Markets in crises: The conflict in Mali

Veronique Barbelet and Marthe Diallo Goita


Market analyses are key to informing decisions around transfer modalities (cash, voucher or in-kind).Traditionally this has focused on the availability and price of key commodities,but it has recently expanded to supply  chain analysis, value chain analysis and pre-crisis market mapping. This study takes a more sociological perspective and, using Mali as a case study, asks whether there is a better way to analyse and understand how humanitarian assistance interacts with markets in order to enable interventions that support markets for the benefit of people affected by crisis. It argues for a proactive approach, that asks what has changed, why and the implications for vulnerable households, to enable humanitarian organisations to identify entry-points for market-based programming.

The qualitative study focuses on millet and cattle, two commodities traded significantly in the conflict-affected regions.  It involved 100 interviews with small, medium and large traders, cattle owners, cattle herders, internally displaced people (IDPs) and host families. The research did not include millet-producing areas.

Millet and cattle markets differ in structure and the conflict affected them differently accordingly. However, traders identified insecurity as the main disruptive factor. Usually this is understood as a physical access issue but the study shows that this was minor in comparison to the chain of interlinked consequences affecting markets in different ways including: reduced quantity, loss of cash flow and the closure of markets.  Even areas unaffected by the conflict felt consequences in their markets.

Interviews from vulnerable households in Northern Mali consistently highlighted reduced purchasing power, greater reliance on credit and reducing expenses. Further analysis is needed to fully understand the extent to which the most vulnerable can access credit. Interviews with women in rural areas cited tontines de femme (revolving savings and credits) as a usual means accessing funds that could not operate during crises because some women were unable to contribute the required amount of cash to the central fund.

While many market analyses reached similar findings to this study, the knowledge was not used because they were designed to assess the feasibility of doing a cash programme rather than identify why markets were not functioning or responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, what was preventing markets from functioning and identifying whether and how humanitarian organisations could implement programmes to help restore markets. As a result there was a lack of creative market-based programming during the emergency response  and agencies did not look further into how and why markets were changing.

The report recommends new approaches to integrating market mapping assessments as part of preparedness to allow some this analysis to be done prior to a crisis so that capacity and resources are not diverted away from emergency response.  In the context of Northern Mali, the findings suggests there is a need for more cash-programming instead of, or alongside, in-kind aid. More broadly, market-based humanitarian intervention should not simply use the market as a delivery mechanism but seek to restore it in ways that support affected populations. Existing market-based safety nets could be fruitful avenues to explore for market-based programming.


Barbelet, V., & Goita, M.D. (2015). Markets in crises: The conflict in Mali, Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) Working Paper. London: Overseas Development Institute.