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Hunger, violence and the butterfly effect in Mali

Posted by Maya Mailer Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns

19th Oct 2012

Mrs Tamboura, 47 years old, taking care of her vegetable garden that provides necessary extra help to her families' diet and provides her with some cash. Kayes, Mali. Charles Bambara/ Oxfam
Until recently Mali was best known internationally for its music and fabled city of Timbuktu, but now it's making news because of conflict and political turmoil. Added to that, it is still recovering from a severe food crisis that has affected the entire Sahel region, leaving local people struggling to cope. Maya Mailer, Oxfam's Humanitarian and Conflict Policy Adviser reflects on her recent trip to the country.

The region of Kayes in south-western Mali has experienced successive debilitating droughts and waves of migration as its residents sought to escape hardship and find jobs. The main town used to be the capital of 'French Sudan'. It now boasts a gleaming new airport and tarmac roads built by the Chinese. One of my travelling companions, Oxfam's Advocacy Officer Samoura, who is from the region, described Kayes as a microcosm of Mali because of the diversity of its people and land, encompassing desert, rice paddies and gold mines.

Women civil society leaders told us that although the local markets were stocked with food brought in from Senegal, prices of rice and oil had been sky-rocketing.

Kayes has been badly affected by the food crisis that has affected 18 million people across West Africa. In the town, women civil society leaders told us that although the local markets were stocked with food brought by truck from neighbouring Senegal, prices of basics like rice and oil had been sky-rocketing. As a result, many families had taken on debt. This year, some of the poorest households could no longer afford to buy essentials such as soap and were forced to forage for wild fruits to use as soap substitutes and to supplement their meagre diets. In response to the needs in Kayes, Oxfam is providing women from the poorest households with a monthly cash allowance, enabling them to buy enough to eat without getting mired in debt, having to cut meals or sell livestock. 

The rains that had recently come to Kayes had turned scrubland temporarily green and lush, bringing hope - and fear. Downpours had destroyed crops. As we drove out to a village where Oxfam had a project, our vehicle filled with rainwater and almost got stuck in a road-turned-river. When I mused aloud that flooding must make things difficult for the locals, our driver laughed, explaining that they simply switched from foot, bike or donkey to small wooden boats to cross deluged roads. This is just one small example of how locals have found ways to adapt to the vagaries of the weather, but like communities throughout the Sahel, they remain extremely vulnerable to events beyond their control - be they droughts, food prices spikes, conflict or, as I was to discover, events far from home.

'Les émigrés': remittances as lifeline

My colleagues had organised a workshop that brought together local civil society and government technicians to assess the humanitarian response to the food crisis. One participant after another spoke of the importance of remittances in helping families survive. We heard how immigrants in France had pooled their resources to set up a cereal bank that sold heavily subsidised grain to the most needy. A middle-aged male civil society activist dressed in traditional Muslim garb and sporting a badge with the words 'Publiez ce que vous payez' (Publish What You Pay) told me afterwards that over the years emigrants' money had also built schools and hospitals. A sad but common irony: a region rich in gold mines and fertile soil relies heavily on the generosity of its diaspora. 

In fact, it seemed like everybody had a friend or relative in France, Spain, or until recently, Libya. But a local government official told us that the economic crisis in Spain and war in Libya had caused a drop in remittances, making life even harder. It was fascinating to learn just how important remittances were and how the financial crisis in Europe rippled across to Africa, directly affecting the lives of poor villagers. This is, I suppose, the butterfly effect of an interconnected world. 


The fall of the Gaddafi regime did more than precipitate a decline in remittances. It unleashed a flow of arms across the region, contributing to the timing and nature of the rebellion launched in northern Mali in January. Now armed groups, some with links to Al Qaeda, are entrenched in two-thirds of the country. As a result of the conflict, over 330,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries or other parts of Mali. 

Armed rebels

While Oxfam is doing humanitarian work under challenging circumstances in the north, we had to suspend long-standing education programmes. In partnership with local authorities and partners, we had been making slow but steady progress in encouraging girls, who otherwise may have married in their early teens, to go to school and to stay in school. It's not yet clear how the conflict will affect the education of thousands of children. Only some schools reopened in northern Mali in September, though reportedly girls and boys are separated in the classroom; education in the refugee camps is limited; and schools across Mali are almost certainly being stretched by the suspension of development aid following a military coup in the capital Bamako in March. An Oxfam colleague displaced with her family from the Gao region told me that her son had been set to complete his final exams but now he was struggling to adjust to a new life and school in southern Mali.

In press and policy circles, discussion is inevitably dominated by Al-Qaeda's grip on the north. There doesn't seem to be much space to discuss the complexities and causes of the crisis. In my conversations, I detected deep sadness, anger and bewilderment among Malians at what had happened to their country - and great anxiety about the future, not just for the coming months, when a regionally-led military intervention looks likely, but for the coming years. Malian refugees and civil society have told Oxfam that social cohesion has been badly undermined by the recent violence; trust will need to be rebuilt between and within communities. This will take time and dialogue with local people, whose voices all too often go unheard.

Read more

Oxfam's work on food and livelihoods

Oxfam's work on conflict and disasters

Latest research and policy papers on Mali

Blog post written by Maya Mailer

Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns

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Maya Mailer