Mali, long on the international backburner, is now having its moment in prime-time. Media from around the world have breathlessly covered the lightning offensive by French and Malian military forces and the liberation of the legendary city of Timbuktu. But the limelight is already beginning to fade, obscuring that the hardest task is yet to come. Restoring a degree of normality in northern Mali will mean dealing with a humanitarian emergency and building peace amid weak governance and worsening ethnic tensions.
These challenges have deep roots. Their underlying drivers will not be resolved – and in the near term may actually be aggravated – by military action. As planning moves ahead for a UN peacekeeping mission and a resumption of aid, there must be a concerted, careful effort to address these issues.
The first priority must be to reopen access to the north of the country. The offensive has pushed rebels out of Mali's major northern towns but has worsened access. Until January, the north depended on two principal lifelines: food supply in commercial markets and humanitarian aid. Both remain largely blocked due to restrictions on movement, the closure of trade routes with Algeria and insecurity. Mercy Corps and other organisations have warned that the population is rapidly running through food reserves and is already beginning to experience serious hunger; lives will be threatened if access is not restored soon.
We must also rethink the role of aid in Mali. The humanitarian crisis persists because of what William Garvelink, former US ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has called a "resilience deficit". As serious droughts and economic shocks hit more frequently, communities have less time to recover; they lose more ground with each subsequent shock.
Mercy Corps has seen how this puts people into a spiral of vulnerability – a cycle accelerated by the conflict. Traditional humanitarian aid can treat the symptoms, but not the root causes, of this problem. Traditional development aid as practised in Mali for decades has not proved equal to this challenge.
A different approach is needed. Donors including the UK (pdf) and US governments are piloting resilience-oriented aid, which mixes elements of the relief and development toolkits to help communities anticipate and adapt to shocks. Such initiatives are making headway under similar circumstances in the Horn of Africa. Yet most aid to Mali remains locked in humanitarian or development silos. UK, US and other donors must shift gears to focus on resilience, starting now.
Even the most effective, thoughtful aid strategy will not make progress without peace and security. The planned UN peacekeeping force will be given the task of restoring security, but there are major questions about its mission and capacity.
Effective peacekeeping relies on a clear mission. In Mali, the UN is unlikely to have any clear peace agreement to enforce. Instead, it will focus on stabilisation, akin to efforts in Somalia and Congo that have been plagued by problems. Stabilisation ultimately depends on effective governance; yet Mali's government is struggling to reconstitute itself, particularly in the north.
In Somalia and Congo, peacekeepers have struggled to pursue effective political objectives in the face of such gaping governance gaps. Those forces have had a hard time maintaining effective co-ordination with humanitarian agencies, often trying to co-opt the humanitarians' role rather than protect it. These lessons must be integrated into planning for Mali. The UN should ensure that the force's security objectives are guided by realistic political and governance analysis, and must define appropriate parameters for civil-military interaction.
Equally concerning is the lack of significant peacekeeping experience among many of the countries contributing troops to the Afisma mission in Mali – notably Chad, a major contributor with desert combat experience but little on the peacekeeping side. Press reports that the more experienced Nigerian contingent has been asking for food from local communities do not inspire confidence either.
The resolution that the UN passed in December authorising the mission contained important provisions on protection of civilians, and training troops on peacekeeping practices and international humanitarian law. The unexpectedly rapid deployment of the forces will make this difficult, but the UN must ensure this training happens soon. Likewise, the UN must build a strong human rights monitoring mechanism to complement the force.
Finally, efforts at high-level political dialogue between Mali's interim government and northern groups must be paired with local peace-building initiatives across the north. Local leaders in northern Mali have called for restraint but recriminations against some ethnic groups have already begun. This reflects not just the recent conflict but deeper-seated grievances going back years.
Against this backdrop, grassroots violence will polarise communities and make political resolution much more difficult. It could also undermine resilience and wipe out aid investments. Major donors cannot afford to neglect this grassroots peace-building, which will be critical both for political progress and effective aid.
The challenges facing Mali are immense. Getting these first steps right will pay dividends in the long term; getting them wrong could endanger the entire international effort.