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Meeting the redefined development challenge in Mali

June 4, 2014

The nature of the development discourse has changed in Mali. It is framed not just in technical terms, but increasingly in terms of the political culture, and other complex ideas. But are those playing a leadership role fitting their programmes and approaches to this new framing? Perhaps not yet.

The peace process in Mali has been seriously undermined again, over the past couple of weeks. Fighting broke out in Kidal, and quickly spread to other parts of northern Mali as the MNLA rebels overran the Malian army and retook several towns, watched by the French and UN peacekeepers who seem to have decided there was no peace for them to keep. Yet another chapter in the ongoing crisis in what was not so long ago seen – through a distorting lens, to be sure – as one of the jewels in the crown of donor-supported development processes in Africa.

I lived in Mali for four years in the 1990s, and had the privilege to return there for a few days in late May, during which I took part in conversations and debates about development and peacebuilding, with NGOs, academics, civil servants and international donors. One thing that struck me was how much broader and deeper these conversations have become, compared to the ones I recall from twenty years ago. It is routine nowadays, to hear people describe their development challenges not simply in terms of access to education and health services, economic opportunity, accountable governance, etc. – i.e. the usual suspects which I recall from back then – but also in terms such as the need to:

  • Change the culture of politics from one of consensus to one of genuine debate, diverse ideas, and wide participation
  • Match statebuilding efforts with nation-building efforts
  • Deal with corruption, and with the way international drug-smugglers are taking advantage of Mali’s fragility, poverty and geography – and in so doing making a fragile situation worse
  • Cut the links with international terrorists
  • Promote citizenship and create a Mali more fit for the 21st Century.

And yet there is also a palpable sense among people that things are reverting to business as usual, despite the lack of resolution of the rebellion in the North. As always, the way we frame things is a powerful element in determining the kinds of solutions we identify. With that in mind, some of the “framing” issues which emerged in our conversations in Bamako included the following.

Connecting the disconnect

The prevalent analysis tends to highlight disconnects, and especially the disconnect between the North and the rest of the country. After all, the eco-climatic, economic, social and cultural differences between the north and the rest of Mali really are substantial; and there is a history of repeated civil unrest in and from the north. And of course, a lot of the outside assistance and interference is currently focused on the north – which is indeed where the latest fighting has again broken out.

But it’s important to bear in mind that there are other disconnects which merit attention too, if Malians are to make progress towards a more sustainably peaceful and prosperous nation: between Malians and the state; between competitors for different uses of land; between different language groups; between generations; between progressives and conservatives; between those benefiting from the status quo and those who do not…

In any case, “the North” probably includes as much diversity and difference as there is between the North and the rest of the country. It is important that the Great Reconstruction now underway does not get sidetracked by le problème du Nord. The challenge is nationwide. A Mali fit for the 21st Century certainly needs to be one in which the people of the North are equal citizens – with all the obligations and rights so entailed – along with those in other parts. But a Mali for the 21st Century needs to provide all its citizens, not just those in the North,  with continuously improving access to voice, participation, economic opportunity, justice, security and general well-being. Good citizenship implies good, functional relationships between citizens as well as between each citizen and the state.

A critical element of this seems to be the need to ensure that decisions are taken as close as possible to the people on whom they have an impact, i.e. the idea of subsidiarity in governance, which I’ll come back to later.

The need for transformation

Another feature of the prevalent analysis is that Malians need to undertake a transformation. This is commonly expressed as the need for “a Mali fit for the 21st Century” – with greater internal equality, better infrastructure, decentralised governance, enhanced human capital and a more dynamic economy: one in which, for example, rice imported all the way from Thailand is no longer cheaper than rice grown at home. The recipe for creating this new Mali tends to include the usual development policies and programmes (education, health, revenue improvements, decentralisation, etc.) along with something that’s less familiar: the need for dialogue.

The problem of consensus

Another common, if not yet quite so prevalent feature of the analysis is “the problem of consensus”. This has two different elements: the familiar idea of an elite group, whose members have carved up political and economic opportunities among themselves, thus excluding others with the potential to benefit and to add value to public good; and the more particularly Malian phenomenon, whereby some of the important – and much-lauded conflict-management – cultural institutions like cousinage and plaisanterie, tend to be tools and instruments for maintaining the status quo, rather than for actually dealing with the challenges of change Malians say they need to confront. And of course this nourishes a corrupt political economy.

Le Mali Réel et le Mali Légal = le Mali Fragile

One of the most fascinating ideas I encountered in Bamako was the juxtaposition of Le Mali légal with Le Mali réel. The idea being, that there is a kind of fictional Mali, illustrated by the modern institutions of state, which operate with very limited influence on how things work, and on the way the political economy is shaped. This is the Mali with which the outside world formally engages, and into which donors largely pour their money. But the real Mali, in which most people mostly live their lives, is defined by a host of less visible institutions which, while they flex and adapt over time in response to external stimuli, do so merely as a self-preservation reflex, and tend to be conservative in character, keeping things largely the way they are and were.

The problems with this schizophrenic state of affairs are legion, but a simple way to encapsulate them in the here and now is that this dysfunctional combination of “real” and fictional institutions is not up to the task of dealing with the sheer pressure and volume of change faced by Malians, nor of allowing them to make a smooth transition towards a “Mali fit for the 21st Century”. Hence the country’s vulnerability and fragility.

And it is into this fragile Mali – le Mali fragile – that external forces such as international criminal gangs smuggling drugs, arms and tobacco, international Islamist elements, and Western anti-terror and anti-smuggling forces, have inserted themselves. With predictable results.

