Separating Humanitarianism from Politics in Mali

Aid works have been attacked in Northern Mali. What does it mean for humanitarian access, asks Jérémie Labbé.
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March 24, 2014

In February 2014, two aid workers were injured and five kidnapped in Northern Mali in two separate incidents. According to the Aid Workers Security Database, these were the first security incidents to affect humanitarian organizations in the country since the French military operation Serval in January 2013 began, with the notable exception of the killing of an aid worker in December 2013 in circumstances that remain unclear.

This chain of events begs the question of whether these recent incidents a mere coincidence or are they indicative of deteriorating security conditions for aid workers in Mali, at a time when food insecurity is expected to sharply worsen. Were these aid workers directly targeted and, if so, what does it mean for humanitarian access in this vast and arid region? These are some of the questions I raised in a recent interview on the Global Observatory with François Grünewald, head of the French think tank Groupe URD that partnered with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on a roundtable in Bamako on humanitarian access.

While it is too early to draw clear conclusions from these security incidents, they have increased the humanitarian community’s concerns in the country. According to Grünewald, “up until recently, the impression was that humanitarians were kind of protected by their status of humanitarian actors. Has this situation changed or not? We don’t know.”

Operation Serval was justified—with the blessing of the UN Security Council—on the basis of an offensive by radical Islamist groups from the north of the country in concert with secessionist Tuareg armed groups toward Bamako. Operation Serval not only pushed back these armed groups but, with the support of African forces, allowed the government to formally reclaim control of the northern half of the country. In April 2013, the UN Security Council created the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which incorporated regional contingents already deployed in the country with the mandate to protect civilians, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, encourage the reconciliation process, and to stabilize northern Mali and expand state authority there with the support of the French forces.

As I warned in December 2012, ahead of the French intervention, such an extensive UN mandate that includes support to the military effort while facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid has the potential to negatively impact the safety of aid staff and humanitarian access. Indeed, the conflation of security and humanitarian objectives contributes to the perception by armed groups that aid agencies support a broader political agenda, one that is directed against them. Given the nature of the UN-led humanitarian coordination system under the leadership of the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator—who also happens to be the deputy head of MINUSMA—the ambiguous relationship between the “political” UN mission and the supposedly “apolitical” aid agencies leaves much room for misperceptions. With that said, both peacekeepers and Serval forces certainly have a key role to play in securitizing the volatile northern areas and, therefore, in enabling aid agencies to deliver aid where it is needed. In addition, as pointed out by Grünewald, civil-military coordination mechanisms were put in place to facilitate a necessary dialogue between the military and the humanitarian community, while creating a firewall between both communities to avoid giving the impression that humanitarians are embedded with the military.

While it is not clear whether the blast that injured two staff from Doctors of the World in late February was intentional, the kidnapping of five Red Cross workers earlier that month was later claimed by the Islamist group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Although it is not clear that they were targeted as humanitarian actors per se, “it’s clear that there’s an added perception of risk now.”

This perception is particularly damaging given the increasing challenges that communities in the north and those that have fled the country face. Indeed, those that had fled the conflict in 2012 and early 2013 are still by and large in refugee camps in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger. And, according to Grünewald, “if the situation deteriorates in terms of food security indicators and if humanitarian access does not improve, then we have a problem.”

New technologies, in particular information and communication technologies, can allow humanitarian actors to deliver aid in innovative ways—like using mobile phones to transfer cash or other assets to the population—and enable aid agencies to circumvent access and security issues by minimizing their presence on the ground. But they will certainly not solve all of the problems since these methodologies also imply targeting of affected population and impact monitoring and evaluation, which “always requires a presence in the field.”

Humanitarian actors have therefore little choice but to better understand and engage with the variety of armed groups operating in the North of Mali to increase their acceptance, be they Tuareg or Islamist groups. This would allow humanitarian staff to explain that their goals are distinct from the political and security mandate of the UN mission in Mali and make the case that their primary objective is to help suffering people—regardless of their ethnicity or political affiliation. Whether such an argument can be persuasive enough to put a stop to attacks of humanitarian workers, even as the reality of the international community’s engagement in Mali nurtures the perception that political, security, development and humanitarian objectives are deeply intertwined, remains to be seen.