Area Studies

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Reflection: Can NGOs Be Part of the Solution Instead of Part of the Problem in N. Mali and the Sahel?

WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic

August 17, 2015

by Abdou Maiga

Abdou Maiga is currently pursuing PhD studies in International Development at William Carey International University. He served for 28 years as a pastor after receiving the degree, Master in Theology, at the Brethren Biblical Seminary, Bangui, Central African Republic. He is the founder and president of the NGO “Compassion Sans Frontières,” and a member of the advisory board of World Vision Mali.


Since I was born in the region of Timbuktu, I am personally concerned with the challenges of the Northern region of Mali regarding peace and security and effective development. Due to the geo-strategic position of Northern Mali, the immense desert, its neighborhood with countries like Algeria and Niger, and the cyclical conflicts and wars that have characterized the region, peace will not be possible in Mali as a whole and indeed in the Sahel region, unless there is peace and stability in Northern Mali.

What are the challenges preventing peace and development in Northern Mali and the Sahel region? How can these obstacles be eradicated? The quest for peace in this region has never been more urgent. It has become the home of Islamist violence and prolonged conflicts across the breadth of Africa that have caused much suffering and blocked any meaningful socio-economic progress. The role that humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can play in bringing peace and stabilization is crucial.

There are three main challenges that we in Northern Mali face in the search for peace, stability, and development:

Challenge 1. The persistence of a climate of tension and mistrust between the Tuareg leaders and the Government of Mali.

The problem of peace and security in Northern Mali is part of a series of conflicts mainly related to the Tuareg tribes. The fragile order in the northern regions of Mali and the absence of economic infrastructure have left us with a multi-faceted and desperate situation. In January 2012, the Tuareg rebel militia, National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), confronted the Malian army in armed conflict. The MNLA’s main claim is self-determination, even to see the independence of Azawad, which consists of the regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. To preserve the integrity of Mali, the Government of Mali has refused to yield to these claims.

Challenge 2. The presence of many Islamist groups along the border with Algeria.

Several groups advocate the establishment of an Islamic Republic with a strict application of shari’a law. The interests of the Islamist rebel group, Ansar Dine, are related to the Sahelian branch of Al Qaeda, known for its fundamentalism in the application of Islamic law. However, the motivation of Tuareg leader-turned Islamist radical, Ag Ghali, can be seen to be for economic rather than doctrinal reasons.

Challenge 3. The population displacement and its economic difficulties.

One thing is certain, adverse consequences of all these conflicts for the population of Northern Mali is evident. Thousands of people are forced to take refuge in neighboring countries (Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso). These massive displacements create other consequences in terms of food and other basic necessities.

Options for Addressing the Challenges

Evil must be dealt with in a comprehensive way, because this endless series of conflicts and the persistent instability in Northern Mali is caused by the lack of economic resources and endemic poverty, by mistrust and suspicion between the Mali government and Tuareg leaders, all of which are aggravated by massive human rights violations, marginalization, and the proliferation of armed Islamist groups.

• It is imperative to consider all feasible efforts for the return of displaced populations in neighboring countries. Thus, all refugees and victims of the successive conflicts in Northern Mali should receive particular attention from specialized organizations and NGOs for repatriation, resettlement, and rehabilitation programs, with a view to resolving and preventing all conflict-related displacements. Countries neighboring northern Mali must realize that if stability and security do not return in northern Mali, their country could be impacted as well.

• There is need on the part of all parties to learn from the lessons of the failures of past peace efforts, in order to be better prepared to face the current challenges. It is my view that the failures of past peace efforts were mainly due to such factors as the consideration only of the political aspects of the conflict, rather than also addressing the economic aspects.

• It seems to me that the foundation of the long-standing conflict is more economic than racial or religious. Tuareg tribes have shown that they are committed to the multicultural character of Mali by marriage alliances and their involvement in different levels of the society. Hence the necessity to involve all parties related to the conflict in trying to address the economic nature of the conflict, instead of intermediate and sectorial solutions.

• We have to fight poverty and stop all that perpetuates it, such as uncontrolled food distribution and ad hoc support to certain humanitarian organizations. It is sad to admit that several humanitarian organizations (NGOs) operating in the northern regions of Mali have no fundamental interest in eliminating the root causes of poverty and under-development, which are primary causes of these on-going conflicts. Instead, they are more interested in maintaining the structural dependency conditions in order to ensure the survival of organizations and the loyalty of donors. Through raising awareness of this dysfunctional aspect of humanitarian organizations, I am able to make a contribution to peace and development in Northern Mali.

• The fight against poverty significantly reduces the field of action of radical Islam. This is why it is important to highlight the socio-economic considerations through development of the private sector, job creation, greater involvement of women in economic life, and the promotion of justice and good governance, if we truly want to bury the conflict definitively.

• Intensive development of the agricultural system in northern Mali by the use of Israeli technology due to the aridity of the soil and the vast desert can be a key to the development and the fight against poverty. Poor agricultural performance has contributed to high rural poverty. “Countries that have increased their agricultural productivity the most have also achieved the greatest reductions in poverty” (Department for International Development 2004).


The area in which I can make a contribution to bringing peace and stability to Northern Mali is to influence faith-based NGOs to improve their service by ending the cycle of my people’s dependency on these NGOs for basic necessities. Instead the NGOs need to re-focus their efforts on providing desert farming skills, job creation, and demonstrating biblical values of shalom in their relationships with the various factions that have been at war for all these years.