Mali: aid targeted to local needs

Article, 04.07.2012

Interview with Geneviève Federspiel, resident director of Swiss cooperation in Mali from 2008-June 2012

«Whenever a door opens, we enter it»

Genevieve Federspiel greets a student of the training program in Koutiala during the visit of members of the Swiss parliament in 2008.

Geneviève Federspiel, you worked for the SDC in India and Nepal before becoming head of the Swiss Cooperation Office in Mali (2008–2012). What can you tell us about how Switzerland works in such contexts?

One of the greatest strengths of the SDC is that it always seeks to fully understand the realities of the contexts in which it operates. Mali is a very vulnerable country. For several years, the SDC has used a scenario-based approach (see note below) here to anticipate political, social, economic and security developments. This has enabled us to adapt our work to the situation whenever a crisis occurred.

Moreover, we have managed to develop a programme that takes contextual realities into account, which is the exact opposite of the more dogmatic approach used by many donors. We have also established cooperation activities at the grassroots level, adapting aid according to the actual needs of the country and its people.

We work in specific geographical regions. The areas tend to be very large – Mali is 40 times larger than Switzerland. In each region, we adopt a territorial vision and become familiar with the people who live there. The SDC works with its partners to ensure a strong presence on the ground. It also tries to establish direct relations with institutions and agents of change through a large number of missions. This approach allows us to determine what can and should be done.

Switzerland tries to establish a development vision that encompasses the entire country. It focuses on certain aspects such as: basic education and vocational education and training as a means of driving employment and the economic integration of young people; development of infrastructures; as well as rural development.

The issue of good governance is also a priority theme for Swiss cooperation. Given the situation of instability following the March 2012 coup d’état, how will it be possible for cooperation to continue along this line?

I believe that one of the reasons for the conflict and general discontent in Mali – among numerous other reasons – is the fact that the population is denied the opportunity to play an active role in managing its own development. The system remains highly centralised, which restricts participation. In addition, Mali is a multicultural country comprised of several ethnic groups. As a result, realities are very different from one part of the country to another. The northern part of the country is mostly desert. The inhabitants (Tuareg, Fulani, Bozo) live a nomadic existence and maintain strong interdependent ties with other ethnic groups (Songhai, Arab). In contrast, the southern part of the country has greater resources and its population is rather sedentary. It is therefore important for local solutions to be developed to address local problems.

The issue of local governance is fundamental. The aim is to achieve a stronger level of commitment, i.e. participation from civil society as a whole, including all stakeholders from both the public and private sector. We are also trying to support the transition process and ensure that it is guided by a collective consciousness.

About ten years ago, when decentralisation became an objective in Mali, Switzerland immediately moved in this direction. Today, in the context of instability following the coup d’état in March 2012, Swiss development programmes are less vulnerable because they are not dependant on Bamako. We have been fortunate enough to maintain our activities in the southern and central parts of the country. This has prevented the situation from destabilising further and has enabled us to consolidate what already works well.

In other words, Switzerland has no intention of pulling out of Mali?

The Swiss cooperation strategy is designed in such a way as to enable us to maintain our activities regardless of the scenario. That said, insecurity and violence in certain occupied areas of the northern part of the country have forced us to interrupt our programmes there.

At any rate, my experience in several countries has shown that it is a mistake to withdraw, since this not only destabilises the country further, it means losing all of the energy and funding invested. A much wiser response is to find a way to strengthen what is still standing. Today, Switzerland pursues this logic by funding the transition process in Mali. By responding to the crisis situation in Mali, we are able to support local public management, basic education, vocational education and training for employment as well as local economic development for food security.

Could you give us an example of a project that you like in particular?

Switzerland has devoted considerable resources to developing mobile schools in the northern part of Mali. Mobile schools are very well suited to a context where people are often on the move. This required Switzerland to find innovative solutions for education: by making schools mobile teachers also have to travel and furniture needed to be transportable.

A crucial question was whether learning content actually addressed the reality in which these people live. We therefore developed scholastic programmes to suit the children’s environment so that they could maintain ties with family members, learn skills needed in their context and still meet national syllabus requirements.

The events of the past few months have forced the Tamachek people, in particular, to seek refuge in Mauritania. Their children have been included in the mobile schools programme, which continues in Mauritania but remains part of the Malian education system. When they return, the programme will resume in Mali. In this manner, there will be no interruption in schooling, which I feel is very important in situations of conflict.

SDC activities in fragile contexts are carried out with the objective of maintaining continuity. Working in a more adapted and flexible fashion invariably brings certain risks. However, this approach is better suited to the lifestyle and needs of these people. Mobile schools would make no sense in the southern part of the country, for instance. Due to its own history, Switzerland has developed this capacity to find solutions that take specific contexts into account, which is why Switzerland enjoys a high level of credibility on the ground.

In terms of gender, have any special efforts been made to help women in Mali to become more integrated?

Of course, this is one of our objectives, which nevertheless poses a major challenge. You have to understand that women traditionally hold an important status. They enjoy considerable freedom despite the fact that the system is rather patriarchal. An important part of our work is to create opportunities without moving too quickly. This ensures that men do not withdraw their support, which would be counter-productive.

We are therefore able to help women gain access to vocational education and training, which allows them to become more economically independent. Mobile schools are another good example, where we've been very successful at providing young girls with access to basic education. However, at the social level, we still need to be patient. Social changes take time. Every country has to go through the same process, even Switzerland. There are a certain number of gender issues in Switzerland that remain less than optimal despite the fact that everything looks perfect from the outside.

Some matters are extremely difficult to impose from the outside. Take female circumcision (or female genital cutting), for instance: in the 1980s-1990s, many organisations worked hard to eliminate this practice. The problem is that female circumcision is an integral part of Malian society and strongly supported by the women themselves. We can argue against it but are unable to impose its abolition. It is society that needs to move at its own pace.

In our work, we try to make the most of opportunities that arise. Whenever a door opens – and this is probably one of the greatest strengths of the SDC – we enter it. And this generally yields good results. However, if we try to force the door open, we encounter resistance, which prevents us from making any progress for a long time. We need to wait for people to be ready to receive what we offer. This can take a while but taking the time needed is exactly what makes the SDC unique. If we consider women's access to land, for instance, I would say that the time is right. If someone had acted upon the idea only five years ago, they would have had no chance of success.

What about your personal experience in Mali? How have the people you know there responded to the coup d'état?

Of course, it was terrible and resulted in numerous personal tragedies. It is a very difficult situation. However, I believe that it is faith, regardless of one's personal religious beliefs, that has enabled the people to handle such an extreme situation. Other than that, the country is full of colour and human warmth. The Malian people are very courteous and discrete but at the same time they love to laugh. I found it very remarkable that even at the most difficult times following the coup d'état, they didn't stop telling jokes!

Are you optimistic about the elections that the transition government plans to organise?

I am not pessimistic. Mali is an old country with a long history, which gives me hope. A particular feature of this country is that social cohesion is strong and its people have a great capacity for dialogue. It is rare that people stop talking to one another in Mali.

Starting from the end of June 2012, you will no longer serve as Director of the Swiss Cooperation Office in Mali. Would you have preferred to remain longer or are you looking forward to returning to Switzerland?

It is not easy to leave a country, and the men and women there, at such a difficult time. I feel as if I were leaving a friend exactly when he needs me most. However, I know that my successor is fully qualified and this puts my mind at ease.


Note: See brochure “Swiss Cooperation Strategy in Mali 2012-2015” (fr)

Fragile states: adapting and enhancing commitment