An ‘explosive cocktail’, says Paolo Pennati, Terre des hommes delegate in Mali

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In a country where malnutrition is a terrible scourge, Terre des hommes has taken the decision to target its work on families where at least one of the children suffers from malnutrition. Former field coordinator in the Gaza Strip (Palestinian Occupied Territories), Paolo Pennati arrived in Mali in September 2012. From the capital, Bamako, the new delegate goes over the situation in Mali, the living conditions of the internally displaced people, as well as the programme of humanitarian aid set up by the Tdh teams that will back up the health centres during the coming twelve months.

What do you see as the main reasons for the intervention of Terre des hommes in Mali? Why are the children there more vulnerable than elsewhere?

Less than three years ago, Mali was a regional example within the international community for its path towards development. However, since last year the country has experienced serious domestic political trouble such as the coup d’état in March 2012 and the war that has divided the country in two and triggered off instability. Moreover, historically and long before the recent events, Mali knew many conflicts between the people of the North and the South. Since the downfall of Gadaffi, a number of mercenaries, trained and equipped in Libya, have gone to the North of Mali and this has caused a resurgence of opposition. Today, the North is in the hands of three groups of armed Islamists, AQMI, MUJAO and Ansar Dine, whereas the South is under the control of the interim authorities of Bamako. Taking the direct consequences of the war into account, bilateral aid is greatly resented. Finally, the climate plays a very important role in the vulnerability of families. Just like the whole Sahel region, Mali experienced terrible droughts in 2010 and 2011.

Despite the year 2012 being reasonable in terms of harvest, the phenomenon of malnutrition remains extremely alarming. Together, these elements have created an ‘explosive cocktail’ where the weak, especially the children and expectant and nursing mothers, have to pay the price. Even though some organizations have been deploying projects for development in Mali for a number of years, today it is necessary to come up with emergency relief, whilst keeping in mind the need for introducing responses adapted to the long-term. In the immediate future, we shall be very busy giving help to the health centres already established.

What consequences do the conflicts in the North of Mali have on the intervention of Tdh in the region of Segou, particularly in terms of the population increase?

In contrast to the camps of refugees from Mali in Mauritania and in Burkina Faso, there are no camps for the displaced in Mali itself. In Segou, for example, we meet only internally displaced people. At a national level, the OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) estimated the number of internally displaced people at 227,206 on 31 December 2012, and counted 14,242 new cases in January 2013. It must be remembered that Mali has never really known internal armed conflicts, and the people are only now discovering the consequences of civil war. Since the start of the French military intervention at the beginning of this year, only the wealthiest have had the means to move to the South or take the route northwards. In these difficult times, however, we do see great solidarity developing between the Malians, and the State has set up a system of host families for the people displaced from the North. Since hostilities began, numerous families have not hesitated to provide accommodation for and to look after other vulnerable people. Unfortunately, nobody knows how the situation will develop and this mutual aid could, after several months, lead to considerable tension between the families. In the end, as so often, it is the children who suffer most.

What measures can be taken by Tdh to try to curb malnutrition in Mali?

We are not attempting to replace the activities set up by the State, but rather to support and reactivate the Mali health services. In practical terms, there are already centres for children suffering from acute malnutrition, but they lack financial and material resources, hindering them from treating many cases of malnutrition. In addition, if a child and its family do not live close to the centre, they just do not have anything in the way of transport. If, despite the cost, they do still manage to arrive at the centre, the treatment is supposed to last for about ten days and the simple fact of having to pay for each day’s meals for the person accompanying the child is too great. To help the families, Tdh will be supporting the health centres at a technical level, by taking over the cost of transport and the cost for the food of the family member there. We have to continue supporting the families so that they do not give up this indispensible treatment for their children.