Voices from Fragile States

The Resilient Problem of Human Development

Jamie Bleck and Kristin Michelitch [1]

Mali has continued to be in the news since its military coup in March 2012. Much of the news coverage on Mali is now centered on French military intervention in the formerly occupied northern areas and the political events in Bamako. As the international policy community debates solutions on the Malian crisis and candidates prepare for the July elections, we present data on the perspectives of over 500 Malian villagers who were living in the contested area between rebel- and state-controlled territory before the French intervention in January 2013. The findings from our research demonstrate that respondents remain attached to the idea of a unified Mali despite the absence of state infrastructure. However, the results emphasize villagers’ primary concern with food security and infrastructure challenges—even despite rapidly changing political conditions.

Anticipating the scheduled presidential elections and constitutional referendum of April 2012, we conducted a baseline survey in ten villages in January as part of a field experimental evaluation of a radio distribution programme. The ten villages—predominantly Bambara and Peuhl [2]—were initially selected due to their remote location from state infrastructure and other forms of information including limited cell signals.

Our original research design aimed to capture the effect of exposure to national radio (ORTM) on citizens’ knowledge of, attitudes toward, and participation in the 2012 presidential elections.  After the March coup d’état and rebel incursion nullified the presidential elections, we shifted our focus to citizens’ perceptions of the political crisis in Mali (see timeline).

Our research team returned to the villages in summer 2012, during a period when the villages remained isolated from political conflict. The remote location of our villages, sitting on the border of a rebel-claimed area and the Malian state, as well as the fact that we had already conducted a baseline survey before the coup and rebel insurgency, created a unique vantage point to examine villagers both before and after the onset of political turmoil. Although our isolated villages remained unoccupied, they were severely affected by the indirect pressures and local insecurity generated by the conflict.


The data collected includes surveys of over 500 randomly-selected women and young men from the village,[3] as well as behavioral measures, focus group data, and semi-structured interviews with chiefs. In addition to focused questions regarding villagers’ reaction to the political situation, we also included open-ended components of our interviews in order to elicit the issues that villagers felt should be prioritized by political authorities. While much of our data will be included in academic papers, we wanted to share results in this short briefing oriented towards the international policy community.

Prioritization of humanitarian concerns

In order to assess villagers’ primary policy concerns we asked all respondents an open-ended question in the first wave of the survey: ‘Imagine that you were president of the republic, what policy changes would you implement?’ Enumerators typed open-ended responses into an i-survey application, which were later coded into categories.

In the January baseline, 51 per cent of respondents cited development issues, while 9 per cent mentioned peace and security. We asked the same question in Wave 3, approximately 3 months after the rebel occupation of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, in July. The results were strikingly the same. After the villagers found themselves on the border of a rebel-controlled territory, 67 per cent cited development issues and 14 per cent cited peace and security. We see that 5 per cent more respondents mentioned political issues. However, most individuals prioritized human development issues (health, education, water, agricultural support) both before and after the rebellion.

Similarly, in May 2012, when respondents were asked to describe their greatest worry over the next six months, 44 per cent of respondents cited access to food compared to 30 per cent who worried about violence.

In hopes of eliciting even more comprehensive understanding about citizens’ perceptions of the crisis, we gave respondents the opportunity to record a message for President Obama about their priority areas of need, which would then be submitted to the US government and/or a large news outlet.[4] If respondents chose to provide a message, we recorded it in their own language. Of 588 respondents, 531 recorded a message.[5] The transcription of all 531 messages is available here.


As the figure above demonstrates, 73 per cent of messages cited food security/access to water; 48 per cent of requests called for improved infrastructure including roads, health, and education facilities; 35 per cent mentioned assistance in agricultural production/animal husbandry. By comparison, only 11 per cent percent of messages mentioned political assistance, often referring to peace and stability (4 per cent specifically referenced the northern secession and 2 per cent addressed the coup).

Many people who discussed the political crises were predominantly concerned with the effect on their basic livelihoods. As one respondent said, ‘President Obama, here we are hungry. We want you to bring us food. The rebels tire us a lot, our goats, our cattle can no longer be brought to graze in the north because they risk being stolen. Do your best to quickly help us.’ (#441)

One respondent articulated the primacy of these basic needs, ‘We are hungry and we don't have enough water. A person who does not have anything to eat or drink cannot lead a normal life. Therefore we ask for humanitarian aid from President Obama. We are counting on his good faith and good will to help us out of this poverty.’ (#37)

Concurrent with the political turmoil in Mali, the country experienced one of the worst droughts and harvests in recent memory. During the January 2012 village visits, farmers showed us spoiled fields where they had planted five hectares, but only harvested enough crops to fill two bags (approximately 100 kilos) with peeled rice. These responses remind us that elections and territorial integrity, while clearly valued, are secondary concerns if you do not have food in your stomach. 

