trends dominate in most of the Sahel, indicating that non-precipitation related land degradation is not a widespread phenomenon. Furthermore, it is argued that two preconditions need to be fulfilled in order to obtain meaningful results from the RUE temporal trend analysis: First, there must be a significant positive linear correlation between annual precipitation and the ANPP proxy applied. Second, there must be a near-zero correlation between RUE and annual precipitation. Thirty-seven percent of the pixels in Sahel satisfy these requirements and the paper points to a range of different reasons why this may be the case.