Back From the Field: Mali

WHEN: October 21-November 6
WHERE: Mali (Bamako and Segou Regions)
RI TEAM: Andrea Lari, Director of Programs; Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement Program Manager

The Sahel region in West Africa suffered another major food crisis in 2012 – the third in seven years – which affected roughly 18 million people. The situation was made even worse by conflict in northern Mali, which has forced over 400,000 Malians to flee – many to parts of neighboring countries already suffering from acute water and food insecurity. The conflict also hindered humanitarian access to most of northern Mali, which is now controlled by Islamist groups who are attempting to impose Shar’ia law. These dual crises have had significant humanitarian consequences for Mali and its neighbors, who were already among the least developed nations in the world.

Attempts to resolve the conflict in Mali have so far been unsuccessful. The UN Security Council recently approved the deployment of an ECOWAS military force, which is intended to restore stability and reinforce the Malian military as it attempts to retake the north. However, this intervention could further restrict humanitarian access to vulnerable communities and result in additional forced displacement.

The food and nutrition crisis has been largely contained, but the threat of a recurrence is all too real. Sahelian governments – in partnership with Western donors – are trying to develop new initiatives that will increase the region’s “resiliency” to recurrent droughts and food crises. Climate change and population growth mean that these shocks are likely to continue – or even worsen – in the future. At present, governments and the humanitarian community are unprepared to meet these growing challenges.

During their mission, RI’s team met with displaced Malians in the capital city, Bamako, and in the region of Segou, where thousands of displaced Malians have sought refuge. They identified the following key issues during their site visits and interviews with Malians, aid groups, NGOs, and local officials:

  • In the event of an ECOWAS military intervention, all efforts must be made to protect civilian populations and humanitarian aid workers trying to provide them with life-saving assistance. Such a military operation could result in further harm to innocent civilians in the north, cause additional human rights abuses, and further curtail humanitarian access to vulnerable populations facing prolonged drought and food insecurity. Any proposed military intervention must include mechanisms and procedures to minimize these impacts.
  • The needs of the estimated 200,000 Malians who have been internally displaced – most of them for six months or more – are still not being met. The vast majority have fled to urban areas to live with extended family members, where their growing needs and vulnerabilities remain hidden from view.
  • RI’s assessment found that there has been insufficient contingency planning by aid actors with respect to Mali. The humanitarian situation is likely to worsen significantly in the coming weeks and months, but neither the Malian interim government nor the international humanitarian community are adequately prepared.