Getting it right in post-conflict Mali

Billions of dollars of foreign aid are poised for release following Mali’s successful transition to a democratically elected president. But before donors turn on the aid spigot, they should reconsider how aid is channelled in Mali, to mitigate the misappropriation of funds that exacerbated the conflict in the first place.

Mali’s new president will face the usual development challenges endemic to the region, but the political and security crises in Mali have highlighted a new set of aid priorities. This transition period presents Mali and its donors with the opportunity to address systemic issues that previously impeded development: ethnic tensions, poor governance and economic disenfranchisement.

Better accounting

Mali is heavily dependent on foreign aid. The suspension of aid flows following the 2012 coup d’état devastated the economy, contributing to the first contraction in GDP growth since 1993, a potentially poor reflection on the resiliency of previous development projects.

2011 European Commission study on direct budget assistance to Mali noted “significant weaknesses in treasury management and in public accounting.” Improving transparency and accountability would go a long way toward improving the population’s confidence in their leadership, say analysts and community leaders.

For years, the Malian government announced major infrastructure and development projects in the north, but channelled funds through local elites who did not invest these funds in services for the population. “The government and international partners didn’t work through civil society associations or local government, but with nefarious individuals based upon their personal relationships,” said Timbuktu-based community leader Mohamed Ibrahim Cissé.

Much of the funding was not transparently monitored, empowering corruption and deteriorating Malians’ faith in their leadership.

Foster reconciliation

Ethnic tensions have been inflamed by the recent conflict. Many black Malians from the Bambara, Songhaï and Fulani ethnicities express thinly veiled disdain for light-skinned Tuaregs. In Mopti, in central Mali, Jaousin Traoré dismissed Tuareg grievances of underdevelopment and years of central government neglect. “It is in the culture of Tuaregs to rebel once aid money runs out,” he explained. “Large amounts of resources have been sent to the north, but Tuaregs do not want to work.”

Conversely, Tuareg and Arab populations from the north feel persecuted and marginalized by an administration controlled by ethnic groups from the south. A municipal councillor from Timbuktu remarked, “For the Malian army, if you have white skin, you are already guilty; you are already suspected [as a traitor].”

Recent reports of ethnic clashes in northern cities have only heightened these tensions.

Before the rebuilding and development process can begin, divided communities must re-establish trust. Donors can support this by promoting inter-communal dialogue and cooperation through community projects.

Decentralize aid and its monitoring

The political and security crises resulted in a population disillusioned by their political institutions and a breakdown of already tenuous inter-communal relations. Addressing that these issues stem from poor oversight and corruption could go a long way toward the reconciliation of communities.

Between 1996 and 2005, official development assistance made up 27.6 percent of the state’s general budget. “Delivering aid through the national government has huge problems. It doesn’t have a well-structured channel for distribution and administrators are not well trained,” confided a project chief from an international NGO in Mali.

Decentralizing aid management would help tackle these problems. Shifting monitoring mechanisms over to the local community would hold recipients more accountable for funds and increase local ownership, say experts.

Central government involvement may be unavoidable when pursuing large-scale projects, but it often makes processes more cumbersome and results in the creation of parallel structures.

The French Ministry of Development has recognized this need for local-level monitoring and plans to launch a pilot project that will set up a website displaying the status of all its Mali projects. People can phone in or update the website if a project is delayed.

Emergency aid needs persist

In the immediate term, international organizations must continue to provide emergency humanitarian assistance, stress residents of the north.

There are over 350,000 internally displaced Malians and 175,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, all of whom require food, water, basic healthcare and shelter.

Conflict significantly disrupted economic activity and the delivery of basic social services in the north. Many pastoralists, farmers and traders were forced to abandon their herds, fields and businesses. Like many of his friends, Mahoumoud Cheibani fled Timbuktu to seek refuge in Bamako. He believes “some refugees would prefer to stay in their camps because they have nothing to return to”.

Following the retreat of the Malian administration, many public buildings and services were looted or destroyed. The International Committee of the Red Cross provided fuel to power generators and water pumping stations in the northern cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal during 2012, but services were only maintained at a minimum level. All three regional capitals in the north lack the pre-conflict levels of potable water, electricity and medical services. As a result, the UN has warned of acute humanitarian needs in cities like Gao.

The gradual return of internally displaced persons and refugees to the north will further strain limited social services. A struggling Malian government will need assistance repairing infrastructure and restoring services needed to meet the most basic needs of northern inhabitants.

Livelihood support

With the average Malian living on less than $2 per day, most of those displaced by the conflict do not have the capital to rebuild their livelihoods. Helping them do so will prevent dependency on emergency relief efforts and promote peace, stability and longer-term development.

In a displaced camp near Mopti, camp director Modibo Tounkara is cataloguing the names, occupations and hometowns of residents, with the goal of reintegrating these displaced persons into their communities. But returning is financially difficult because “they lost everything,” Tounkara says. “They want to go back. They want to work. But they don’t have the money to start over.”

Dramane Diakité of the Mopti Chamber of Commerce advised future partners to pursue private-sector approaches that would lay the ground work for sustainable economic growth in local communities, paraphrasing the well-known Bambara proverb: “Instead of giving a man a fish, teach him to fish.”

Prevent an unemployed youth time-bomb

Mali is also undergoing a demographic transition as its youth population surges. Mamadou Coulibaly from the National Council of Youth in Bamako expressed concern over the 300,000 who enter the job market each year but are unable to find work.

Without integration into the formal economy, it is unsurprising that many young Tuaregs and Arabs pursued activities in the lucrative illicit economy, say analysts. Continued economic marginalization will make any successes in disarmament and demobilization short-lived.

A Tuareg local government official from Kidal warned, “An unemployed person in Kidal is dangerous, very dangerous… There isn’t one person in Kidal who doesn’t have a gun.”

Northern populations use small arms as a means of insurance against crime and overzealous military intimidation. The influx of weapons in the region after the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the introduction of improvised explosive devices by al-Qaeda-linked militants have only compounded the problem.

Fernando Arroyo, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Mali, has also raised concerns about the proliferation of unexploded ordnance in the region, which could pose continued risk to local populations for years to come.