Risk Management in Conflict-Affected Contexts: The Case of Mali

Since 2012 Mali has been immersed in a violent conflict between armed jihadist groups and the Malian government that first involved exclusively the North of the country but has since spread to the areas of Mopti and Ségou. Despite massive international mobilization and intervention, the conflict is still classified as escalating by ACLED. One of the key issues at stake is the balance between military intervention in support of the Malian government and the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need. The case of Mali gives us an insight into why risk management in conflict-affected contexts is needed.

There are an estimated 3.8 million people in need of assistance in Mali, as of July 2017.

Risk management in conflict-affected areas

Verisk Maplecroft

Delivering humanitarian aid during such a violent conflict inevitably involves risks. These have continued to grow in the last years. In order to respond coherently to this situation, risk management strategies acquire major importance for the operational capacities of aid organizations. At the same time, the risks faced may cause the imbalance between the needs of the people and the need to mitigate harm to personnel and resources. For this reason, the humanitarian industry has inherited from the corporate and military sectors a formalized system for forecasting, weighing and preparing for possible risks in order to minimize their impact.

The highly politicized, conflict-affected environment in Mali creates different obstacles for aid delivery. It is the interference between humanitarian and political actors. Secondly, it is the elevated ‘protectionism’ that distances aid workers in manifold forms (personal, physical, spatial, socio-political etc) from the local environment, as described by Andersson and Weigand (2015, 520). In order to discuss these issues, I will first present the situation in Mali, and then look closer at the role of NGOs and the strategies they use in order to implement their tasks. The crucial question to answer is: what are the obstacles to the implementation and why do they exist?

Conflict in Mali

Once considered a stable democracy, Mali was thrown into turmoil following major geopolitical perturbations in the region, notably the NATO-led intervention in Libya and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. It is commonly recognized that the Malian conflict occurred as the result of an escalation and diffusion/contagion mechanisms from the Libyan Civil War. The civil war in Libya has triggered some underlying processes and conflicts that have been maturing in the vast spaces left ungoverned by the Malian state.

Risk management in conflict-affected contexts

Worldwide Conflicts

The main international efforts to stop the conflict were the following: the establishment of MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), AFISMA (African-led International Support Mission to Mali) and the French military intervention- Serval – followed by Barkhane.

On the opposite side, lay separatist rebels and Islamic groups. Among them, there are Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and many others.

Despite the peace accord, that was signed in June 2015 between the government of Mali and the rebel groups, many key provisions were not implemented. It is important to understand that issues such as weak governance and pre-existing unresolved conflicts have festered into further divisions (within and between communities, along ethnic and social lines, between state and citizens, between traditional and state authorities, and between generations) continue to define the dynamics of the conflict.

A security-oriented approach to fighting violent extremism, a questionable and dubious one, summed up with massive military presence has left aid workers and humanitarian efforts exposed.

Attacks on aid workers

Mali remains a very dangerous place for both military and humanitarian actors. According to the study carried out by Human Rights Watch, (2017) armed groups mounted at least 75 attacks on UN forces in 2016, killing 29 peacekeepers of the MINUSMA and wounding some 90 others. Groups linked to AQIM took responsibility for many of these attacks, which largely targeted logistic convoys and UN bases. MINUSMA is one of the deadliest and most attacked UN peacekeeping missions ever with 123 fatalities as of 31st May 2017.

According to HRW, at least 35 vehicles used by aid groups were either stolen, pursued, or stopped by armed bandits, and numerous offices or staff residences were burglarized. On several occasions, the attackers threatened, tied up, or beat aid agency personnel, including drivers and guards. On at least 6 occasions, ambulances and vehicles used by both the Malian government and aid organizations to deliver health care were attacked or robbed. These attacks took place near the northern towns of Lere, Gao, Niafounké, Gossi, and Menaka. In four of these incidents, sick passengers, drivers and health workers were forced out of the vehicles and robbed, and the vehicles stolen.

Emergency gap

The present situation creates an emergency gap that is the lack of sufficient humanitarian presence and quality response for the populations in need, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (2017). This gap, although it has existed since the beginning of the conflict, becomes wider with the deterioration of the security situation due to rising levels of banditry and crime. In fact, what all the actors should analyze is ‘an interventionist’ dilemma: a wish for proximity and a drive for engagement in insecure regions, combined with increasing fortification and even withdrawal from these regions” (Andersson and Weigand, 2015, 522). The trade-off for humanitarian agencies is between danger, exposure and lack of impact in case of extremely cautious behavior.

The difficulty with the delivery of humanitarian assistance is created due to some degree of subordination or association with political objectives. These objectives are not compatible with core humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The risk comes from the association of two very different actors: MINUSMA and humanitarian INGOs that cooperate with MINUSMA. For instance, many INGOs use MINUSMA convoys for transportation and movement and this act is interpreted as an association with political objectives of the mission and thus of the Malian government.

There are four interconnected aspects that challenge humanitarian action in the Malian context. First, the integrated agenda carried out by MINUSMA in Mali includes humanitarian action and thus the latter can be perceived as part of a bigger political agenda. Furthermore, MUNISMA is there to support the government and perform political and security actions aimed to neutralize the armed groups. This aspect makes clear that MINUSMA is not a neutral and impartial actor. The second challenge is association or cooperation with a political actor and a party to the conflict which de-legitimizes humanitarian action being at odds with the four humanitarian principles. Thirdly, as a consequence of the first two factors, humanitarians are being attacked, as it was demonstrated above. Finally, humanitarian agencies are not able to perform humanitarian assistance and reach out to beneficiaries. The ability to access the populations is strictly related to the acceptance by the populations of the humanitarian actors and their clear recognition as such. All the above-mentioned factors cause lack of acceptance and significantly shift relations between beneficiaries and interveners creating emotional and physical distance.

