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Mali: Why everyone should care about its future

There are many countries emerging from conflict. Why care about Mali?

It’s been less than half a year since the Malians, with assistance from Algeria and other international partners, signed a peace agreement. But peace deals alone never guarantee long-term stability.

Mali was long heralded as a model for other African nations to follow, with its democracy, strong economic development and seemingly prosperous future. As minister of development in Norway I often held up Mali as an inspirational success. When first in Timbuktu I was astonished by the beauty of the culture, the devoted people and the story the city could tell. One man, Mansa Musa–a “king of kings” who some regard as the richest person of all time–lived there in the 14th century. Mali, once the centre of trade through the Sahara desert, retains a unique, living and visible cultural history today.

But in 2012 Mali came to a standstill. Terrorists took over large parts of the country and were only stopped by French and African forces not far from the capital, Bamako. What was considered a pillar of African development and democracy imploded in the space of a few weeks. There has been a lot of progress since then. Security is now provided by a UN peace keeping force. President Ibrahim Keïta was elected in free elections, and a government is now in place. But most Malians are devastatingly poor and the country’s development needs are huge. The link is clear: there is no development without security, and no security without development.

Well over 15 million people live in Mali. The country is twice the size of France. Most of the people live in the south. Many people in the north believe that the government spends all their money in the south–forgetting the north. When I met with the largest rebel groups in Bamako last week, this was their main concern. They feel marginalised and do not see progress, they told me.

This lack of confidence in the government fosters violence, and some turn to rebel groups in dissatisfaction. Some of these groups are indigenous, others are Islamic and global, others still are traffickers of all kinds. The borders in the Sahel are enormously long and nigh impossible to police. There is every opportunity for insecurity has to spread in to neighbouring regions. Hostages have been taken and not all have survived. Transnational organised crime has evolved.  

The fragile situation will continue if security in Mali is not reinforced and if the people of Mali don’t see jobs, education, hope and progress.

So when the Malian government asked the OECD if we, alongside other partners, could contribute to developing a strategy for reconstruction and peace, we  were never in doubt.

Mali has great development potential in many areas. It could become a major supplier of rice for the West African market. Huge improvements regarding livestock, mining and, in the long run, tourism are all within reach for this beautiful country. Roads and education must improve. But in order to fully realise this potential, the stabilisation of the north is essential.

On 22 October, the OECD co-hosts a high-level conference with the government of Mali and the support of its international partners and friends in a bid to to help Mali find solutions to political and development challenges. For a country to develop, leadership is the key. Only the president and government of Mali can tell us international partners–public and private–what its strategic vision is, where it wants to take its country in 20 years, and what future it wants for its children.

Leadership has proven itself to be the most important ingredient of development success.

Good policies are a second related ingredient. The government must make the right choices, and take the right decisions that can propel development in the country. Even a country that needs nearly everything must focus on a few priorities. Then we, the international community, can better assist.

A third ingredient for Mali is resources. A country cannot develop on aid alone. Development assistance may act as a catalyst, and can help reassure private partners to invest in Mali. But taxes and private investments are key. Together we must look into the potential for generating more tax revenue and for expansion of the private sector. The large number of Malians abroad may also prove to be an asset through private investment and remittances.

So,why care about Mali?

The first answer is simple: because the children of Mali deserve a bright future. All the Malian children I have met are eternal optimists, like the boy cleaning our car who said he wanted to become a doctor. Let us make their aspirations real, not just vague hopes.

But in addition to that, the whole world needs a stable, prosperous Mali, not least to stop terrorist attacks and organised crime from spreading further. What happens in Mali affects us all.

Pietikainen Anna (2013), “Sahel: the search for security” in OECD Observer No 296 Q3, available online

Walther, Olivier (2015), “Eating soup with a knife: Confronting warfare in the Sahara”, in OECD Observer No 303, September, available online

Warner, Brian (2014), “The 25 Richest People Who Ever Lived–Inflation Adjusted”, at CelebrityNetWorth.com, April

©OECD Observer October 2015