Why the recovery plan for Mali is unconvincing

The Monday market in front of the Grand Mosque of Djenné, Mali. qiv/Flickr, CC BY

At the International Conference for Economic Recovery and Development of Mali, which took place in Paris last year, commitments were made to provide the conflict-torn country with aid totalling 3.4 billion euros.

Despite the impressive numbers, there was little-to-no open discussion of what the money is being used for. This is by far the most important issue.

To better understand how we arrived here, it’s essential to explore the implicit objectives of the “international community” and to look at the root causes of the country’s 2012 crisis.

Who designed the plan and what’s in it?

To assess Mali’s funding needs for the next few years, a Joint Assessment Mission was established. While theoretically under the aegis of the Algiers Agreement Monitoring Committee, the mission had free rein because the monitoring committee is locked down by a range of quarrels.

The Paris conference took place without the mission’s report being completed. What is clear is that the conference’s methodology and summary emanated from the United Nations, the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank. It was thus international finance institutions that set the priorities.

As the work of the Institute for Security Studies has shown, it is precisely this abdication of authority that many Malians held against Amadou Toumani Touré, president from 2001 until overthrown by a coup d'Etat in 2012. The “international community” thus continues to discredit Mali’s political and administrative leaders in the eyes of its population.

The report’s summary defines four criteria for projects to aid Mali’s development: immediate impact, implementation capacity, helping the most vulnerable, and the priorities initially expressed. Any long-term development strategy is thus abandoned in favour of short-term actions that simply try to put out fires.

Funding areas specified by the summary include:

  • Reform of the country’s security services, disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration, plus some short-term social benefits. This is about 13% of the overall budget. Most of this goes to the security services, while legal reform gets a mere CFA seven billion.

  • Infrastructure investments and services to improve education, water and sanitation and health. The summary provides no examples of qualitative improvement in any of these services.

  • Projects to intended promote economic recovery, employment and infrastructure. These receive 1.4 trillion CFA francs, more than 50% of the total. Of this, 552 billion is earmarked for roads and 179 for air transport. On the other hand, farming, livestock, and agriculture – the real foundation of the local economy – receive a total of just 84 billion.

What influenced the priorities

A number of less-publicised goals appear to have strongly influenced the priorities.

First, injecting large amounts of money into the Malian economy will quickly improve key macroeconomic measures such as GDP and short-term unqualified employment.

Second, businesses of donor nations will directly benefit from the infrastructure investments – roads, airports, railways, schools, hospitals, water systems and more. Obviously, Malian administrators also share these priorities, as they represent commissions, splashy inaugurations and – for some – the potential for misappropriation of funds.

To cite just one example, who exactly will benefit from the five airports to be built? Wouldn’t Malians’ priorities be quite different? Funders have thus clearly learned nothing from past failures: increases in external funding don’t automatically result in more development or reduced poverty.

Fatal lack of awareness

The plan’s disconnection from reality stems from the fact that the challenges facing Mali haven’t been clearly examined. The funded activities do not frontally attack the causes of the 2012 crisis. This is seen in three key aspects of the report’s summary:

  • Decentralisation is considered as the major axis of institutional development and state reform. Yet it is not a miraculous solution. The partner countries and the IMF have not studied the lessons of Mali’s recent history. Amadou Toumani Touré was indifferent to decentralisation prior to the 2012 crisis, and the subsequent weakening of institutions, decline of public services (health and education in particular) and rising gender inequality make decentralisation even more difficult. It’s also folly to think that decentralisation can help ward off external threats.

  • No solution is proposed to the problems of employment and youth training. Approximately 300,000 young Malians enter the labour market yearly. Neither charitable programs nor infrastructure projects address this. Agriculture and livestock could – Mali has 43.7 million hectares of arable land, of which only seven million is currently cultivated – yet it receives little support. The report summary also ignores the fact that Mali’s education system must be radically reformed and rebuilt before any meaningful development can take place.

  • The need to reform the country’s legal system is also completely forgotten, despite this being an “urgent priority” for Malians, who are faced with widespread corruption and trafficking. The government clearly has a responsibility here, yet neither proposed nor asked for anything.

In brief, the strategy for the reconstruction and development of Mali – financed and therefore imposed by foreign donors – is an illusion based entirely on a financial and macroeconomic view of the economic growth. That this position is dominant in the “international community” does not prevent it from being false.

In his New Year’s speech to the nation, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita highlighted the importance of the country’s agricultural and mining sectors. It was one of the few passages that evoked the future rather than the recent past, yet the commitment was timid.

As for the education system, the speech perfectly encapsulates the illusion that the construction of new classrooms will somehow improve the qualifications of Malian workers. For employment, it confirms the huge gap between the size of proposed projects and the country’s needs.

Finally, in terms of legal reform, the president was far less ambitious than he was in his 2013 inaugural address.

Mali’s government has no strategy to rebuilt its society, and nor do the armed groups that threaten the country. While the “international community” has committed militarily, financially and politically to assisting Mali, none of the problems that undermine it will be solved.

Thanks to Massamba Brunet-Jailly for the translation from the French.

This article was originally published in French