Mali has been a donor darling of the western world since the 1970s with aid donations from several development actors including international NGOs and UN agencies. Since the UN stabilisation mission arrived in the country, the formation of the humanitarian field has changed. How do humanitarian NGOs and local organisations value and perceive the presence of this integrated UN mission? What does this presence mean for the coordination between the humanitarian community and the UN?
With the appearance of the ‘integrated’ mission of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), partnerships and ways of implementing programs in Mali have changed. When UN agencies used to feel more connected to international NGOs, they are now part of the ‘one UN structure’ and need to operate according to its overarching approach. UN agencies now must find their new position in the field. With this new arrangement, the UN agencies feel less independent and neutral due to the military mandate of the mission and the double-hatted position of its Humanitarian Coordinator and the Resident Coordinator. UN agencies such as UNHCR and WFP need to convince former partners that they still uphold the Humanitarian Principles (impartiality, neutrality, independence and humanity) and that they continue to operate independently and work towards their own goals, but as part of the larger UN mission.
Blurring the lines between humanitarian and military actors
For many actors in the humanitarian field, this is their first experience with an integrated mission and they are now struggling to understand the implications. What is the added value of such a mission and how does their mandate relate to the mandate of MINUSMA? What exactly is the ‘overarching mandate’ of the UN? What is the relation between UN agencies and the mission itself? This knowledge gap is a serious disadvantage for the coordination between different actors in the field. It creates distrust and disappointment about the current programming status. Moreso, it fuels the fear of lines being blurred between the military and humanitarian components of the international interventions in Mali.
A telling example of such distrust involves a health clinic that MINUSMA established in Bamako’s slums in June 2014. It was only a small project aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the population and creating support for its mission. The non-UN humanitarian community did not appreciate this intervention and argued there are enough NGOs present in the neighbourhood who were willing and able to run the health clinic. NGOs (and most UN employees) have adopted the basic rules that MINUSMA can carry out humanitarian programs only as a last resort, and only when other organisations are not willing nor able to provide the necessary aid for the population. By launching a health clinic in Bamako under military guidance (or in military uniforms), fear grows amongst the humanitarian community that Malians will not be able to distinguish between these organizations and military actors.
A knowledge gap
There is not only a knowledge gap within humanitarian agencies. Within the UN itself, there are different perceptions amongst people working for various UN entities about the interpretation and application of their mandates. Concepts such as ‘support for humanitarian assistance’, ‘civil-military coordination’ and the Quick Impact Projects are applied and interpreted in different ways. For example, the health clinic project previously mentioned. I spoke to some UN workers who supported the clinic while others disapproved of it. Such internal division within the UN creates uncertainty and distrust in the humanitarian community and hinders their ability to comprehend its mandate.
There are different ways that organizations can coordinate their activities, from cooperation to co-existence. Exchange of information to prevent a duplication of programmes is an example of co-existence, or when a humanitarian actor like the Red Cross trains MINUSMA employees about International Humanitarian Laws. Coordination, a more thorough form of organizing, would be an armed escort, which in Mali only happens as a last resort. During my research in Mali, I found that the extent of coordination in the humanitarian arena depends on personalities and experiences of those involved on a larger extent, moreso than policy recommendations.
If the mission is well developed and if people in the field do not understand its mandate, are not concerned and do not want to cooperate, in the end the mission fails. Additionally, differences in rotation speed between military and civil employees have an important impact on coordination ability between organizations. Military employees often stay for a maximum of six months while civil employees often stay in the country much longer. For civil employees each new military actor brings in new perceptions and new ways of working.
Moving beyond co-existence requires a change in mentality
Although the respondents I interviewed argued that some improvements in coordination and exchange of information have been made since the mission’s start, coordination has not passed the ‘co-existence’ phase yet. Such a change is needed if stability and development is to return to the country. Coordination between civil and military actors is especially a sensitive topic. NGOs blame MINUSMA for interfering with humanitarian work, while MINUSMA blames NGOs for their unrealistic expectations of the mission, stating that they are too cautious, hesitant and have a dogmatic approach.
Most importantly, there is still not enough knowledge about each other’s mandates, principles and goals. This lack of knowledge hinders the coordination and fuels distrust and disappointment. A more open and transparent attitude is important to improve the coordination and effectiveness of progress towards development and security. This needs to be understood both by those who design the mandates of the various organizations and by those in the field who need to know how mandates are applied on the ground.
This expert opinion is based on a master’s research project on the coordination structure and influence of the MINUSMA mission on the humanitarian field in Mali.
Photo credit main picture: MINUSMA / Harandane Quick Impact Mission Gao via Flickr