Interview with Lucas Riegger, Regional Humanitarian Affairs Officer in Mali

Article, 15.05.2013

«A chaotic situation and a strong team»

One year after the food crisis and the takeover of northern territories of the country by armed groups in Mali, the humanitarian situation is critical and its effects are making themselves felt throughout the region. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has been in the country for 35 years, and has had to adapt to these successive crises. Since mid-February 2013, Lucas Riegger, a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, has been providing support for the activities of the SDC’s Cooperation Office (Coof). He was previously based in Dakar, Senegal, on secondment for humanitarian aid to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Lucas Riegger (on the left) on assignment in Mopti, April 2013(

For over a year now, Mali has been immersed in one of the most difficult periods in its history. Can you describe the situation for us?

At the present time, there are more than 450,000 people scattered across southern Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso who have fled from their homelands. The situation of most of them remains extremely difficult. Meanwhile, the economic outlook for the country is not very encouraging. Governance is weak, and there is also reconstruction work to be done following the invasion by armed groups, and consequent lessons to be learned. The rainy season is approaching. It will be decisive for the relaunch of the country’s agricultural activity. Elections are also to be held soon, and it is to be hoped that these will serve as a lever for national reconciliation. For the moment, it is vital to ensure that no new food crisis comes to compound the current political crisis.

What is the SDC doing to help the people in general?

Most of its development programmes have had to be suspended in the north, due to the prevailing insecurity. At the moment, the SDC is therefore investing massively and “multilaterallyˮ, supporting its humanitarian partners such as the HCR, the WFP, UNICEF, the OCHA (with a total of CHF 14.5 million) and the ICRC, an essential player due to its capacity to continue its humanitarian operations in the north (at CHF 8.25 million). These partners are mandated to provide essential services to the populations displaced by the insecurity prevailing in the north of Mali. The SDC has also strengthened its team in Mali with staff specialising in emergency action and with two water and sanitation engineers to back up the HCR in Niger.
In addition, at the time of the food and nutrition crisis in 2012, Switzerland injected considerable funds into the Sahel region via UN humanitarian agencies (CHF 21.15 million in total, 18.5 million of which for the WFP). Swiss and international NGOs were also supported for a total amount of CHF 470,000, while a contribution of CHF 0.5 million enabled Niger’s National Food Crisis Prevention and Management System to step up its activities. Switzerland also provided dairy products valued at about CHF 1.5 million, channelled through Caritas.

Access to the north of the country was extremely problematic for humanitarian organisations before the French military intervention. What is the situation like now?

Immediately after the takeover of Northern Mali by the armed groups, access to that zone became impossible. But little by little, through negotiations, humanitarian organisations – and especially the ICRC – have managed to get aid through despite all the restrictions imposed by the armed groups which are inspired by Salafi dogmas that are not necessarily compatible with the humanitarian principles we uphold. Nevertheless, the NGOs that have succeeded in gaining their trust have been able to keep offices open in the north of the country, provided these are not headed by Westerners – but by African Catholics, why not?
The SDC has given aid in the amount of CHF 0.5 million to humanitarian flights carried out by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), without which it would be very difficult for humanitarian agencies to operate. Indeed, these air links are a way to avoid the numerous obstacles (criminal activity – mainly in the form of hold-ups and kidnappings – terrorism and... distance: it takes two whole days to reach Timbuktu by road) separating Bamako and the towns of the North.

You have already visited the Northern Mali zone yourself. What were your impressions?

I’ve been once to Mopti, which is more in the centre, and I intend to return there shortly to talk to our partners in the field. The town of Mopti itself is quite safe, but as soon as you leave the outskirts, security quickly becomes more chancy. I would also like to go to Timbuktu soon to assess the possibility for the SDC to resume its development work there.
When you talk to people between Bamako and Mopti, you feel their immense relief since the withdrawal of the armed groups. In Mopti, people in the street told me that if the armed groups had not withdrawn, they would have been forced to wear beards, shorten their trousers and adopt an obscure life of orthodoxy.

With regard to the crisis in Mali, what is your role as regional humanitarian affairs officer? What do your everyday activities involve?

My principal role is the regional coordination of the humanitarian activities of the SDC, primarily in Mali, and secondarily in the neighbouring Sahel countries (Niger and Burkina Faso). For example, I monitor the thematic platforms that meet every two weeks. They bring together NGOs, government representatives and United Nations agencies and provide for the sharing of information for coordinating action and deciding on joint strategies in the areas of shelter, logistics, food and water safety, hygiene and sanitation, protection, etc. Food safety and protection are our two first priorities. The SDC has just provided a Swiss architect to coordinate the “Shelterˮ sector group in Bamako. It has also sent two water and sanitation engineers on secondment to Niger’s HCR.
When the school year comes to an end and the agricultural season approaches, we expect many internal displaced persons to go back to their lands in the centre and north of Mali. These people will arrive in an environment which will undoubtedly have changed greatly. They may come across unexploded shells and rockets in their courtyards or fields, so it is important to pursue programmes which concentrate not only on economic and social revival, but also on raising awareness among these civilians of the dangers that they face.
One of my present tasks is to design activities that can facilitate the always delicate transition from emergency aid to the development programmes that will one day resume in Mali.

