Sustainable WASH even when the going gets tough – lessons from Mali

Posted 8 Jul 2016 by Mamadou Diarafa Diallo

In the past four years, Mali has gone from peace to crisis, and violence and disruption have undone hard-won progress in WASH and development. As the country nears the end of its state of emergency period, Mamadou Diarafa Diallo, WaterAid Mali’s Country Representative, looks at how the sustainability agenda has fared in a time of extreme upheaval.

Between 1992 and 2012, Mali enjoyed two full decades of multiparty democracy, sustained by peaceful, regular, local and general elections. GDP growth rate was consistent and above the regional average, driven largely by gold mining, cotton production and export, and significant inflows of international development assistance resources. The international community considered Mali a stable ‘Model of African Democracy’, a rare democratic success story in the region.

The military coup of March 22, 2012, a few weeks before the presidential election, came as a brutal shock. Following the coup d’état, a combination of a separatist group and an Islamic jihadist group captured the northern regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

Mali shifted from a relatively stable and peaceful country to become the epicentre of a complex crisis that claimed lives and reversed hard-won development gains. It also caused significant displacement of people within the country, and an exodus of refugees.

Displaced people waiting for subsidised water sources.
Internally displaced people and members of a host community in Bamako, Mali wait for the official opening ceremony of a new water network that has been installed to relieve pressure on water access, 2013.

The switch was a reality check in several ways:

  • It revealed an existing fragility trap, nourished by non-inclusive, weak and corrupt governance. 
  • It underscored a breach in the social contract between the state and citizens, due to failure to produce outcomes that are up to expectations of effectiveness and legitimacy.  
  • It calls into question the relevance of our scoring systems, and the value of macroeconomic stability to households struggling daily to access basic services such as water and sanitation.

The sustainability agenda in a crisis

During the time the rebels controlled northern Mali, most of the WASH infrastructure was destroyed or damaged, many Government and NGO staff fled, and most of the service delivery systems stopped functioning. Relief and development organisations, including WaterAid Mali, had to abandon, at least temporarily, their operations in the area. Some time later the INGOs resumed limited assistance to people who had moved southwards, and those who settled in camps.

In early 2013 the Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation, and the Government and major rebel groups signed a Peace and Reconciliation Agreement.

However, extremist groups who are not part of this deal have since carried out sporadic attacks on security forces from desert hideouts, and various jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda continue to threaten security in the country and across the Sahel region. The Government has extended the state of emergency to July 15, 2016.

The crisis placed pressure on basic service delivery systems, including water, and population movements further limited the capacity for collective community action. In such a context, there is a temptation for development actors (state, NGOs and donors) to focus on short-term solutions through distribution of food, emergency supplies and even cash items to communities in dire need, to help reconstruction. In Mali, the humanitarian agenda and the sustainable development agenda appeared contradictory, with competing objectives.

Organisations like WaterAid Mali worked to transform this zero-sum competition, proposing that, in addition to the much-needed humanitarian assistance (including distribution of water and hygiene kits and promotion of subsidised water connection in host communities) there is a need to build the resilience of the communities, which the crisis has further eroded.

Because of the increasing number of organisations with different profiles and approaches (e.g. INGOs, state actors, UN organisations, etc), the issue of ensuring institutional efficacy has arisen. WaterAid Mali became active in the WASH cluster to encourage cooperation between organisations and avoid duplicating or overlapping interventions.

Focus in the midst of distraction

In a crisis situation, the loudest noise is often not made by the victims, but by money. Communities, governments, civil society organisations and donors all tend to forget that resilience and reconstruction are not about money – they are about people and partnership.

I was fortunate to join WaterAid at the peak of this crisis. I must confess that, as a citizen of Mali and in my role, I was tempted more than once to go for the funding out there and do some more distribution. But I realised very early that the crisis situation provided a greater opportunity for leadership.

WaterAid Mali is a development organisation, without the channels required for humanitarian relief; we made a conscious decision to continue focusing on our area of expertise without a more significant expansion into humanitarian aid. This was, at times, a challenging course – were we failing our people by not chasing those multi-million dollar emergency funds? The approach – to focus on sustainability, influencing of policy, partnering for results and ensuring WASH remained central to development programming – required courage and humility and no small amount of debate and discussion.

However, we were praised for keeping our office and operations running, for providing short-term responses including subsidised water connections, and for our flexibility with our partner organisations.

The more we realised our strategic importance, the more we kept our focus and lived our value of ‘courage’.

We did face a high staff turnover because the ‘emergency money’ distorted the labour market, with many humanitarian agencies offering higher salaries. The inflows of reconstruction resources also meant we experienced increased inflation and cost of living. There was a risk this could affect the morale of staff, but WaterAid West Africa and the global organisation supported the team to successfully address these challenges. Flexible programmatic delivery, management procedures, and funding streams also gave our team resilience.

Tackling inequalities

One key lesson from Mali’s ongoing crisis is that the issue of fragility is intertwined with that of inequality. One of the key arguments of the various rebellions has been the perception of inequitable benefits and preferential treatment; some communities have developed grievances over access to basic social services, claiming there are imbalances in access between groups and locations.

My purpose is not to confirm the truth or otherwise of this. As a development professional, my purpose is to stress the critical importance of sustainable and equitable access to basic services. We need to go beyond simple and quick fixes, and stop putting square pegs in round holes. We need to be courageous enough to engage in the difficult conversations. We need to stress the fact that inclusion and high-quality citizen engagement are important game changers, and vital to breaking the pattern of state fragility.

This whole situation proves the relevance of WaterAid’s objective of tackling and opposing inequalities and ensuring marginalised communities realise their rights to water and sanitation. By pursuing this goal we can set an example for other organisations and sectors.

Mamadou Diarafa Diallo is WaterAid Mali’s Country Representative. He tweets as @DMdiarafa and you can read more of his work here.


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  • Alpha said:

    8 Jul 2016 14:56

    A good article wich need to be translate in french to allow a lof malian to be aware of the need to tackle inegality and to uderstand the commitment of WaterAid Mali

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