Mali : realities and Myths of the “Triple Nexus”

Local Perspectives on Peacebuilding, Development, and Humanitarian Action in Mal :

Global Handwashing Day, Mali ©Solidarités International

This text is taken from a study on Mali by Harvard researchers from Humanitarian Action at the Frontlines: Field Analysis Series (ATHA).

Despite decades of development programming for a country once upheld as a “model democracy” in Africa, Mali remains a country destabilized by extreme poverty; escalating violence and instability; and diminishing prospects for Malians’ futures in education, livelihoods, and stability. Even in light of an ongoing international presence and intervention in the country, and millions of dollars raised and spent each year on humanitarian programming, the persistent degradation of governance, livelihoods, and security continues. What drives this state of affairs?

How have international and regional actors contributed to sustaining a stagnating state at the expense of civilian populations and in the interest of preventing transnational Sahelian turmoil from expanding into the Maghreb and beyond to European borders? What are the expectations and aspirations of local communities as they navigate the interconnected influences of extremist groups, government actors, and international military forces?

This paper examines these questions and offers reflections on various dynamics of the international response and the perceptions of local communities in this context. In particular, this analysis assesses the viability of the “triple nexus” concept, which aims—in protracted and complex crises such as Mali—to forge an operational and policy alignment between international peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian efforts. The paper is based on a desk analysis of relevant literature, as well as over 130 interviews and consultations undertaken with a variety of stakeholders, including government and non-state armed group representatives, civil society members, activists, journalists, humanitarians, analysts, diplomats, entrepreneurs, beneficiaries, displaced people, and students. The interviews were conducted in Mali, particularly in Bamako and in Central Mali, as well as abroad, between December 2018 and March 2019.

The paper proceeds in four parts. Part I examines the key elements driving instability in this context. Part II focuses on international responses. Part III discusses the implications for the “triple nexus.” Part IV offers concluding remarks. The report explores three major issues that have contributed to and are still driving the deteriorating stability in Mali. The first issue is the coexistence of communities, illustrated, in particular, by the issue of Tuareg separatism, a long-standing, inter-generational aspiration that stems from Mali’s history as a former French colony. Tuareg political leaders have long sought autonomy from the Malian state, the most recent rebellion being in 2012, which aimed to liberate from Malian governmental control the Azawad region in the northern portion of the country. The major grievances expressed by the Tuareg populations—which are nomadic, pastoral communities—are that they have been politically marginalized and impoverished, lacking representation in a government oriented toward serving clientelist networks. Climate change—in particular, rising temperatures and decreased rainfall—has placed further strain on the Tuareg population and has contributed to increased hostility against the Malian authorities, who have consistently neglected this essential dimension of Tuareg cultural and economic life.

The uprising of 2012 had devastating consequences not only for the whole of the country but also within the Tuareg communities. The independence of Azawad, by no means supported by all Tuareg communities, remains a divisive issue, particularly across other ethnic communities—including Arabs, Songoys, and Peuls—living in the Azawad region. Moreover, the 2012 uprising and its aftermath have also had definitive and lasting regional dimensions, particularly in terms of security, migration, the acceleration of cross-border criminal and informal economic networks, and the proliferation of non-state armed groups. Since 2012, drug trafficking and the presence of drug traffickers have contributing to fueling unprecedented levels of conflict and violence. Competition between armed groups makes traffickers increasingly more violent and challenging to neutralize, namely, by the political and military actors for whom they represent both a resource and a concern.

United Nations Mission in Mali ©MINUSMA

The second issue is the governance of the state and the process of rebuilding the Malian nation. Concerns are prevalent across Mali regarding the extent to which the Government of Mali (GoM) adequately represents the diverse groups and ethnicities present in the country and contributes to these groups’ livelihoods in a concrete and meaningful way. Mali has long been known as a “donor darling” of the international development sector. This dynamic emerged in the 1990s, when Mali transitioned from military dictatorship to electoral democracy. However, the development experiences of nearly thirty years reveal international development actors’ complicity in the GoM’s governance failures. Rent seeking is prevalent, and international development actors have overlooked the many ways in which the GoM has been resistant to change and has manipulated these international programs. The key dynamic is that Mali has become a country dependent on aid in its many forms, and its government, in spite of limited reform efforts, has become adept at maintaining and channeling international aid flows, whether for humanitarian, development, military, or counter-terrorism aims.

Another key element that has further exacerbated tensions has been the GoM’s consideration of the Peul community. While it is commonly noted that Peuls have not been motivated toward interacting with state authorities or integrating into the armed forces, the GoM’s perceived discrimination of Peuls has further fueled inter-community conflicts regarding access to land and resources and has kept Peuls isolated from the larger Malian community. The third issue leading to the weakening of Mali is the cultivation and dissemination of an increasingly conservative interpretation of Islam and the emergence of jihadist groups. In spring 2012, the unity of the rebels engaged in the uprising shattered, resulting in a radical Islamist take-over of the rebellion. Various radical Islamist groups—among them, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar al-Dine—quickly gained control over territory, and various groups announced the intention to erect a caliphate, imposing Sharia law in northern Mali. In the midst of the weak governance of the state, lack of strategic and intellectual vision for the future of the country, and a complete disconnect and sense of abandonment among communities, public services and state infrastructure have crumbled. Jihadist groups judiciously exploited this situation, particularly in the most destitute communities, where the government fails to meet basic needs and deliver services. Although partially defeated militarily since 2012, these groups have integrated themselves into rural and remote societies and communities, offering actors in these areas alternatives to overcome the vacuum and shortcomings of the state in terms of health, justice, education, access to resources, public services, and security.

