“It’s always stood out as the kind of recipient that Canada should be dealing with,” says Richard Beattie, CIDA’s director for Africa and the Middle East from 1990 to 1995.
This is why it remained a top target for aid even after the cuts of the mid-1990s and the 2009 decision to focus bilateral assistance on only 20 countries.
Développement international Desjardins stuck with Mali for similar reasons and saw tangible results. More than two decades ago, the not-for-profit microfinancing arm of the Quebec-based Desjardins co-operative banking movement started helping Nyèsigiso, a local savings co-op that ran a handful of counters housed in shacks with no electricity around Ségou. Since 1996, it has also been assisting Kafo Jiginew, which offers financing to farmers.
Now, with close to 700,000 clients, the two co-operatives account for 42 per cent of the country’s bank accounts.
Desjardins management consultant Alain Beauregard has seen the difference this has made. Before being repatriated in December because of the unrest, he spent five years in Mali overseeing the creation of a computer network linking Nyèsigiso branches
Previously, merchants outside Bamako had to travel to the capital by bus at night, carrying huge sums of money and ever fearful of being robbed. Now, they can withdraw what they need in the city.
“We take these sort of transactions for granted,” Mr. Beauregard says. “But this gives them peace of mind.”
Prof. Audet worries that the civil war may drag on and undermine the work Canada has done, and Ms. Ouimet agrees: “I think we should go back with a co-operation program soon,” the former ambassador says, to reduce the risk that Mali’s key institutions “lose momentum.”
If Canada pulls back indefinitely, warns Ms. Labelle, the Transparency International chair, “you could have a much greater destabilization of that whole region.”
Mr. Fantino, despite his government’s resistance to military participation, seems to agree. The minister told a recent international-donors conference that aid is “critical” to avoiding social unrest in southern Mali – “a stable south means more efforts can be concentrated on the security situation in the north.”
Back in Sainte-Élisabeth, Mr. Houle certainly has no intention of giving up on Mali – and he has not forgotten Sanankoroba’s plea to become self-sufficient, free of the kind of assistance that amounts to little more than damage control.
The mayor has visited his village’s twin five times, his luggage bursting with books, and still marvels at how willing its residents were to give back in 1998 when they heard the Great Ice Storm had left much of Montreal and its surroundings cold and in the dark.
“They bled themselves to collect about $100 going door to door,” he says. “We just couldn’t believe it.” Half of Mali’s population lives on less than a $1.25 a day.
Now, Mr. Houle wants to go back as soon as he can, and see Sainte-Élisabeth’s red tractor at work. With luck, it could be on its way within a month or two. Thanks largely to Sainte-Élisabeth’s generosity, Sanankoroba has increased agricultural production so much that its children no longer need to work the fields all day. School enrolment has gone from 300 in 1985 to 4,000 today.
But looking to the future, Mr. Houle does worry that the civil war will turn into a prolonged guerrilla conflict, as in Afghanistan. Without an enduring peace, Sanankoroba’s progress, along with everything else Canada’s billion dollars has bought, remains at risk.