The U.S. Ambassador to Mali, Mary Beth Leonard, shared her hopes and fears for the people of Mali during a visit to the Mopti Region to see U.S. government-supported projects, including those of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The region is on the edge of the Northern zone that is occupied by several extremist rebel groups.
She met children and teachers at Sirokoro Primary School, one of the schools where CRS, with local partner AMRODE Sahel, runs a school feeding program. Funded by USDA, the program has provided over $24 million to ensure that more than 80,000 children in Mali receive a nutritiously rich, hot meal every day, and girls receive take home rations to encourage consistent attendance.
The Ambassador also met women who have children in another CRS-supported school who also received food vouchers during this year’s drought, through CRS’ Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP), funded by USAID, and improved seeds through support from the Latter Day Saints Charities. CRS caught up with her after the trip.
How do you feel about the projects you’ve just visited? What struck you?
Well, we talk a lot in Mali that the country is facing several, parallel crises and I think that Mopti is really emblematic of that. There was already a food insecurity crisis because of environmental conditions like the drought, and that was greatly complicated by the rebellion and the coup and the subsequent fall of the North, which resulted in the displacement of so many Malians. That only exacerbated the difficulty in responding to this year’s food crisis.
I know – I see all the time, I read in my offices – about the wonderful work that USAID, the United States Department of Agriculture and our implementing partners, like Catholic Relief Services, do in trying to mesh what was just a crisis response to something which needs longer term resilience and sustainability needs. That all sounds intellectually quite delightful, but it really is wonderful to come on a trip like this and see what that means for people in schools.
When you hear stories about school feeding programs which mean that families didn’t have to displace themselves in search of more food, and that allowed families to stay united and remain in the place where their children can be educated. When you see schools assistance response helping schools that are now doubly overcrowded because of the children who have come from the North. When you see the fact that even after a good rainy season, and we’re coming into the harvest, that the really critical food insecurity is abating a bit. The assistance that the international community gave did actually help these people to come through this period and so now we can look forward hopefully to a brighter future and get back to supporting the resilience, so there’s a better agricultural production so they’re better equipped to deal with such challenges in the future.
How do you feel about what’s happening in the North, and what do you think is the best solution?
As we said, Mopti is emblematic of two of the challenges of Mali – food security and the after-effects of the coup, but now of course it’s a town which has a substantial Malian military presence and the question has been very much debated and examined over recent days about the prospect of an internationally supported intervention in Mali’s North.
It has been the United States’ firm position that Mali’s multiple crises need to be addressed together. You need to prepare for elections to solve the fundamental governance needs in Bamako. Through the interim period you need to continue to address the humanitarian response requirements. You need to negotiate with those Malian groups who are willing to accept the basic principles of the nature of the State and the unity of the State. And then you need to prepare a security response for those parts of the problem, namely international terrorists, who are not amenable to negotiations. So we view it as very important that progress continues on all of those tracks and I think that today we saw some wonderful evidence of the humanitarian response side.
Going forward, I think we’re all concerned that any eventual security reaction must take into account the impact on Mali’s people and the potential to displace people and further exacerbate the humanitarian challenges that are already being faced.
Are there things that NGOs are overlooking? What more needs to be done?
I think it’s important to remember that internationally, we tend to have a lot of focus on the North because of the shocking nature of a take-over by extremists and the suffering that has happened to the populations of the North. I think it’s also important to remember that the international community is also working very hard on the South of Mali, which has also had difficulties in food security. Around 80% of people who were food insecure were not in the North, with its various political and security crises, but elsewhere. I think that development organizations know that, I think we know that. I think that part of the message we should share is that there are needs across Mali.
What are your greatest hopes for the future of Mali?
My greatest hope for the people of this country is to see the negotiations happen with the people of the North who will come back to the Malian State. For elections to be held which will restore an elected government which can respond to the needs of its people, that can be a more credible partner in crafting long-term solutions with Malians who have disagreements with the central government, so this country can get through this period of crisis and back onto a path of democracy and growth for a population which desperately needs both those things.