Armed rebel group in Mali.

Over time, the proliferation of conservative Islam is bringing about a cultural transformation in Mali. In regions controlled by jihadist groups, emphasis has been placed on Quranic teaching and indoctrination. Groups have put pressure on, for example, access to education and the type of education that is offered, pushing the closure of hundreds of schools across the central and northeastern areas of the country.

External efforts to intervene in Mali leading up to, during, and after the 2012 uprising have been shaped by regional and international politics and colored by perceptions and concerns about self-interested motives. Various international and regional bodies—including the European Union, the African Union, the United Nations, and the Economic Community of West African States—have implemented a wide array of peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian endeavors. At the local level, there are three major shortcomings in the international response. First, there is a lack of long-term vision. The extent to which the country functions and enjoys relative stability remains dependent upon the international presence—including security, development, and humanitarian actors—which substitute, rather than support, the GoM in its capacity to provide basic services and security to the population.

Operation Barkhane in Mali ©Ministry of Defence

Second, the international response has prioritized security at the definitive expense of more expansive, long-term peacebuilding efforts. Indeed, the main considerations of international actors—in particular, France, which intervened after the 2012 uprising and still has a dominant military presence in the country—have been the insecurity in the north and the central part of the country, particularly in terms of the presence of jihadist groups and criminal networks. Third, international efforts have insufficiently included local actors in planning and implementation processes. Malians have directed this criticism, for example, toward the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as toward the European Union, in particular, regarding the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), mandated to train the armed forces of Mali, as well as the European Union Capacity Building Mission in Mali (EUCAP), which focuses on training Malian security forces, including police, the Gendarmerie and the National Guard. Despite these international efforts, Malian communities continue to live in constant insecurity and persistent poverty, victims of violence on a daily basis, lacking potable water, access to healthcare, and economic opportunities in the formal economy.

Humanitarian actors have an uneasy, and at times difficult, relationship with Malian communities. Some humanitarians are perceived to be engaged in intelligence gathering. Others have been criticized for being blind to the minimal humanitarian impact and political consequences of their activities. Over time, insecurity and the challenges of negotiating independent and neutral humanitarian deployment have led international NGOs to limit staff presence, particularly that of international staff, leaving behind local staff. This development has adversely impacted the quality, delivery, and effectiveness of programming.

United Nations and European operations in Mali (2017) ©MINUSMA

All of these issues have implications for the “triple nexus,” also referred to as the “New Way of Working,” a policy concept that aims to forge linkages between humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding initiatives with diplomatic, military, and security agendas. The interview findings of this article amount to a scathing rebuke of the appropriateness of applying the “triple nexus” concept in Mali. One major concern that policy actors in the humanitarian sector have articulated about the nexus in general is that it risks politicizing humanitarian action. In Mali, this concern has indeed proven valid. In Mali, there has been a definitive blurring of the lines between peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian activities. Moreover, there have been severe deficiencies in how international actors have approached and implemented each of the nexus’ three prongs individually. This case study highlights—with regard to the prerogatives, mandates, and priorities of the actors in the essential areas of peace, development, and humanitarian aid for the reconstruction of Mali— the urgency for deep introspection on the degree and influence of the international presence, in order to anticipate precisely how these ideals, applied in a complex context such as Mali, can be a source of danger in the long term.

Find here the complete studie. 

By Emmanuel Tronc, Rob Grace, et Anaïde Nahikian


Emmanuel Tronc is a senior analyst with the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) at Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative Research Center. His work includes field research and context analysis on humanitarian negotiation and access to sensitive areas. Emmanuel Tronc has been working in the humanitarian sector since 1996 and has extensive experience in conflict situations, medical and humanitarian emergency response as well as networking and dialogue with state and non-state actors. He worked with Médecins sans frontières (MSF) from 1997 to 2016 as head of mission in several countries, including Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and extensively in Afghanistan. In 2004, he joined MSF’s international office to develop and lead humanitarian diplomacy initiatives. Emmanuel Tronc was also a humanitarian advocacy coordinator and represented MSF for more than a decade among key stakeholders in the current international aid system, including political leaders and representatives of armed groups. Emmanuel leads the Humanitarian Access and Negotiations Program at Conflict Dynamics International (CDI) and has extensive experience in designing, training and teaching professional development. He has taught courses on conflict and crisis at Sciences Po Paris from 2011 to 2013 and has been a senior advisor to the François Xavier Bagnoud International Foundation since 2016, focusing on conflict analysis and community development programs for several entities. Emmanuel is also a qualified economist with advanced degrees in economics and political science.


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