Last summer, Aissata Diallo watched her son leave their village in northern Mali. She did not want to let him go, but since her husband died, she had struggled to feed her four children — and at the height of the region’s hunger crisis, their situation had become desperate.
“I have no source of income and no plot to grow food,” she explained. “Often all we had is what neighbors gave me from the rest of their meal.”
So her oldest son, still far from an adult, went looking for work to help the family. She hasn’t heard from him since.
A crisis doubled
Aissata’s is one of many families that was torn apart last year — not just by the search for food, but by the violence that had taken hold of northern Mali.
After the country’s government fell apart in a March 2012 coup, rebels and radical Islamist militants seized control of Gao and two other major towns in northern Mali — at the same time that drought was causing crops to fail there and across the Sahel region of West Africa.
The political instability disrupted trade routes and caused food prices to skyrocket. Fighting displaced hundreds of thousands. Families had no fields to harvest and had no money to buy food in the market.
What began as a severe natural disaster was now also an acute humanitarian crisis.
You helped over 20,000 people get food
Aissata, 41, is also one of many mothers who received our emergency vouchers last fall, after generous donations helped us launch efforts to address the crisis in Gao. Over 2,300 households — most of them headed by women — were able to buy food for their families thanks to your support.
“It is because of your help that I can smile,” Aissata told our distribution team. “It was as if it was my son who had returned to me. These vouchers have value even beyond providing my family with meals — I was proud to choose and receive my items from the market.”
Indeed, instead of trucking in predetermined food distributions, our voucher system gives people the freedom to decide what it is they need most. It’s empowering to individuals and bolsters the struggling local economy by bringing new business to market vendors.
In fact, the vouchers also improved access to markets for some of the most isolated areas. Instead of people traveling to the main market in Gao, many vendors were motivated to bring their goods to remote villages for the first time, knowing people had the vouchers to spend.
Our teams also found that the purchasing power of the vouchers reached beyond the families who received them. After their families’ immediate needs were met, many started buying larger quantities of basics like sugar, rice and oil.
As Mahamadou Arboncana, 43, explained, “Food is very difficult for us. Every day is a battle to secure meals. But the culture of sharing exists here — we share with the poor and neighbors. A family in this program sometimes ended up helping more than three households.”
Recovery interrupted by conflict — and cholera
The vouchers not only made a huge impact for these communities, they were also the first step in starting our long-term programs in Mali.
“Vouchers were an emergency solution for an immediate need. They helped people weather the storm,” noted Program Officer Sarah Wardwell. “We were planning to move on to the next phase of recovery: start trainings for financial management and business, food and health care for animals, better herding practices.”
But the conflict that was holding northern Mali hostage all year reached a breaking point in January. A French-led intervention against the rebels included airstrikes throughout Gao. Market vendors fled, and humanitarian aid and food shipments were cut off.
The offensive eventually succeeded in driving rebels into hiding and putting the Malian government back in tenuous control. But communities were still battling hunger.
Once our staff could reach communities again, they found that 90% of people in Gao said they didn’t have access to enough food. We had to address these immediate needs again before we could transition to resilience-building initiatives.
Acting quickly to meet communities’ changing needs
And we knew what worked.
So our teams launched another round of emergency voucher distributions in April to help people buy food in the reopened markets until harvest time returns.
This time, the distributions are also addressing a new concern that the current rainy season brings: cholera. The deadly water-borne disease broke out just last month in Niger and is quickly migrating into northern Mali as pastoralists roam back and forth across the border with their herds.
“For the last decade, the area we work in had only a medium risk for cholera, but last year it was hit the hardest,” Sarah explained. “The needs are great — there are entire villages without a single latrine. We knew we had to help people prepare.”
Along with offering information about healthy sanitation at the distributions, these vouchers also allow people to purchase hygiene supplies like soap, bleach and water purification tabs.
Recipients like Alkafietou Hamidou, who cares for her blind mother and handicapped daughter, are grateful. “The risk of getting sick is always here,” she said. “Getting these hygiene supplies is really beneficial. It gives me a reason to smile in a difficult life.”
An immediate response meets a long-term outlook
As we’ve seen in the first year of our work in Mali, the difficulties are complex and unpredictable. Conflict has subsided, but the rebels are still in hiding and attack sporadically. Will the situation stay secure? Rains have improved and pastures are regenerating, but seeds for new crops were limited. Will the harvests be enough?
In the midst of the uncertainty, it’s that ability to smile that stands out the most for Sarah: “It’s been a tough year — there were multiple shocks that no one expected. But Malians are very optimistic. They hope they can restore their crops and improve their herds.”
Emergency vouchers are critical at this point, but we’re also beginning our efforts to help communities turn those hopes into reality: distributing goats that provide more milk for mothers and children; keeping livestock healthy with vaccines and veterinary care; supporting markets and small business development.
While the past year has shown that a crisis can turn for the worst in an instant — and require our rapid response — we work with the knowledge that recovery does not happen overnight.
You have helped us bring emergency relief to Mali when they need it most. With your continued support, we will be there, no matter what the circumstances, helping communities steer their own course toward a stronger, more resilient future.