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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 19, special issue: Aid localisation

Aid organisations in Mali: cooperation and competition in the face of a closed humanitarian market
Verena Richardier

Key word: Western Africa /

Within a vibrant voluntary sector, Malian aid organisations take many forms, with a variety of objectives and specific rules. There are nevertheless significant ties between them, notably via the careers of their employees, and though there is a significant presence of local organisations in the humanitarian market, this is also uneven and depends on the resources available. Indeed, there is a growing gap between organisations that are in the “market” and organisations that are limited to a more “local” level.

Seeing humanitarian and development aid as a market is not obvious within the world of international solidarity. Indeed, a market is the place where supply and demand meet [1]. It is, common sense tells us, geared towards the principles of rationality and economic interest, which are not always compatible with solidarity. Yet, the expression, “cost per beneficiary” is commonly used by international aid workers. It implies an idea of rationality because a project needs to be as cheap as possible for each person who receives aid. This type of expression, while common, is nevertheless much less legitimate than expressions based on the ideas of care and assistance.

The international aid market in Mali came into existence with the first major droughts of the 70s. It subsequently grew based on the international model where associations represent the most appropriate structure with regard to governance issues in a context where there is a great deal of distrust of the state. This development took place in many countries on the African continent, but the 2012 crisis in Mali, and the French intervention, led to a new, more established set-up based on several sources of legitimate authority in addition to the Malian state, embassies and NGOs, such as OCHA, the UN agency in charge of humanitarian coordination. At the same time, the international organisations that arrived in the country to tackle the crisis came up against forms of assistance that are peculiar to well-established Malian associations. This weakened certain organisations – and created new prospects for others – by modifying the balance of the voluntary sector due to the introduction of a market logic based on competition.

In this article, we will explore the Malian humanitarian market and its apparent homogenization. How have Malian associations evolved faced with the generalisation of the NGO model? What relations do these organisations and their staff have with international organisations? The Malian humanitarian market is abundant because the international NGO system is now integrated into local power dynamics that determine entry into the professional and political worlds, and it is both transforming and consolidating this. However, the management approach of the international system can be at loggerheads with local approaches, gradually creating a barrier between international solidarity and Malian associations who are rendered invisible due to their lack of resources. There are nevertheless still a large number of these associations who maintain intermittent relations with the humanitarian market which is becoming closed [2].

We will look at two examples that are fairly representative: first, the career path of a young Malian working for a local organization, which will help to understand an environment that deals with contemporary issues (like finding jobs) using traditional formats that are rearranged by the humanitarian market. Then, we will look at the experience of a Head of Programmes of an international organization, which helps to understand how the humanitarian market is being closed to small organisations and the consequences of this on the system as a whole.

[1] Philippe STEINER, « Le marché selon la sociologie économique », Revue européenne des sciences sociales. European Journal of Social Sciences, 1 August 2005, XLIII-132, pp. 31‑64, doi:10.4000/ress.326.

[2] This study of the Malian humanitarian market is part of a sociology thesis which has been carried out for three years on the topic of the distribution of work applied to so-called « intermediary » organisations because they are positioned between beneficiaries and donors. The objective is to understand the cooperation mechanisms that this creates, as well as the circulation of norms, people and money between aid organisations in Mali and China. More than sixty interviews based on the professional careers and the life paths of employees of national and international organisations were conducted. Participatory observation within a French international NGO also allowed these circulations to be studied from within an organisation.