Mali is a land-locked  country in Francophone West Africa that is among the ten poorest in the world.  It is second only to its neighbor, Niger, in having the youngest population at a median age of 16.2 years.  I visited there recently in order to meet with Mercy Corps staff and to get a better sense of the work being done there to help folks climb out of poverty.

The situation in the country is difficult.  Shortly before I arrived, there was a large attack on a military base that left 60-70 people dead and many more wounded.  The northern part of the country (you’ve maybe heard of Timbuktu) is host to a variety of armed groups, ranging from jihadists to bandits.  It’s not safe to go there, so Mercy Corps has to rely on national staff, managed remotely, who have developed a strong community acceptance as the basic mechanism for security.

Mercy Corps programs focus on providing aid to those suffering the effects of conflict, displacement and drought, but doing so in a way that helps folks develop a longer term capability to withstand such stresses on their own.  So, for example, if drought has reduced their harvest and caused them to miss meals (it is common for women to skip meals and give their portion to their kids), Mercy Corps helps them get drought-resistant seeds that will alleviate that problem next time.

Similarly, Mercy Corps works with communities and their leaders to develop conflict management techniques that can be used to mitigate the effects of the divisions in the community that sometimes lead to or foster violence.  Naturally, conflict is very disruptive and contributes directly to hunger and poverty, so if it can be avoided or managed, the chances of avoiding such problems go up.

Another program provides safe spaces for women and girls, which has seen remarkable results in extending and often restarting education for them.  That has a direct effect on delaying marriage (60% of girls in Mali are married before age 18), which in turn tends to reduce the birth rate (currently among the highest in the world), thus helping to decrease the level of poverty.

Security is a major concern throughout the country.  Unlike most country programs, Mercy Corps Mali does not have marked vehicles and there’s no sign outside its office.  I stayed at a hotel in Bamako, the capital, that likewise has no sign, but does have locked gates and full-time guards with metal detectors at the ready.

Between my room and the Niger River, there is an area of land that is flooded during the rainy season but available to squatters to cultivate once the floods recede.  Every morning, the fishermen were out on the river in their narrow boats, seeking their living in an age-old way in the very middle of a teeming city.

Others carry out the daily chores of cooking food, washing clothes, gathering what they can to stay alive.  Africa’s economy, as a continent, is growing faster than most in the world, but it started so far behind that the reality for those in the “bottom billion” is little changed.