|The Courier N° 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)|
|Mali : An omnipresent sense of history|
Catherine Beauraind and her five colleagues in the small team of foreigners and Malians, woke early. It had been a short night: our fault, since we had arrived at Bandiagara on the edge of the Niger valley much later than expected having taken the Sevare route. This is the gateway to the rocky Dogon region and travellers on the road occacionaliy fall victim to bandits-which probably made our hosts somewhat apprehensive about our late arrival. The people we had come to see are road builders, working without sophisticated equipment in a region of rocks and cliffs. They seem very youth froml, particularly those who have come from afar.
These are 'Progress Volunteers', the name given to the many young people who come to this very poor African country to offer their commitment and dynamism, if not perhaps their experience. On this particular morning, still feeling fatigued, Catherine was having to coordinate the departure of escorts for seasonal workers who were being dispatched to various locations. Their job is to ensure the upkeep of the rocky roads, and the equipment they use is rudimentary to say the least. The Bandiagara-Dourou stretch is maintained by the AFVP (French Association of Progress Volunteers) and is one in a long list of NGO projects. In 1995 alone, the European Commission supported over 50 NGO schemes, to the tune of ECU 1.5 million. Most EU countries and a number of others also have their own projects. On top of this, there is the emergency help provided by the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO), which has just approved a grant of ECU 1 million for the north of Mali. Now that a peace accord has been signed between the government and the Tuareg rebels, this region is likely to see a huge influx of refugees returning to villages that are ill prepared to receive them.
Mali is a least-developed nation and one of the most highly subsidised countries in terms of per capita aid, though recently, its political fortunes have been boosted by the democratisation process. And the efforts of the NGOs now seem to be paying off. The recent times of famine have faded in people's memories even in the Dogon region, where many families ate calabashes in desperation before succumbing to starvation. Mother nature is playing a part in the country's renewal: there has been ample rain over the last Many NGO projects are aimed at helping the population use its meagre resources to exploit the natural wealth of the River Niger and its tributaries. At Konna, for example, a striking village at the confluence of two rivers, the Regional Literacy and Self-Management Project is up and running. Financed, among others, by the European Development Fund, this is being implemented at a number of localities, and it has played a part in the renewal which can now be seen. Fresh coats of paint, repairs to houses, fewer starving children and the return of many migrants all underline this new vitality. Each of the 17 small cultivated areas in the village that are covered by the project (worked by about 60 people), receives no more aid than a motorised pump, a few cereals and a small amount of cash in the first year. A basic course in management is also provided. It is up to the villagers to use these resources to yield a profit. Results tend to be good, proof of success being the growing number of such schemes which are being set up without aid from the organisation. The project is now in its seventh year. It did experience one bad year-1992-when, despite bumper harvests, rice imports into Mali were excessive and prices dropped. The village has therefore made an attempt to diversify its crops. Its objective is to sell onions in Cote d'lvoire, where the inhabitants are very fond of this vegetable.
Most villages have been able to save money which was initially placed in banks and then invested elsewhere in the wake of devaluation's harsh lessons. Konna opted for purchasing livestock. In nearby Kotaka, surpluses partially funded the construction of an impressive mosque. Kotaka was one of the places most affected by the recent meningitis epidemic, but a hospital would probably have been too expensive.