Levers and Projects

And so we have a complex but nevertheless fairly accessible analysis which is quite widely shared, even if enough of those with an interest in not doing enough to change things, tend to remain in positions of influence and power – which of course puts a brake on change. But there’s another problem, too. It is that those who do have an interest in doing something about this problem are too often falling back into what one might call “project” mode. Politicians, technocrats and civil society activists everywhere always look for levers they can get their hands on; and therefore they tend to limit their diagnosis to describing the problematique – or part of it – in a way which lends itself to being “fixed”, “addressed”, “resolved”, etc. The same is true in Mali today. I will illustrate what I mean with a few examples.

Decentralisation, or subsidiarity?

It has long been an article of faith that one way to “fix” the problem of governance in Mali is through the Decentralisation project. Hence, new local government areas were created, local councils elected, etc. The problem is, these local councils tend to go through the motions of consultation and planning, rather than fulfilling their accountable governance role as it is written.

In any case, if decentralisation is the answer, then centralisation must be the problem. Yet le Mali réel has never really uniformly centralised its governance, whether under the French or after they left. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that many important political decisions (about land and other resources, for example) have remained in the hands of local institutions all the way through, despite the bastardisation of many of those institutions by colonial and post-colonial power. Yet decentralisation is something that can be projectised, so that is what has been done.

More relevant surely – though harder to projectise – would be to set out with the intention to enable an evolution of Mali’s governance based on the concept of subsidiarity. This means starting with what is really there (how things really work) and building upon that, so that successive layers of governance are subsidiary to the ones below them, with the result that decisions are made, actions taken, and accountability applied, at the most appropriate level and distance from the centre, according to the issue in question. Thus, what is local is done locally, and what is national is done nationally. Where new institutions are needed, they can be created, but any reforms should be based on what is already there – not what ought to be.


If transformation is really to be sought, then presumably it will depend on leadership – on individuals with a vision take a chance and a risk for their vision. This, I imagine, needs to happen at multiple levels, organically, across society. But how do development projects and programmes foster and enable that to happen, if the idea is to foster diverse and competing visions?

I know it is all too easy to pontificate from afar, but I must nevertheless admit to a sense of disappointment, in that there was an awful lot of “il faut” going on. What do I mean? In a lot of the discussions I was privileged to  participate in and listen to, most speakers seemed to imply that it was up to someone else to fix things, to behave differently, and so on. “Il faut ceci,….. il faut cela” – rather than “Il faut que je….” or “Il faut que nous…..”. So there does seem to be room for identifying and supporting leaders throughout society.

Dialogue: instrument, or outcome?

One way to do so, and indeed one of the recommendations emerging from various analyses in Mali is the need for dialogue. Indeed, my own organisation International Alert recommended this, in our recent report: Supporting Peaceful Social, Cultural and Economic Change in Mali. This makes good sense from two perspectives: Mali’s many problems deserve solutions developed through wide participation; and because dialogue seems like an important antidote to the political culture of consensus – on which ironically there is a consensus that it needs to change! 

The problem here is the confusion between dialogue as an instrument of consultation, and the integration of dialogue as an outcome. Doing dialogue is not necessarily going to result in embedding dialogue into the political culture. Some of the projectised dialogue processes which are becoming widespread in Mali now, may actually be counter-productive, if they leave people with the feeling that they have simply been consulted; rather than with the idea and habit of using dialogues more often themselves. In the worst case and ironically, those whose ideas are rejected in the consultation, may see dialogue as yet another tool for the consensus culture which dialogue proponents want to transform….

A theory of change in which more dialogue is the result, rather than the main activity, of a project, might be focused not on running dialogue sessions in order to find out what people have to say about an issue, but rather to bring together, usually at a local level, those with an interest in that issue, to determine what they can do, whether as a group or as individuals. And to contribute to supporting, enabling and identifying the leadership which is surely the most critical component of challenging and leavening a culture of consensus around the status quo.

The role of internationals

Mali’s future will be as part of a regional and global future, but it will ultimately be mapped and created mainly by Malians. Nevertheless, Mali remains a country highly influenced by outsiders: donors, the UN, the AU, ECOWAS, etc. Donors still provide a large proportion of public funding, and the international community in general has disproportionate influence and power right now because of the weakness and fragility of Mali’s institutions.

This raises an interesting challenge. Donors are described as partenaires de développement techniques et financiersas per the outdated Paris Declaration which wilfully ignored the politics of development. Now, it is quite right and understandable that Malians want to remain in charge of their destiny, and limit the role of their international partners. But this creates a problem: because if the analysis of Mali’s development challenges is now being framed in terms of subsidiary governance, changing the political culture, reforming social behaviours, taming international crime, etc., these are not just financial and technical issues. So if donors and other internationals are to contribute to helping Malians with their development processes, they can only be genuine partners in that endeavour, if they are partenaires, non seulement techniques et financiers, mais aussi politiques, institutionnels, sociaux et culturels…

.. And this paradox takes us right back to the problem of le Mali réel et le Mali légal. If donors and other internationals are to be useful in Mali, they need to be working in le Mali réel; as long as they, and the development discourse in general, reverts to le Mali légal, it seems likely that diagnosis and solutions will remain inadequate.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    June 5, 2014 8:57 am


    I enjoyed that comment.

    Another good one.

    Keep it up!

    Many thanks and best regards.


    Sent from my iPad


  2. June 5, 2014 1:34 pm

    Thanks Philip. I hope you are well. Phil

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