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Breaking the cycle: rule of law programming in Mali


Since 2000, the Malian justice sector has been subject to repeated cycles of reviews and ensuing donor investments, but so far without much result. After 15 years of “Groundhog Day” in Mali, with the same story over and over again, how to break this cycle?

On 2 November 2015,  organizations in The Netherlands working on rule of law in Mali came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities for rule of law programming, building on a discussion note analyzing the past years of rule of law programming in Mali.

Some key takeaways

  • There is a need to map the customary system, to understand the landscape and political economy
  • Focus on individuals that are interested in change, and how you can support them
  • Social media have potential but are no silver bullet: tie this to other media that are being used by Malians
  • Get rid of output thinking, move to a focus on learning instead of accountability, with rapid feedback loops


Four interlinked issues stood out and shaped the discussion:

1. There are still many questions about customary law

In conversations with justice officials, they indicate they work with informal authorities, and there also are provisions in the criminal code for this. Others deny the existence of customary law apart from Islamic law, and linkages are denied in the official narrative. While customary law may provide opportunities for justice sector reform, it also is an exclusive, elitist system. There is a need for a better understanding of what is there, analyzing the parties and interests involved.

2. What to do with blockages at central level: supporting the “Nelson Mandelas”

In focusing  on citizens and end-users, blockages at the central level are a challenge. Political parties are formed around leaders that have been around for decades, lack clear party programs, and are not responsive to citizens. Political will is strongly geared towards ethnic patronage systems. Nevertheless, there are individuals who are interested in change, who need support. But who are these “Nelson Mandelas”, and does the international community know how to support them effectively?

3. Corruption and the potential of social media to tackle this

Corruption is described as the number 1 problem, which decades of interventions have failed to adequately address. Though the international community often focusses on high-level corruption, it is the local, petty corruption that makes people suffer daily. Through social media, citizens have the potential to expose bad governance and corruption and put pressure on the government (see for example the Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi). It can also be used to collect data for advocacy – being mindful that is important to protect sources of information, and to verify the data.

4. Putting into practice the flexible, iterative, participatory programming that is needed

A citizen-centered approach, moving beyond the established partners (NGOs and the national government), requires flexible and participatory programming. One way to approach this is through problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), with four core principles:

  • Focus on locally defined problems and solutions
  • Move away from short-term programs and fixed designs
  • Focus on learning, not accountability, with rapid feedback loops in which donor and recipient can learn from each other
  • Actively engage a broad set of actors throughout the process to make sure change is legitimate and viable.

Dutch Rule of Law program in Mali

The Dutch program in Mali takes the social contract between the government and its citizens as starting point. Citizens are the primary focus, to develop the justice sector from the grassroots. This takes time, considering that even the best performing countries need forty years to rebuild a functioning rule of law system. The process requires long-term commitment and realism about the risks involved, and what matters is the Malian process, development in mindsets, rather than infrastructure. 

Photo credit: the Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi, by Alan Gichigi,