Bye-bye elite, hello change makers? Lessons learned from security and rule of law programming in Mali

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch02 Dec 2015Karlijn Muiderman

In prior model democracy in Mali, now three years after the crisis, some Dutch policymakers and organizations have been left pessimistic about the prospects for judicial reform. In search for an alternative to the established NGOs and political elite, they are now seeking to find and support the change makers in society. Does the international community know how to support these individuals? Does their internal programming logic allow for the flexibility and tailored approach that is needed?

A selection of lessons learned

At a discussion meeting of the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law (the Platform), an insider group with representatives from the Dutch Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security and Justice, NGOs and knowledge institutes discussed the lessons learned over the past three years of security and rule of law reform since the 2012 crisis in Mali. A selection of lessons learned included:

  • A study funded by and presented at the Platform found no evidence of a common sector-wide strategy of the international community to reform the justice and security sector. Has the political momentum of 2012 to push for reform officially passed?
  • The often cited 2011 World Development Report stated that it takes countries 40 years to build a functioning rule of law system. Mali is on the slow side of the scale and requiring perhaps 60 to 70 years to build up.
  • Mainly in rural areas, most people still rely on informal law or a customary legal system rather than state justice to settle disputes and conflict. This is particularly important for the Malian border regions that are governed by a complex set of regional and transnational networks, including criminal groups that are deeply embedded within Sahelian societies and politics.
  • One major problem is corruption with Mali scoring 32 (on a scale of 0 (corrupt) to 100 (no corruption)) on the corruption perception index. Politicians are focused on reaping the benefits for themselves and their clientele and do not address the needs of the general population. Both political parties and NGOs have formed around leaders that stay in their positions for decades. Current programmes have failed to adequately address this.

An interesting shift to the bottom

Considering these failures of traditional approaches to reform, there is a need for a fresh take on security and rule of law reform in Mali. The Dutch government has turned to citizens, the grassroots, in support for reform from within society. In doing so, the influence could shift away from the elites and established NGOs.

Currently, the Dutch government takes social contract as starting point in its programming. The social contract builds on the idea that state-society reciprocity can curb social strive. By placing state-society relations central, the social contract helps ensure that politics plays an important role in policymaking. In this demand-driven approach, responsive institutions deliver wanted services and promote inclusive processes of state-society dialogue. Critics argue however that since the majority of people are still largely dependent on the state, their negotiation space is very limited. To achieve a demand-driven approach, the Dutch government has started to experiment with projects in which they finance community leaders, NGOs and individuals who determine the projects’ targets during its process. However, a lack of insights in the political economy of Malian customary and state systems is still a critical blind spot for policymakers.

This brings up a number of challenges

In terms of programming, working from the grassroots on complex processes such as rule of law reform requires a different approach to programming, monitoring and evaluation (M&E). There is a strong incentive among the international community to continue to work with the Malian established NGOs and elites because these relationships adhere best to traditional M&E mechanisms. Similarly, many donors prefer fewer and larger projects with reliable partners versus many small projects with new partners. This way of working requires room for trial-and-error, financing multiple projects and accepting that a number are likely to fail, as Rachel Kleinfeld advocated in an earlier lunch event at the Platform. Problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), an analysis developed by Harvard University, was mentioned as an alternative analysis that allows a citizen-centred approach with flexible and participatory programming to move beyond the dependency of working with established partners like NGOs and the government who can meet M&E demands.

Concerning selection and inclusion, how do you find the right individuals to support? Seeking for local leaders may lead you to Nelson Mandelas, but you can also find the next Joseph Kony. How do you make sure this form of support is inclusive? It starts with understanding the political economy of Mali’s security sector and integrating local leaders of the customary system. According to Seth Kaplan, fragile states have limited commitment mechanisms that hold backsliding major players accountable. Thus, it is advisable to promote an open and political process with horizontal relationships between the state and various ethnic, religious, clan and ideological groups to facilitate open debate. Connect the youth, as the political aspirations of youth are vital for stability.

Finally, how is it possible to support these individuals in a way that does not expose them and not affect their legitimacy? In fragile states, the presence of a weak government incapable of enforcing the rule of law and easily co-opted by the forces of the wealthy and powerful creates a difficult environment for progressive individuals, which often forces them to make uncomfortable choices simply to survive politically. At the same time, change should come from within society and citizens need to be enabled to hold their leaders accountable.

Mali has a culture of dialogue and communication mainly through radio programmes as many Malians are illiterate. Thus, media channels for innovative bottom-up approaches could support open dialogue on security issues, for instance Connecting in times of Duress, Free Press and Studio Tamani, whereas investigative journalists like Paul Mben verify data. Local approaches might not be the best strategy for a more effective state justice system but they should be integrated into a reform strategy that integrates a political strategy as well as public support for reforms.

This article was originally published at the website of the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law.