When I joined Plan in November 2013, I soon learnt that my first assignment would be in Mali. This seemed exciting as it would be my first time on African soil. The trip was delayed for several reasons, including the tense security situation in Northern Mali. But finally, there was a breakthrough and the much-awaited visit happened in early April 2014.
First impressions of Timbuktu
The visit started with a security and programme briefing at Plan Mali’s office in the capital, Bamako. From here, I was headed to Timbuktu. I knew this place from songs and history books. Timbuktu is home to the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas; an intellectual and spiritual capital in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and SidiYahya, recall Timbuktu’s golden era.
I reached Timbuktu airport by United Nations Humanitarian Air Services flight as no commercial flights run there. A beautiful small airport stood in the middle of yellow sand, but this beauty contrasted with the heavy presence of UN peace keepers. My excitement came to a sudden pause with an eerie silence. Once I was in the Plan car, the mesmerising music by Mali music legend Salif Keita made me unaware of the situation outside and I finally reached Plan’s Timbuktu office after several security check points.
This beautiful land had been affected by a serious crisis following a political coup on 22 March 2012. The ensuing situation led to a political, security and economic destabilisation in Mali, and almost two-thirds of the country was occupied by non-state armed groups by early April 2012, especially in the Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and Mopti regions of northern Mali. This crisis was on top of an existing food crisis across Sahel due to drought.
The prolonged crisis left 342,000 people displaced, many of whom took refuge in the neighbouring countries of Mauritana, Burkina Faso and Niger. Plan responded by launching a cash transfer project funded by Irish Aid through Plan Ireland in 2013, specifically to improve the food security situation.
Food security crisis
My role as a Cash Transfer in Emergencies Specialist was to assess the situation and provide technical support. My priority was to build the capacity of the project team on the cash transfer programme. “Aftab, you have come to us just on time and we are fortunate to have been capacitated before delivery of cash,” said Assana Sogoba, the Plan Mali’s Emergency Response Manager.
In the current project, Plan aims to reach 2,578 families (18,158 individuals) from May 2014 onwards. Each beneficiary will receive 90,000 CFAs (200 USD) either through unconditional cash transfer or cash for work, ensuring three months of food security. This may seem a drop in the ocean but it will make a life-saving difference, improving the food security of the affected people.
The dry season is looming, meaning the food security situation will deteriorate further. Food security monitoring activities need to be stepped up as the dry season starts. International humanitarian agencies have developed a new strategic response plan for food security in Sahel, aiming to reach 11.8 million out of an estimated 20.2 million food insecure people in the region. Plan is certainly doing its bit to contribute to the goal of improving food security in Sahel.