Negotiating aid delivery in Mali’s conflict zones

Aid agencies managed to work in northern Mali throughout its occupation by Islamist militants in 2012 and the new complications triggered by the French-led military campaign earlier this year. No single template guided their engagement.

IRIN spoke to aid staff in Mali about how they navigated access challenges in a region facing critical nutritional and health needs over the course of 2012 and 2013.

What has humanitarian access looked like?

When rebel and Islamist groups first occupied northern Mali in April 2012 many international NGOs and UN agencies initially withdrew, often after having their offices, vehicles and aid supplies looted. Some relocated staff to the central region of Mopti and sent international staff down to the capital, Bamako; others shifted their programmes further south to Mopti, Douentza and Ségou.

Many agencies experienced access problems that hampered their scale of operations. Most of these were involved in longer-term development projects. For the World Food Programme (WFP) and several others, access is still a problem: “One of our top concerns is for humanitarian access to be re-established,” WFP head Sally Haydock told IRIN in March of this year. “This would allow WFP to reopen its offices in order to assist a larger caseload and for our partners to operate fully.”

However, many NGOs continued to operate in northern Mali throughout the Islamist occupation, and several significantly increased their humanitarian reach because of the crisis conditions. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Médecins du Monde (MDM), Action against Hunger (ACF), Solidarité Internationale and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) all worked across northern regions in 2012 and 2013, and heads of each organization said their access was not significantly affected. These organizations together provided nutrition support, healthcare, and water and sanitation services to a significant proportion of the remaining population.

After the French-led military intervention, which began in January 2013, things became more problematic as there were no clear authorities in place in many northern regions, said Frank Abeille, the Mali director of Solidarité Internationale. Civic administrations are for the most part still unstaffed, and the military chain of command is often unclear.

ICRC spokesperson Wolde Saugeron, in Geneva, told IRIN, “Paradoxically, things got more complicated with the intervention, as the interlocutors started to change.”

“Now it is much more complicated with a lack of authorities in place. We negotiate access with whoever we can find,” ACF head Franck Vannetelle told IRIN.

MDM said the same of the northeastern region of Kidal, where access has been confused by power struggles among the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) and other groups. “We don’t know who to address access-wise, who decides what. It is confusing for everyone, including the population,” MDM Belgium’s coordinator, Sebastien Lemaire, told IRIN.

The situation has eased in recent weeks, said Saugeron, who estimated that as of April 2013, ICRC’s access is back to pre-French-intervention levels.

What were some approaches used to secure access?

After the initial occupation, some organizations re-established access by working with local partners. WFP, for example, teamed up with ACTED in the area of Ménaka and Norwegian Church Aid in Kidal, both of which connected with local NGOs. According to WFP, its food aid reached up to 150,000 people in 2012 and 2013. ICRC also worked very closely with the Malian Red Cross.

On the other hand, many agencies negotiated access with whomever they needed to, including, in 2012, Islamic insurgent groups like the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and, in 2013, the Malian, French and Chadian armies, local authorities and the MNLA.

For example, in April 2012, MSF set up a large healthcare programme in Timbuktu Region and parts of Gao Region by negotiating with all the parties to the conflict - including armed groups and, more recently, the French and Malian militaries.

“All have to be approached. We worked out a way to keep our teams in the north last year and to keep them there this year - little by little we built up our humanitarian space,” said Johanne Sekkenes, MSF head in Mali. “This is part of our work as a humanitarian agency; it’s no secret. There is no guarantee of being accepted.”

According to ACF’s Vannetelle, MUJAO in Gao never refused access. “We had to confirm our movements 24 hours in advance, and they always cleared it. There was a direct chain of command, which gave us assurance.”

How has negotiation changed?

The use of negotiation to deliver aid in rebel-controlled areas has shifted over the past 20 years. In the 1990s, UN agencies often led negotiations over humanitarian access on behalf of much of the aid community – as in Operation Lifeline Sudan. Negotiation was considered integral to putting the humanitarian principles into practice.

This changed after the 9/11 attacks on the US, according to research by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). “Humanitarian organizations have long been pressured by states not to engage with [armed non-state actors], in part because they fear that doing so may lend them legitimacy,” said the ODI report Talking to the other side. But now these non-state actors “are often listed as terrorists in situations where humanitarian engagement is most necessary,” discouraging direct interaction.

This has marked a shift in the humanitarian culture, particularly for the UN, said one seasoned aid worker: “Now we’re more scared than we used to be… We’ve lost that culture of negotiating with rebels… It’s always been a high-risk job, but whenever we go now, we side with the government.”

For one senior UN official, who requested anonymity, the UN has no choice but to be more careful than other aid groups. “You must recognize the nature of groups like AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine - who have said the UN is among their top five targets… If you are a UN employee, you’re on their target list,” he said. “That’s why we work through partners.”

But some agencies, such as MDM, fear that working with local partners could jeopardize their operations’ impartiality because it is impossible to know exactly where partners’ personnel stand without strict monitoring.

Many interviewees said training is needed on negotiating access in conflict zones, a point also made in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 2011 report To Stay and Deliver.

Several organizations, such as ICRC, already do this. ICRC uses networking and awareness-raising to help negotiating parties gain confidence in its impartiality.

“This is something that has been developed over a long, long period of time - and it is directly related to the practical issue of having to work in conflict zones,” said Saugeron, who mentioned some agencies have approached ICRC for guidance in this area.

In Mali, rather than negotiating access directly with armed groups, many aid providers negotiated with village-level crisis committees, which included civilians and rebels, said the UN official. Access worked out through these committees largely worked, he said, in part because two of the groups in question - MUJAO and Ansar Dine - had no interest in diverting humanitarian aid. The advantage of these crisis committees is that they could work back and forth between southern and northern Mali, with multiple points of contact, he pointed out.

“What was done was the best that could have been in the circumstances,” he said.

What are the remaining security challenges?

Given tight military control following the French-led intervention, much of the north is again opening up to aid groups. But access is still limited by opportunistic banditry and criminality where there are no security forces, said a UN worker.

Banditry includes attacks on vehicles up and down the Niger river valley and along certain routes, such as the main road from Gao to Kidal. Threats also include improvised explosive devices and mines in parts of Gao. Illicit trafficking in cigarettes, drugs and other contraband are likely to pick up again.

“We have security, for the most part, in towns, and insecurity elsewhere - much like pre-conflict 2012,” noted the UN official. “We don’t want to return to how things were. We want to go beyond.”

The UN Security Council is reviewing a draft resolution to put a 12,600-strong peacekeeping mission in Mali by 1 July. If such an initiative attempts to integrate military, humanitarian and political operations, the neutrality of UN agencies could come into question.

“The nature of the mandate of DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] in Mali will be a determinant,” said Fernando Arroyo, head of OCHA in Mali. “There is wide consensus among humanitarians that it is imperative to keep humanitarian and political agendas separate, as a failure to do so could undermine the perceived impartiality that humanitarian organizations have gained so far in the north.”

On the other hand, said the UN official, integration could give humanitarians a voice at the table, which could result in better security for their programmes.

But for now, said Arroyo, aid agencies’ top priority is to getting the right people in place to restore basic services.