On May 15, the EU will organise a donors conference on Mali, three weeks after the UN decision to deploy a robust military mission, aimed at stabilising the country and fighting terrorism. This donor conference should address the underlying causes of terrorism and instability, making investment in youth a priority.

Today Mali is one of the weakest states in Africa, home to several terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As recently as 2011 it was known as the symbol of democracy in a volatile region. Mali’s president, Amadou Amani Tour, enjoyed an excellent reputation with the aid community, as he maintained peace and stability in Mali over the past decade. The west embraced him in its search for counterparts to do business with: safeguarding access to natural resources and providing buffers when it came to western security concerns such as terrorism. They did not know that the president was deeply engaged himself in such activities, as he was in other crimes which had started to exert their hold over the state of Mali.
It took a while for the west to understand this. It continued its generous support to the Bamako government in sectors like education and agriculture, but also the army and the police. But kidnapping and smuggling in Mali’s northern desert only grew worse. This coincided with mounting frustration among northern groups such as the Touaregs for not receiving their fair share of the promised ‘peace dividend’ – wealth and power – in exchange for keeping up the truce with the south.

Reality only took hold of the west in 2012, when a de facto secession of the north and a military coup provoked an influx of jihadi’s from the region and beyond. Then, the west finally woke up and started ‘saving’ Mali from terrorists. But even when ‘droned away’ these terrorists functioned like a waterbed in the Sahel, popping up elsewhere in the region. We therefore have to look beyond the symptom, terrorism, to see the intrinsic problems which led to this crisis: corrupt elites, bad governance, a lack of the rule of law and poverty leading to structural unemployment. And most relevant of all in this case is the exclusion of groups such as the Touaregs and Arabs.

Ironically, the upcoming elections in July, forced upon Mali by countries like France and the USA, will do just that: legitimise the exclusion of the northern groups. This is because they are not ready, coming as they are out of conflict, while the Bamako elite in the south is better prepared. But the international community needs a legitimate counterpart to endorse its military intervention and disburse its counterinsurgency funds to. As such, Mali is a vehicle in the front line of the war on terror.
A shaky vehicle that is, since Mali is burdened with deep-rooted problems for which there are no quick fixes. Only fighting the symptoms without addressing root causes is useless at best, but can trigger more conflict at worse. If this is to be prevented, it is a matter of urgency for the EU to take a bold, innovative approach. Starting with Mali’s youth.

Mali has great youth potential. The west should invest in the current generation building up from the ravages of war. This is why development co-operation – not the old style of working through governments, but the new style – conflict-sensitive and promoting opportunities for Malian youth, should be started immediately, not wait until after the elections in July.
Our concern should be those that lost their jobs as a result of the crisis: the tourism sector collapsed, especially around Timbuktu, the city that was captured for a year by Islamist militants. These  primarily – young men have now joined the half a million unemployed youths that enter the labour market each year (official unemployment rates are above 50%), without any proper training, hence prospects. They are vulnerable to recruitment by illegal groups which lure them with large sums for short term gain.

This is why youth employment should be as central to the strategy in Mali as the deployment of UN and EU troops. It is crucial for young men – of all backgrounds – to be able to take charge again over their lives that were taken away from them, before others do. In the absence of ready-made, normal jobs, entrepreneurship is one of the options. Either in agriculture or urban jobs. Think boldly and bring innovation such as solar energy to kickstart textile industries in this cotton-producer economy. Or unlock isolated areas through telecom.

It won’t be a magic bullet with instant multiplier effects in the local economy in the short term, but it may promote some stability and if done well entrepreneurship skills will at least help transform society towards building a new Mali. And this is what Mali needs: avoiding the trap of short term fixes for structural problems, but consistent investment in its long-term potential, to prevent problems like terrorism.

(published on 12 May 2013 on Open Democracy Forum, see this link)