We are entering a significant transition period for the nature of the emergency in Mali. The blue helmets and fresh Presidential elections are on the way. For months, the supposed ‘fractured’ remnants of the Islamist rebels have been terribly busy recruiting and recalibrating for a new period of the conflict. The landmine is now a heavily prevalent feature of the Islamist arsenal showing that their confidence in frontier combat has dissipated, yet their presence in the country and region is still daunting.
Timbuktu lies in ruins. The city acts as the economic engine for northern Mali and without it the whole region is in deep peril. Thousands of skilled farmers, carpenters, masons, traders, business operators have departed in the last 12 months and food security, livelihoods and any attempt of reconstruction has left with them. French news agency IRIN has produced a series of videos that each gives a glimpse of the situation in the city from a different group’s perspective.
With great sadness this guardian report describes how Timbuktu’s “social fabric” – so important to its resilience – has been virtually “destroyed” by the conflict and the grand economic and humanitarian exodus of the past year. So the crisis of Timbuktu and northern Mali is not only one of materials but also one encapsulated by an ebbing sense of hope.
The resilience of Mali that has been described in previoussegments is under threat. What can be done? In this final instalment we look at the factors that are undermining typical Malian resilience which is embedded in the social networks between families, unique religious institutions and elders. In particular, what can TheElders of international conflict resolution do to help?
For a full explanation of what or – more accurately – who “The Elders” are then who better to ask than themselves? Their goals, attitude and membership are laid out quite broadly in this two and a half minute video. The Elders are a unique organisation quite simply because there is only one Nelson Mandela, Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt or Graça Machel in the world. The Red Cross, Save the Children, Action Aid, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all have overlapping competences, expertise, resources, aims, areas of operation and members. These Elders are the only ones, a majestic club, which can only realistically intervene in a select number of issues. Here lies their power and potential. As President Carter explains:
“Where we feel a vacuum in the world, where there’s a need that can be filled by us uniquely, that’s when we decide to take on an issue.”
When The Elders “take on an issue” they are in it for the long term. The crises on the Korean Peninsula, in the Sudan, in Sri Lanka or the Cote D’Ivoire rarely make the headlines but The Elders are there plugging away. The continued work and focus of their small London-based team keeps the names of these humanitarian crises echoing around the halls and corridors of power and have done for years. From engaging the world’s youth and tackling unemployment to working towards equality and justice for the world’s women and girls.
In a way, focus is the key word here. The Elders appear to be an all or nothing organization. When they get involved they drill their support and really encourage debate and cooperation. This is the organization’s real strength. The Elders are not here to photo-bomb international conferences before jetting off to the field to chat with some peacekeepers. They maintain a continued presence and tackle issues at the root for as long as they need.
This can have limitations of course. There are those unfortunate enough not to have had their issue “taken on”. A quick use of the search engine on The Elder’s website can reveal plenty. Equally, Mali is not currently listed under the Elder’s page entitled ‘Our Work’. This of course does not mean individual Elders are not working tirelessly to help bring peace to Mali. It is merely a result of the Elders acting strategically; only lending their independent, door-opening, campaign focusing, and connective work when they feel that there is a unique advantage.
Does Mali have a unique need for this style of support? How does the work of The Elders fit into what we have already learnt about Mali’s resilience?
An interesting place to start to answer these questions is with comments made by MSF emergency coordinator Henry Gray. Speaking on the refugee situation in MSF’s magazine Dispatches he clearly identifies a limitation to his own work. MSF are doing a fantastic job in trying to feed and shelter the thousands of Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, but “until there’s a political solution and they feel safe, they won’t go home”. These refugees are the same valuable, yet vulnerable, members of Malian society that fled from northern Mali leaving civil life in ruins. The material aspect of Mali’s problems is not the key to resolution in this conflict. On this point, The Elders are not equipped with the logistical and humanitarian resources of say the United Nations or the European Union, nor need they be. Indeed, their views usually receive audience in both these organizations and can no doubt have sway on the allocation of resources. But the most important contribution The Elders can make is galvanizing political reconciliation. In Mali, honesty can only be fostered by independent bodies, but preferably from non-governmental outsiders too to avoid colonial connotations. What is rare about The Elders is that its membership is a microcosm of the globe. As the rhetoric of ‘the war on terror’ creeps ever further into the Mali conflict resolution lexicon, it would be useful to have an organization that cannot easily be aligned to a ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ perspective present somewhere along the road to recovery. As discussed in the previous segment, the success of post-conflict reconciliation strategies strongly depend on the perceived legitimacy of those carrying it out. The Elders, so cherished globally, are possibly the best placed individuals to ensure that this legitimacy is realized and keep whatever processes that are initiated in check.
Most importantly, what of Mali’s torn social fabric? This series will finish by illustrating the role international coordination has to play in rebuilding Mali. As of Wednesday the 15th of May a huge amount of suspended aid was re-engaged and began to flow back into the country. Interestingly, the reinvigoration of donor cash was greeted with a strange mixture of high anticipation and wracked nerves. Any increase in the flow of aid to the troubled areas of the world can generally be regarded as positive news. However, an Oxfam report published straight after called on an increasing amount of aid to be set aside for ‘civil society’ – calling on donors to ‘re-evaluate’ where their support was directed. Though not stated explicitly, Oxfam have raise suspicions about the integrity of the current support for the Malian government and its ability to govern effectively outside of Bamako. Similarly, the report is strikingly restrained, continually calling on aid that ‘does no harm’ indicating that fears remain that the Malian authorities and formal distribution systems remain infiltrated, troubled and ineffective. Ploughing money into them – and nowhere else – could just exacerbate things further. The report points out that for the past decade absolute poverty in Mali has risen, even before the conflict set in. As the title of the report explains, it is time for a ‘new development contract’ in Mali.
Could Mali’s networks of elders and trusted families combined with international co-ordination by the likes of The Elders hold a potentially unrealized asset in the fight to restore peace to Mali? There is every reason to believe so. The factor that will determine the future stability of Mali is if the international community can be brave enough to try and unlock and support Mali’s hidden assets. Oxfam’s concept of a ‘new development contract’ resonates well. However, with all new contracts one must be certain that its signatories are the legitimate representatives of the people it claims to act to the benefit of. At present, there are many reasons to be sceptical of the government to be suitable in this regard, and plenty of reasons to look to Mali’s traditional networks as the alternative.