Once considered a haven of democracy in an otherwise-volatile region, over the last several months, landlocked Mali has become a state stricken by national, regional, and geopolitical crises. Since March of this year, the country endured a military coup d’état, regional food insecurity, a malleable transitional government, a separatist uprising, and the occupation of the country’s northern half by religious extremists.
Over 350,000 have been forced to flee. Just earlier this week, the Prime Minister was arrested and forced to resign, shedding light on the challenges of civilian rule and the role the military is playing behind the scenes. While claims of Mali becoming the “Next Somalia” or “Africanistan” are largely sensationalist, it's true that acute issues have arisen in a country plagued by chronic conditions of poverty and ill health, creating a more precarious and volatile environment and leaving Mali’s population – most notably its women and children – particularly vulnerable. Many actors engaged in transformational work – in health, economic development, or agriculture – have been forced to closed their doors or indefinitely suspend operations.
As is often the case, it is the poor that suffer most. Jobs are lost, livelihoods endangered. Resources become scarcer and many lack the capacities or networks to find refuge elsewhere. The displaced populations from the north that have arrived where we work on the outskirts of Bamako – some 400 miles from the line in the sand between government controlled and occupied territory – typically have moved in with family members, who share whatever extra space or food they have.
As the unpredictable winds of political fragility, food insecurity, and extremist agendas continue to blow, Mali Health remains committed to carrying out our intended operations – reducing maternal and child mortality via a three-pronged approach of community empowerment, direct services, and system strengthening. Recognizing the position we’re in to offer additional support to the displaced and the shifting situation writ large, we do what we can, maintaining close communications with local governing bodies. We recently hosted a radio show on the experience and health challenges of the displaced, joined by the mayor of Gao, once a commercial center for trans-Saharan trade and now one of three main cities in the north occupied by extremists.
It’s encouraging that we’ve persevered and are growing – after a month-long delay, we’re finally expanding operations to include free care for 1200 more children and holistic support for their families, while we’ve begun to provide technical training to new community groups and have plans to construct a maternity ward in 2013 – but disheartening as well to realize the limits of our own capacities. To some degree there is overlap between the reasons for our existence and the causes that have precipitated the fallout – factors like poverty, weak governance, growing populations, and scant resources.
From the ground it's evident that civil society has an important role to play within the current context. When disaster strikes anywhere, one looks to those closest to them for support – family, friends, neighbors. Social systems within Mali are incredibly strong, a place where nearly everyone is considered an ancestral cousin. Civil society - the development capacity that emanates from within the country, coupled with the generosity of outside states, organizations, and individuals - has the capacity to ease suffering, save lives, and even hold sway over current events. It’s clear that avarice and ego can exploit a power vacuum. With or without dependable systems of state structure, it’s our belief that there remains a responsibility to act, and with it, an opportunity to carve out a stronghold, however small, in that vacuum.