Markers of physical distancing

Each of the numerous humanitarian actors in Mali has their internal security protocols and procedures. Some typical patterns characterizing the presence of NGOs can be found: striking social distance between the local population and the ‘expatriate’ community, use of private security in international offices and in hotels, a significant physical separation between the local and the international. This physical distancing is actually part of the care of oneself and it involves also psychological distancing of oneself from the stress-affected environment. Fortified compounds with high walls and razor wire are the material embodiment of psychological distancing which according to Duffield (2012, 29) is typical for ‘defensive living’.

In fact, humanitarian actors in a high-risk environment have limited contact with the local population. While speaking about the actual situation in Mali, two types of distancing can be highlighted. The local one, in Bamako, consists in ‘defensive living’: fortified compounds, moving around exclusively with drivers, no walking around the city etc. The second type of distancing, the geographical one, can be observed between the headquarters in Bamako and the conflict-affected areas. In fact, the Northern parts of Mali remain at a safe distance from the international headquarters in the capital. It guarantees a comfortable virtual reach through subcontracting and technologizing (use of drones) the missions allowing to keep the appearance of presence. In Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, peacekeepers and the civilian component of the UN mission were constantly behind high walls and never emerged to protect civilians from attacks by either rebels, jihadists or the Malian armed forces (Andersson and Weigand, 2015, 529).

A complicated relationship between humanitarian actors and rebel groups expressed through patterns of recognition and association, impact the local populations the most. This happens quite often in Mali when armed groups intimidate the populations and threaten death to those who would collaborate with the enemies (UN and associated actors, the government, peacekeepers etc.). Locals become hostages between parties to the conflict and may be manipulated by them facing the situation alone, without the help of humanitarian agencies.

Collinson and Duffield (2013) rightly underline that presence should not be necessarily equated with proximity. It is particularly true in the case of Mali where remote controls have failed to generate any meaningful ‘proximity’ while bunkering and partial withdrawal has led to gaps in international presence. According to Duffield, the institutionalization and normalization of risk management is a new phenomenon which “erodes individual and local autonomy in favor of rule through distant security experts and protocols” (2012, 29).

Two types of actors

While some procedures are considered a normalized approach to security, there are structural differences in risk management which can be classified in two broad ways: deterrence vs avoidance, according to an employee of a humanitarian INGO who preferred to remain anonymous. These different approaches distinguish humanitarian actors on the ground and are at the core of their humanitarian philosophy and practices.

Deterrence involves the use of armed guards, barbed wire, armored convoys and military escorts. The UN, in particular, has very rigid guidelines on personal security for employees, which is embodied in their internal policies focused on centralization and standardization of security (for instance, MOSS and MORSS).

Avoidance instead involves a very ‘low profile’ strategy: minimal expatriate presence, the absence of armed guards, use of active and clear markers of neutrality of the organization. This strategy would require shutting down operations when the conflict achieves high intensity and becomes dangerous for the personnel. It is important to understand though that both risk management strategies, although quite different, create distance and separation from the local population.

Risk Transfer

An accurate risk management strategy is supposed to guarantee protection to all aid workers, while in Mali instead of an uneven distribution of risks is present. The use of local staff who are more exposed and less protected (unequal insurance and evacuation policies etc.) becomes a norm. On the one hand, this choice allows reduction of distancing from the populations but on the other hand, this is risk downscaling from international to local staff. According to Collinson and Duffield (2013, 9) 90% of aid workers in the field who consistently suffer far higher rates of security incidents and fatalities compared to internationals are national and local staff. This different stance of international and local staff, their unequal exposure to risks and access to protection may as well cause resentment and mistrust within the same organization.

Furthermore, working with local partners or subcontracting some tasks is also a practice that may present challenges for monitoring aid and adherence to humanitarian principles. These risks should not be underestimated by the organizations and should be evaluated within the overall approach to risk management.

In Practice: Risk Management in Conflict-Affected Contexts

Being cut off from beneficiaries is a general condition of the humanitarian actors right now in Mali, in particular in the Northern rural areas. Mark Duffield affirms that fortified compounds are found to be both desired and necessary by aid workers while structural internal changes in the UN system, in particular, integrated missions influence radically the delivery and the stance of humanitarian assistance itself. This state of affairs produced further social divides that make distancing clearly visible. It is very important to ask ourselves which is the right balance between aid and protection, how the actors and beneficiaries should interact in order to obtain results, how the current strategies can be changed in order to achieve endorsed targets?

Risk management concerns resolving fundamental tensions between the acceptance of risks and remaining safe. There is no one straightforward solution for this problem. Adhering to humanitarian principles, that is being neutral, impartial, independent and humane is the solution for every actor on the ground. Security strategies and political interests have a significant impact on the populations in Mali but they should not by any means interfere with the humanitarian assistance. These domains should be left separated for the benefit of civilians.


Katia Golovko is a contributing writer for PGW.


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