* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.It's a tough task - but local people and local knowledge of the political landscape can help
Building resilience is hard enough, but how do you do it amid the clashes between rebels and military that, since a 2012 uprising in Mali, have spilled over the wider region?
Mali, for a long time seen as a stable nation in an often turbulent West African region, imploded in the space of a few weeks after a March 2012 coup sowed confusion and allowed a mix of Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels to occupy the northern two-thirds of the country.
The flurry of military activity that followed has included the launch of a Sahel development and security cooperation group last year - known as the G5 Sahel - that spans Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger
In the context of a widespread power vacuum that has allowed the current conflict to take hold, challenges for development workers range from everyday logistical pitfalls to broader strategic uncertainties, experts from Mali and Niger said during a late November Twitter discussion.
“The security context creates a difficulty for resilience practitioners to access several areas,” said Niamey-based Jeanne Ella Andrianambinina, who heads SUR1M, a project coordinated by the Catholic Relief Services that seeks to boost resilience in 19 communes in Niger and Mali.
It is sometimes impossible to sidestep the reality of violence, she said. Armed conflict “can compromise, delay or even suspend a project,” said Andrianambinina.
“Project materials and goods … might be targeted by belligerents,” she added.
To operate in Mali’s Mopti region, a hotspot for communal violence of late in central Mali, the representatives of two non-profits with resilience-focused projects there said they manage to push forward largely because their local staff can interpret the local landscape.
“In 2012, (the Near East Foundation) was the only international organization to continue working in (the) Mopti region during the coup and occupation,” said Jen Abdella, whose U.S.-based non-profit funds initiatives there to help farmers adapt to climate change.
“Why? Because our staff work where they live, understand local dynamics and security contexts.”
The United Nations recorded nearly 290 civilians killed in Mopti and other central Mali areas from June to mid-September, noting in a recent report that the security continues to deteriorate.
Brema Ely Dicko, a sociologist at the at the University of Arts and Humanities of Bamako, emphasized the importance of getting customary authorities on board - from the village chief to the marabouts,
Seeking the support of central authorities who are “perceived as absent because they cannot meet the basic needs of the population” was often insufficient, he said.
That makes for a fine line to tread, said Jonathan Sears, a professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg, in Canada, who has worked extensively in Mali.
“Donor partners can face the difficulty of circumventing central administration for greater effectiveness in communities on the ground,” he said.
In all, said Dicko, development initiatives face a fundamental conundrum when operating amid conflict because their activities often seek to help populations by stabilizing areas.
“Stabilizing means returning to the situation before the crisis - but it was not good,” he said.
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