May 9, 2013

New Opportunities in Mali

On 15 May the EU will organise a donors’ conference on Mali. This comes three weeks after the UN’s decision to deploy a robust military mission, aimed at stabilising the country and fighting terrorism, threathening Europe’s security. Instead of only dealing with symptoms, this donor conference should address underlying causes of instability and make investment in youth a priority, writes Marije Balt, SPARK advisor.

Today Mali is one of the weakest states in Africa, home to several terrorist groups, such as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. As recent as 2011 it was known as a symbol of democracy in a volatile region. Mali’s president, Amadou Amani Touré, enjoyed an excellent reputation with the aid community, as he was able to maintain peace and stability in Mali in the past decade. The West embraced him in its search for counterparts to do business with: safeguarding access to natural resources and providing buffers to Western security concerns such as terrorism. Not knowing that the president was deeply engaged himself. As he was in other crime, which started capturing the state of Mali.

It took a while for the West to understand.

It continued its generous support to the Bamako government in sectors like education and agriculture, but also army and police. But kidnapping and smuggling in Mali’s desert north grew worse. It coincided with mounting frustration among northern groups such as Touaregs for not getting their fair share of the promised ‘peace dividend’ -wealth and power- in order to keep the truce with the south.

Reality only got hold of the West in 2012, when a de facto secession of the north and a military coup provoked an influx of jihadi’s from the region and beyond. The West finally woke up and started ‘saving’ Mali from terrorists. But even when ‘droned away’ they function like a waterbed in the Sahel, popping up elsewhere in the region. We therefore have to look beyond the symptom, terrorism, and see the intrinsic problems which led to this crisis: corrupt elites, bad governance, lack of rule of law and poverty leading to structural unemployment. And most relevant in this case, the exclusion of groups, such as Touaregs and Arabs.

Ironically, the upcoming elections in July, forced upon by countries like France and the USA, will do just that: legitimise the exclusion of northern groups. Because they are not ready, coming out of conflict, and the Bamako elite in the south is. But the international community needs a legitimate counterpart to endorse its military intervention and disburse its counterinsurgency funds to. As such, Mali is a vehicle in the frontline of the war on terror.

A shaky vehicle that is, since Mali is burdened with deep-rooted problems for which there are no quick fixes. Only fighting the symptoms without addressing root causes is useless at best, but can trigger more conflict at worse. If this is to be prevented, it is a matter of urgency for the EU to take a bold, innovative approach. Starting with youth.

Mali has great youth potential.

The West should invest in the current generation building up from the ravages of war. This is why development co-operation -not the old style of working through governments, but new style – conflict-sensitive and promoting opportunities for Malian youth, should be started immediately, not after the elections in July.

Our concern should be those that lost their jobs as a result of the crisis: the tourism sector collapsed, especially around Timbuktu, the city that was captured for a year by islamist militants. These –primarily- young men have now joined the half a million unemployed youths that enter the labour market each year (official unemployment rates are above 50%), without any proper training hence prospects. They are vulnerable to recruitment by illegal groups which lure them with large sums for short term gain.

Youth employment should be as central to the strategy in Mali as the deployment of UN and EU troops.

It is crucial for young men –of all backgrounds- to take charge again of their lives that were taken away from them, before others do. In the absence of ready-made, normal jobs, entrepreneurship is one of the options. Either in agriculture or urban jobs. Think bold and bring innovation such as solar energy to kickstart textile industries in this cotton producer economy. Or unlock isolated areas through telecom.

It won’t be the magic bullet with instant multiplier effects in the local economy in the short term, but promote some stability and if done well entrepreneurship skills will at least help transform society towards building a new Mali. And this is what Mali needs: avoiding the trap of short term fixes for structural problems, but investing consistently in its long-term potential, to prevent problems like terrorism to take root again.

Written by Marije Balt,  former Dutch diplomat and SPARK advisor