The resilience of populations and the importance of (very localised) governance in the Sahel.

The case of center and northern Mali.

Mali is today the epicentre of the great Sahelian crisis around which regional governments, the international community, donors, diplomats, researchers, journalists and humanitarian actors are mobilising. The multi-dimensional crisis, which mainly affects the most vulnerable and most isolated Malian populations, is continuously fuelling the root causes of a withdrawal of the State and an almost total abandonment of the population. These populations are thus left to informal activities and humanitarian assistance as the only “lifeline” in a context where insecurity and criminality are also undermining existing social equilibrium.

Between displacement and resettlement, food and nutrition crises, the closure of schools and health centres, and the flight from official authorities due to the lack of security, the populations of the north of the country, and later those of the centre, have sometimes found themselves in autarky, reinventing their modes of local governance, either under pressure from armed groups, or as a result of a form of freedom regained in the absence of any normative presence of the state.

Such a configuration highlights the tremendous resilience capacity of communities, which it is important to better understand, particularly by clearly identifying the limits at which external assistance becomes vital, while taking into account the continuous changes and developments to which these communities are exposed.

The term “resilience” is used generically according to its most common definition, which refers to “the return to normal of a territory or society following a shock or disruption” (Dauphiné and Provitolo, 2003; Paquet, 1999). The definition used here is that of Groupe URD, which refers more precisely to “the capacity of people to anticipate, adapt to and recover from crises”.

The KEY programme (“being upright” in the Songhaï language) is part of several strategies and visions, including Mali’s priorities established within the framework of the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative (AGIR) in the Sahel and West Africa. The latter aims to strengthen the resilience of Sahelian and West African countries in the face of recurrent food and nutrition crises, based on the premise that these crises can and must be eradicated.

While emergency responses remain a necessity, the premise of these strategies is that a focus on “the root causes of crises will eventually lead to a reduction in their number and cost”. AGIR defines resilience as “the capacity of vulnerable households, families and systems to cope with uncertainty and the risk of shocks, to withstand and respond effectively to those shocks, and to recover and adapt to them in a sustainable manner”.

©Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Population resilience: a concept that must become a human reality

One of the primary indicators of success is determined by the number of vulnerable people benefiting from access to basic social services (health, education, water, sanitation, hygiene) and by the improvement of their capacity to increase their income.

Sahelian countries and donors have adopted the following principle: food and nutritional security concern induce the necessity to no longer dissociate humanitarian aid in times of crisis from the more structural action aimed at combating endemic poverty and undernutrition.

From a practical point of view, the European Union (through the ETF – Emergency Trust Fund – and the EDF – European Development Fund) has provided resources to the tune of €40 million in the form of funding for the KEY programme with the general objective of contributing to the resilience of vulnerable populations faced with food and nutrition insecurity in the six regions of northern and central Mali by working on 4 pillars combined:

  • Nutritional care focused on children under 5 years old at the community level;
  • Cash transfers to the most vulnerable in connection with the lean season;
  • Reinforcement of household means of economic production;
  • And, finally, governance via support to local authorities (mayors, prefects, technical services and regional bodies) in a context where their presence is so threatened by men-at-arms that many have no choice but to take refuge in the large urban centres.

It is in this context that Groupe URD was asked to support the actors as a “third party” responsible for learning, coordination support and agility or “adaptive management” of the programme as a whole. Contextual monitoring and the analysis of the programme through capitalisation studies and iterative evaluation processes opened up new perspectives for reflection in order to “go further” in improving the relevance of the interventions. Among these, the first is the observation that the resilience of an individual or a community, hitherto measured economically, cannot be dissociated from local governance, participation factors and the quality of social-political relations within and between communities.

If we retain that good resilience is the capacity to withstand a shock by using resources to reach – or even surpass – the previous situation, it should also be noted that part of the population was already subject before the 2012 crisis to repetitive climatic shocks that the security situation simply increased in intensity and recurrence by seriously affecting the capacity of households to consume.

For some authors, resilience is moreover measured by the index of consumption and production of material goods. However, in a context of human and community confrontations, as in northern and central Mali, it also seems to be determined by a factor that is rarely measured: the quality of inter- and intra-community relations and, consequently, the population’s capacity to manage tensions and create a form of stability.

These relations are nevertheless measurable, notably on the basis of the number of incidents between individuals, their nature, the depth of their direct or indirect causes, and also the existence and effectiveness of mechanisms or moral entities legitimately recognised and accepted as such to serve as a lever for mediation and conflict prevention. This should be a direct and concrete link with the “new operational approach” which recommends consolidating the links between humanitarian, development, diplomatic, military and security initiatives, grouped under the expression “triple nexus” in which the Sahel countries are engaged.

©Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Societal decomposition-recomposition and antagonisms linked to limited resources

At the level of the institutional scheme, the decentralisation implemented in the 1990s opened the door to an institutional master plan inspired by the French model where central government, region, circle, sub-prefecture, commune and village (or fraction) are the legally recognised top-down entities representing the descent and ascendancy through which the interaction between development actors and populations should ultimately pass.

The most local scale of this scheme, the scarcity of resources and a lack of vigilance on the part of political actors have led the populations to split up more and more into autonomous ‘sites’. Each initially homogenous geographical entity was registered in several fractions, each holding a legal act of constitution issued by the authorities.

This population strategy aims to reduce the risks of their exclusion in terms of targeting and to limit the impact of misappropriation at higher levels, but at the same time it multiplies the number of sites to be covered and the people to be contacted. It also poses problems with administrative standards and the practices of development actors: a newly constituted extended family settling 10 km from its site of origin thus wants to claim a school, a borehole and a health centre on the same basis as a village of 5,000 people with the sole aim of turning the dividends into a family income-generating activity to the detriment of the rest of the geographical community.

When it comes to targeting the most vulnerable, scales are multiplied and individualities often take precedence over the notion of community: “nobody represents anybody in reality”. Interests and antagonisms’ guide individuals to the detriment of the social ties usually agreed upon as the basis for defining a community.

In addition to these elements, there are criteria for affiliation (or not) to a political party, a wider social group, or even an armed group, which encourage the multiplication of ‘arrangements’ with aid intermediaries (actors, traditional or state authorities, etc.), develop a form of brokering via local actors – intermediaries sometimes created to measure – and revive new competition between communities in terms of access to basic services but also new ambitions for political representativeness.

This connection between political representativeness and instrumentalisation (or appropriation of basic services by individuals or groups of individuals) is not without impact on social relations and the degradation of good local governance. Consequently, it leads to injustice, conflict and instability.

Between the needs of populations to access basic services and their capacity to control their total management at the most decentralised level of the state, other ‘actors’ are trying to infiltrate. The motivations and challenges are in fact multiple: political ambitions of personalities from these communities, lack of vision and sometimes corruption of state agents, armed movements in the race for legitimacy to become significant interlocutors in the framework of the Algiers Agreements (signed between Mali and the armed groups of the North), radical groups seeking support and relays to better establish themselves, etc. The populations have therefore become “actors and victims”, “instrumentalized” and “instrumentalizing” at the same time.

These different elements explain the complexity of the context and the difficulties for international humanitarian and development actors to find an effective formula to achieve the objectives in terms of the resilience of the most vulnerable populations, but also to respect the “do no harm” principle while guaranteeing optimal conditions in terms of accountability.

During our analyses and evaluations, we often identify “weak signals”, including accusations of aid diversion, particularly in relation to cash transfers, school canteens or the salaries of teachers or nurses who are considered by the population to be “fictitious”. These accusations are particularly made against the “intermediaries” who make the decisional link with the populations.

Even if the context is favourable to a form of omerta preventing the production of indisputable evidence, we have nevertheless observed that these charges oscillate between reality and, at times, attempts to discredit “the other”. This logic of competition in terms of access to resources can be coupled with another social strategy for redistributing wealth (distribution according to criteria specific to communities – different from those of humanitarian actors and in their absence) which can be analysed as an “internal reorientation in relation to the objective of the projects” which does not necessarily produce “illicit enrichment”.

Vaccination of herd ©Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Governance and accountability “by” and “for” beneficiary populations

However, most programmes integrate a “governance” dimension as a vertical pillar or cross-cutting activity but take little account of the need for intra-community governance as a starting point and the main factor of success or failure, which is totally independent of the technical expertise deployed.

Complex realities at the heart of this accountability converge individual interests, collective stakes, rigid frameworks and local participation, posing challenges for the integration of people’s visions in local development plans. Why not a “right to good governance” as an inalienable right of the citizen?

Activities related to governance mainly concern traditional development structures and actors: administration, technical services, NGOs, associations, technical and financial partners. At the level of local authorities, there are three types of structures: the Communal Committee for the Orientation, Coordination and Monitoring of Development Actions (CCOCMDA), the Local Committee for the Orientation, Coordination and Monitoring of Development Actions (LCOCMDA), and the Regional Committee for the Orientation, Coordination and Monitoring of Development Actions (RCOCMDA), which constitute the structural framework around which activities to strengthen and support local governance are organised (common, circle and regional levels).

