Talking Points

Mali donors’ conference: towards low cost solutions?

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16-05-2013

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Yesterday’s donors’ conference on Mali organised in Brussels by the EU and France “in close coordination with Mali” pledged over 3 billion euros. It gathered several hundreds representatives from all over the Sahel region, Western Africa, and the world, but was it just another donor-recipient show?

The statements made today following the conference will inevitably be equally frustrating, but will the glass be half full or half empty?

An electoral renaissance?

In many respects, the glass is half full because the country is said to be half way to its next presidential elections, which are supposed to bring the country back on the development track. The earlier the Malian population renew with elections and debates, the better for democracy in the country. The more internationalised (through the UN, with a leading role for ECOWAS countries) the crisis resolution is, the more effective and enduring regional solutions will be.

With the strong presence of the UN and neighbouring states, the potentially neocolonial political influence of France will be diminished, and a step forward will be made to end Françafrique. Mali is a test case for a new French touch in Africa.

Following the defeat of the main jihadist groups in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, the challenge is to manage a post-conflict transition. Crisis responders have already written extensively on how emergencies, insecurity, divisions and tensions in Mali should be addressed according the Malian government roadmap: the pitch is about: humanitarian emergencies (a reality hard to deny), negotiations, political reconciliation (some speak of “political reconstruction”), long lasting grievances in the North, ethnic and territorial heterogeneity, historical roots, smuggling, trafficking and informal trade, recourse to local communities and traditions, peaceful and honest leaders against corruption, statebuilding and participation of the diasporasupport to the private sector .

Post crisis transition was actually a large item on the conference agenda.

A pot of strong myths and legends

Mali is fashionable. The country has strong soft power. It is a pot of a myriad of fascinating cultures, strong myths and legends, a book of inspiring narratives. A dreamed arena for spies, investments in the extractive, weapons experiments, drug traffickers, novelists and documentary filmmakers.

So far, nothing really new for development practitioners, and experts working on Africa and: if the glass is half full, Mali’s future will be bright.

EU comprehensive or incoherent and France in the driving seat?

On the European side, there are also many reasons to be optimistic: The EU is deploying its “check diplomacy”, announcing millions of euros committed and about to be disbursed. It will insist that its approach is comprehensive, aligned on the government’s development strategy. It will provide a long list of co-ordinated actions carried out on different legal bases and following different political hierarchies.

Yet, Europe will have many heads (head of EU Delegation, head of EUTM), hats (EU Special Representative, coordinator for Sahel, national ambassadors and national special envoys), berets and caps (both EUTM head and EUSR for Sahel are French) in the region, and no clear political leadership per se: many keys will remain in French hands, but tentatively and temporarily handed over to other EU and international sources of funding.

Half full? What is new in the Malian story, is the width of the paradoxical consensus about revitalising and legitimising France as “gendarme” in West Africa and Sahel, thereby contradicting all previous narratives about Africa-Europe relations focusing on African ownership, equal relationship, continent-to-continent joint strategy. What is also new, is that since the episode of the French intervention in Ivory Coast in 2010, a new sub-model has been emerging in Africa-Europe relations characterised by the following features:

  • In Western Africa, the continent-to-continent framework gives way to regional frameworks.
  • France pursues action bilaterally in the Sahel with the endorsement of both the EU, the supposedly competent regional organisation (ECOWAS) and even the African Union Commission led by a chairperson historically opposed to French interventions.
  • The region is dealt with as part of Europe’s wider neighbourhood and it seems commonly accepted.
  • The EU and France are militarily and financially so weak that they can only engage in international and multilateral cooperation to pursue their Sahel regional strategy.
  • The states in the region itself, by endorsing the French and European action, indirectly recognise their powerlessness but also the fact that a lot of the insecurity in Northern Mali was self-made up by foreign powers.
  • The international community will provide tons of aid without taking the time to draw lessons from several decades of ineffective assistance.

Development and democratic dynamics or new aid bubble?

Foreign (African) troops will be deployed in Mali, the aid market will flourish, Mali will be the to-go destination for mediation and reconciliation experts of all kinds for some months, perhaps years. Development and security issues will be addressed in a mutually reinforcing manner.

Yet, political issues and grievances are likely not to be addressed straightforward because everyone will be too busy absorbing the budget lines of international solidarity, and most of the reports will blame the absence of strong political will. Whose resilience will we write about then?

The country, with a strong international push, seems to be rushing to hold elections. Experts are dubious about the legitimacy of the reconciliation commission and impunity for the junta, diplomats clearly favour peace over justice. Mali heads towards an ineffective, expensive (but low-cost) governance way out which will not be conducive to inclusive development. The risk of hurrying up formal political processes is to rely on old political and social forces favouring the status quo, thereby jeopardising  the long needed opening of the political and administrative system, and entering a much darker and longer tunnel.

Addressing development needs effectively will be a test case for the new Malian leadership. Continued international support for strong, inclusive and closely monitored development policies after the elections will test European commitments.

Damien Helly is a Policy Officer on EU External Action. Follow Damien on Twitter: @DamienHelly

This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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European external affairsSecurity and ResilienceEuropean Responses to Violent Conflicts and CrisisEuropean Union (EU)AfricaFranceMaliWest Africa