While we’re on the subject, how are the programmes of the SDC’s Cooperation Office faring?

Most of the development programmes in the north are still suspended. At present, the people are no longer receiving development-oriented aid, but mainly emergency aid aimed at saving lives, such as distributions of food, the provision of care services or the repair of wells in zones that have serious problems but are still accessible. This aid, which is partly financed by the Confederation, is provided by the ICRC, the UN agencies and international NGOs devoted to emergency situations. Once security is re-established, this emergency aid will be replaced by development activities. But before that can happen, the infrastructures (water sources, schools, roads, markets) and institutions will have to be restored to a functional state with their nurses, teachers, civil servants, technical advisors in agriculture or stock-breeding, etc.

The instability reigning in the country has forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave Mali for the neighbouring countries. How do you assess the situation of Malian refugees in these countries?

Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders), which is present in the camps set up in Mauritania, recently launched an appeal for aid. The refugees are in more or less precarious situations, depending on which zone they are in. But in any case, although refugee status may be “preferableˮ, it is never “enviableˮ.

What about the internal displaced populations?

Most of the internal refugees are members of settled populations who have travelled south to escape from the armed groups: agropastoralists, traders and government officials. On reaching their destination, these internal refugees have not found any organised assistance intended specifically for them. They are often in the homes of relations or friends, hoping to only stay there temporarily. Unfortunately, they have now been in this situation for almost a year and a half. What complicates things even further is that aid is still very limited in their case. Furthermore, as they are scattered among host families, it is often very difficult to locate them, despite all the efforts by the municipal and public authorities in southern Mali to make contact with them. Financial aid and food distribution to meet the needs of these internal displaced persons have been sporadic.
Thus southern Mali is in the throes of an economic crisis triggered by events and made worse by a financial embargo that has been in force since the coup. Some international payments have been frozen, with serious repercussions on economic activity and the job market. The arrival of internal refugees has added to the difficulties of people for whom survival was already difficult. Lastly, the current period is not very conducive to trade or livestock breeding, due to the armed groups that are maintaining a climate of insecurity. This lack of security impedes the migration of cattle to the south in search of pasture, causing a geographical concentration of the herds. This naturally does nothing to improve the perennial problem of cohabitation between the settled populations and the nomads of the Sahel, which is further exacerbated by the demographic explosion.

Early in 2012, Mali suffered a period of drought, with serious consequences for food security. How does the situation look in 2013?

This food crisis, caused by the poor harvest in 2011, has had repercussions which are still being felt today in the form of debt plaguing the more vulnerable households. In contrast, the harvest in 2012 was quite good, and in most cases, the rebels have not stopped people from cultivating their fields. This means that grains and other foodstuffs are still plentiful in the markets close to the producing zones, but these stocks will diminish as the lean season advances. The further north you go, the fewer resources there are to be found: in Kidal, for example, average rainfall is 100mm per year, and agricultural production there is negligible. The population has thus turned to other means of subsistence, such as trading and pastoralism. The closure of borders has severely disrupted access to means of sustenance and it is difficult to bring products to the markets. All these factors tend to have an impact on food security and engender malnutrition.
It is also important to note that prices of foodstuffs, which depend on fuel prices, are high throughout the country, as transport is forced to keep clear of the high-risk zones, concentrating demand in certain zones. The general rise in prices can also be explained by demographic factors: even when the harvest is good, it is not sufficient to feed a population that has been growing constantly from year to year.

What is the situation in Bamako? What effect is the instability in the north having on the daily life of people living in the capital?

In Bamako, the population density in the poorer neighbourhoods has increased with the arrival of the internal refugees, causing overcrowding that is not conducive to sanitation and hygiene. The government officials among these displaced persons will return to their homes in the north when their offices in government institutions that were damaged or destroyed during the occupation by the armed groups have been rebuilt. Here again, although rebuilding is scheduled, insecurity limits the work undertaken. Fortunately, most government officials are still receiving their salaries. Even if the amount is modest, it enables them to survive.

And what about you? What is your life in Bamako like?

Bamako is a city that has been developing in a completely unregulated manner, but it is not an unpleasant place to live in, thanks to the vegetation that softens the rigour of the climate and the kindness of the Malians. Although there are frequent traffic jams, one can usually get to meetings on the other side of the town without arriving unreasonably late! My mission here is an interesting challenge: Mali is not a territory that is completely foreign to me, but there is always something new to learn, whatever the context. The Cooperation Office team is very nice. It’s a closely-knit group that has done a great deal to help me settle in, guide me and that, in its enlightened and philanthropic daily operations, devotes all of its energies to supporting Mali!