Rural Malians’ perception of the political crisis

Since we had a unique opportunity to speak with populations who were most likely to be affected by conflict, we asked a series of guided questions in order to elicit rural public opinion about rebel incursion in the north. While increasing survey data is available from urban centers and diaspora,[6] this is the only data we know of that surveys rural populations’ perceptions of the crisis. Through multiple visits to the same villages, our research team was able to develop relationships with village leadership, who were willing to share their unique perspectives on managing constituencies facing tremendous hardships including insecurity, increased desertification, and minimal engagement by the Malian state.

Visits to the villages revealed very little government infrastructure. There were no health centers in any of the villages, and only five of the villages had access to schools. Many of the schools were without toilets and, subsequent to the conflict, had no teachers. Village chiefs reported little interaction with the state beyond tax agents from the department of the environment, who would annually tax each household’s use of wood for cooking as a penalty for living in the increasingly desertified zone.[7] After the rebel occupation, many of the police and military fled the closest towns or changed into plain clothes to avoid being targeted. This frustrated some of the village leadership. As one chief told us, ‘How can I continue to convince my constituency to pay taxes to a state that vanishes in face of the earliest threat? How can we continue to pay taxes to a government that doesn’t protect us?’[8]

Despite their relative isolation and neglect by the Malian state, villagers were vocally opposed to the alteration of Mali’s geographic borders.

In May 2012 during Wave 2, we asked respondents how the northern crisis should be resolved: ‘What is necessary to maintain the north as a part of a single state? Who should help with this solution?’ Fifty per cent of our respondents mentioned negotiations, while 60 per cent cited military intervention as important to restore territorial integrity.[9] Most respondents who felt that military intervention was necessary preferred exclusively domestic involvement by the Malian military (43 per cent of respondents). Of those citing the need for foreign intervention, the US was the most popular of the potential allies (23 per cent), followed by France (18 per cent) and then ECOWAS (15 per cent). A December 2012 poll in Bamako demonstrated public opinion shifting more favorably to foreign intervention,[10] the preference for Malian intervention in the spring of 2012 might have been buoyed up by optimism that the military junta would fulfill their promise and restore peace in the north. 

In Wave 3 of the survey we asked respondents: ‘Is armed conflict worth it to reunify the country, or is it better to peacefully separate?’ The majority of our respondents were in favour of military intervention: 78 per cent said it was worth the fight, while only 9 per cent wanted to peacefully separate.

Despite facing tremendous hardship, these villagers said they were willing to shelter fellow Malians, more than 400,000 of whom have fled north since January 2012. When asked ‘Would you welcome those fleeing north in your village?’ a remarkable 89 per cent of our respondents reported they were willing to accommodate displaced persons into their village, demonstrating the Malian values of generosity and hospitality.

The rural north and Mali’s future

The results of the study indicate the pervasive problem of food security in northern Mali. Fortunately, the rain and harvests of 2012 were substantially better than 2011. However, the lack of infrastructure, such as roads and mobile phone signals, continues to isolate many northern populations from regional and national markets. In addition, political instability has restricted people’s mobility as well as the ability of herders to move their cattle northwards to graze. 

Despite the dearth of roads, radio, mobile phone and television signals, hospitals, or agricultural extension services that typically connect rural populations to the state, respondents from these villages remain attached to the idea of a unified Mali. However, a substantial gap remains between the idea of Malian ‘nationalism’ and attachment to existing state bureaucracy and democracy. With limited government infrastructure and engagement in the rural north, this territory remains prone to capture and incursion by non-state forces. As politicians and donors enter into the 2013 electoral campaigns, they should consider the development concerns of northern populations and how they will better connect citizens to the state through infrastructure, public services, and agricultural initiatives.

Jaimie Bleck ( is a Ford Family Program Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. Kristin Michelitch ( is a Research Fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


Cisse, Ibrahima (2012). ‘Que veut les Maliens?’ Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation Working Paper. November.

Guindo, Sidiki (2012). ‘Analyse des résultats de l’enquete d’opinion sur la crise Malienne’. Mimeo. May.

Guindo, Sidiki (2013). 'Résultats d’un sondage d’opinion publique après le depart de Cheik Modibo Diarra et sur le processus de sortie de crise'. Independent, 8 Janvier.


[1] This research project was made possible by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, USAID, and the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame.

[2] The Bambara ethnic group in this region are predominantly farmers, while the Peuhl are livestock herders.

[3] A public lottery generated a sample of clans in each village; a woman and man under 45 were selected at random from each clan.

[4] In addition to making the transcribed messages publicly available, we sent a PDF of the messages to various US government agencies including USAID and the State Department. We also posted an op-ed on political science blog The Monkey Cage.

[5] Some respondents chose not to record a message because they claimed they ‘had nothing to say’ or ‘put all of their faith in God’, or ‘didn’t want outside help.’

[6] See Guindo 2012, 2013; Cisse 2012

[7] Interviews of village chiefs, January 2012.

[8] Interviews of village chiefs, June 2012.

[9] Respondents were allowed to cite multiple strategies to resolve the conflict.

[10] Guindo 2013.

WIDERAngle newsletter
March 2013
ISSN 1238-9544