However, in the Malian and more generally Sahelian context, with the major crisis of confidence that exists between the populations and everything that represents the State, we have nevertheless noticed that participation in consultation frameworks and local political bodies (motivation to be a member of the boards) can often be linked to personal agendas with the aim of social, political, security or financial ascension, with the interest of the communities being relegated to the background.

On the one hand, these mechanisms have little reality other than on paper and, when meetings actually take place, the weak capacity of the elected officials and customary chiefs who constitute and lead them, combined with the sometimes self-serving motivations on sub-contracting and procurement (among others) and/or community issues discussed above, quickly compromise dialogue between stakeholders. Solutions are often found on a case-by-case basis to unblock the participation of these so-called “representatives of the populations” but they do not systematically work over time.

It is indeed difficult – even “blocking” – to do things “without the authority” when the financial responsibility for activities such as the convening, holding and monitoring of consultation frameworks does not fall within the remit of NGOs. However, the reports of their deliberations are, in concrete terms, one of the indicators of the achievement of a programme’s objectives. Thus, a large number of activities requiring the full involvement of state and/or local government services exist only because they are financed by NGOs or donors. While the underlying causes are too numerous to be developed here (among them, the limited resources available to the state), the result is ultimately the ‘monetisation’ effect of regalian services transformed into ‘services for the payer’ with a view to their effectiveness. We are therefore sometimes far from the ‘homogenous and constant public service’ whose functionality is the starting point for the budgetary programming of aid actors.

In the decentralisation master plan, each activity must also be integrated into the appropriate framework (regional and local) through the economic, social and cultural development programmes (ESCDP) of the communes, which allow the legitimate concerns of the populations to be taken into account and appropriate responses to be provided.

These programmes are drawn up – in theory – every five years and revised – still in theory – every year. Therefore, for humanitarian actors who operate on a different timeframe (that of needs in the face of crises), a priori programming in the institutions’ calendar conflicts with a posteriori “budgetary” programming linked to the dynamics imposed by donors. As a result, these two often asynchronous processes lead to tensions or result in a form of “forced integration” which is also monetised via dedicated funding so that it can be passed on to donors as effective and successful integration.

This rigidity of the framework and these interplay of interests have an impact on the agility and adaptability of projects and are compromising for stakeholders where the hyper-localized accountability of aid should call for the preservation of a citizen culture and ethics. In a context of absence of the State, characterised by the predominance of informal actors of violence, what strategy should then be adopted to limit these pernicious effects and ensure the achievement of effective and reinforced resilience of the populations most exposed to vulnerability?

All of these factors that fuel intra-community crises and overlap are essential to understand and take into account with better adapted and even more localised responses that integrate the “accountability and governance” binomial within the beneficiary communities as well as in the chain of interlocutors and intermediaries.

If yesterday’s struggles were called, among other things, “the right to humanitarian intervention”, tomorrow’s struggles should not be limited to a theoretical “triple nexus” but should go far beyond this and call for the imperative need to introduce into the corpus of international law and practice the binding notion of the “inalienable right to collective organisation” which respects the relevance of territoriality with and through sufficient control over the public apparatus, always remaining “representative”.

The challenge would be to find the right strategies to support individuals’ capacities to organise themselves, in order to get out of the dynamics of dependency. Supporting this right and encouraging its free exercise rather than trying to establish solutions that are always technocratic in place of individuals affected by crises would be a good course of action.

It is on this condition alone that the framework will probably become conducive in the long term to the sustainability of aid and stabilisation and will therefore make the development of these communities a reality.

Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Who is Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED?

Wandey is a graduate of the University of Paris 12 (Master’s degree in humanitarian management and development actions) and of the Bioforce school in Lyon.

He has been working for 20 years with several organisations (French Red Cross, Solidarités, ACF, Save the Children, Oxfam among others) and most recently at SIF as Africa Regional Manager based in Paris.

After his first experiences in Central Africa, he held several head of mission positions in the Sahel, with programmes focusing on resilience, health, nutrition and food security before joining Groupe URD in April 2019 as Country Coordinator in Mali. He is in charge of supporting the KEY programme funded by the European Union.

This Franco-Malian with a dual culture is particularly interested in “weak signals” and issues affecting the most vulnerable and most at risk populations as an observer-witness to change and analyst.

He has notably coordinated several studies, the most recent of which focuses on the “forgotten human and environmental heritage” of Lake Faguibine in partnership with AFD.