In Addrass, 30 kilometers from Ménaka, Gao, Mali, Red Cross personnel distribute food to displaced persons. (ICRC / M. Douma)
Last month, separate incidents where two aid workers were injured and five others went missing in northern Mali caused speculation that humanitarian workers are now more at risk. But according to François Grünewald, head of Groupe URD, a leading French think tank specializing in humanitarian and recovery issues, it is still unclear what happened.
“Up until recently, the impression was that humanitarians were kind of protected by their status as humanitarian actors. Has this situation changed or not? We don't know,” he said in this interview from Bamako.
One dynamic that can increase the risk to humanitarian actors is when there is a perception they are in collusion with the military or other political actors, though Mr. Grünewald said in Mali there is a mechanism in place to avert this, “a sort of interface/firewall between humanitarian actors and the military” to protect the neutrality of humanitarian actors.
Mr. Grünewald said some parts of northern Mali are empty since Malians fled the violence to refugee camps in Mauritania, Burkina, and Niger. “Assistance is being delivered in the camps and not yet deep inside northern Mali,” he said.
"However, humanitarian actors do have access to the riverine areas of the Niger river. So they can access these communities and deliver through local NGOs and other local partners," he said, adding, "Difficulties will arise, of course, if local actors and national staff of aid organizations become targets themselves."
“It is clear, however, that if the situation deteriorates in terms of food security indicators and if humanitarian access does not improve, then we have a problem,” he said.
Mr. Grünewald said that a recent workshop in Mali hosted by Groupe URD and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) tried to better understand who the different stakeholders are on the political, military, and security scene in northern Mali. "By and large, we have some ideas, but we have no clear vision of what the logic is behind those actors," he said.
The workshop also brought discussions of innovative ideas around military/humanitarian planning and new technologies to increase access and safety. One of the greatest challenges, however, is how to reach out to different violent groups in Mali.
“Unless we find a way to establish dialogue with [the political movements and radical groups in Mali] so that we can explain that humanitarian actors are not the enemy, that we are not political, that we are just there to help suffering people, we will continue facing substantial threats in the country,” he said.
The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @jeremie_labbe.
Jérémie Labbé: I am here today with François Grünewald, Executive and Scientific Director of Groupe URD, a leading French think tank specializing in humanitarian and recovery issues. François, thanks for being with us on the Global Observatory today.
You are currently in Bamako, Mali where Groupe URD and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently organized a workshop on humanitarian space and humanitarian access in Mali. What is the overall assessment that came out of this workshop concerning the security situation in northern Mali, particularly with regards to recent security incidents concerning humanitarian actors, such as the abduction of five humanitarian staff affiliated to the Red Cross in early February and an improvised explosive device that injured two staff of the organization Doctors of the World last week?
François Grünewald: There are a few things. One, of course, is to try to better understand who the different stakeholders are on the political, military, and security scene in northern Mali. By and large, we have some ideas, but we have no clear vision of what the logic is behind those actors. For example, it's far too early to enter into conjecture to try to identify what has happened with the staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Similarly for the Kidal incident against Doctors of the World, it is still not clear what happened.
For a long time, it was said that humanitarian actors were not targeted by the different actors of violence, be they political movements—MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and others—or be they the new radical Islamic movements, MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), Ansar Dine, and others. Up until recently, the impression was that humanitarians were kind of protected by their status as humanitarian actors.