IMD International

Conflict in Mali

IMD Professor Jean-Pierre Lehmann on the broader implications

January 18, 2013

Probably very few members of the global business community, with the possible exception of those in the oil industry, see much relevance between their own business concerns and what is happening in that underdeveloped land-locked sub-Saharan African country called Mali. They are wrong. What is happening in Mali is a symptom of a broader malaise – possibly worse than a malaise – at this stage of the 21st century "global era".

In explaining why, let me make the following forecast. France and its African allies, including of course the regular Malian troops, will not win the war. This is not to say the Jihadists will overrun Mali and seize Bamako. The most likely scenario is a stalemate – yet another one. There is a big difference between the rebel and regular troops. The rebels know what they are fighting against – the government, the French, etc – but they also know what they are fighting for. What they are fighting for may be detestable to "civilised society" (and I will come back on that increasingly nebulous concept), but nevertheless the evidence is that Jihadists and associated rebels have fanaticism, passion and conviction on their side. They have a cause (or causes). The regular Malian troops and probably also all or most of the African contingents know what they are fighting against – the rebels and the Jihadists – but not what they are fighting for. When French President Hollande says the fighting in Mali is to preserve democratic values and liberties, the ordinary Malian (and many other Africans) can well ask, "what democratic values and liberties?"

It has been pointed out that, paradoxically, while there has been a decrease in dictatorships world- wide, including for a little while in Mali, and hence, at least in theory, an increase in democracies, in fact the spectre of failed states (which Mali may become) has loomed increasingly large. In other words, while the dictatorships may have lost their power and legitimacy, the newly installed "democracies" have failed to gain legitimacy and thus are increasingly losing power.

The outbreak of globalisation in the 21st century has undoubtedly generated enormous benefits. Recently these have seemed to flow increasingly also to sub-Saharan Africa, which currently counts seven of the world's ten fastest-growing economies. But there are many deep fault-lines. Thus the question arises: the Jihadists and other rebels may be terrorists intent on destroying civilised society in the 21st century, which in turn begs the question: what is civilised society in the 21st century? The global market economy may have provided significant material benefits to society, even if very unevenly distributed, but it has failed miserably in values, justice and ethics. To cite one egregious example out of many, history will without doubt condemn this period for its inability to address the challenge of climate change. This, along with other environmental disasters, stands out as one of the greatest indictments of "civilised society".

Another malignant cancer eating away at "civilised society" is rising and seemingly persistent inequality. What hope does the illiterate impoverished slum-dweller have of aspiring to a life of minimal dignity – especially when bearing in mind that over a billion persons do not have access to proper sanitation? The inequality is bad, but what makes it much, much worse is that it is associated with injustice. This is not a just world. Far too many vulnerable people are made to suffer the pernicious discriminatory effects of corruption that deprives them of basic rights. The rule of law – and especially its application – is too conspicuous by its absence.

Scandals in the corporate world, especially but not exclusively in finance, result in the de-legitimisation of capitalism and social democracy. These have further deeply undermined "civilised society". For global capitalism to survive, capitalists must behave in an ethical and socially constructive manner. Those who achieve positions of influence and affluence are not from the bottom billion(s) who suffer the inequities and injustices of this world. Yet there is seemingly little compunction on behalf of the privileged elites to return to society, especially by an exemplary ethical professional life, what has been extracted from society. Business is run on the basis of achieving financial targets, without consideration being given to social and ethical targets.

So long as civilisation – and especially justice – continues to decline, there will be no incentive among people to fight for civilised society. Mali is a mess and may become a worse mess, just as the world is a mess and may become a worse mess. That is the significance of Mali. We have no alternative: to prevent the "Mali-nisation" of the world, we have to make it a better and especially more just place. That is why Mali is very relevant to leaders and members of the global business community.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD and Founder of The Evian Group.

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