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Decentralized Governance and Climate Change Adaptation: A Case Study on Mali

This study explored ways in which Mali’s 25-year old decentralized governance system empowers local government to help communities adapt to the changing climate.
Cover Photo: Sahel Eco, June 2016. Farmers in Dianweli village, Konna Commune, plant millet using the zaï technique, which involves constructing pits to capture water and condense compost.


This study* examines the ability of a decentralized governance system to address the pressures of climate change. Using the specific case of rural Mali, it asks the question: How does the Malian system of decentralized governance, instituted some 25 years ago, affect the ability of households and communities to adapt to a changing climate? The intent of the research is to identify the mechanisms through which localized governance can confer an adaptive advantage within the dynamic context of rural livelihoods. A specific goal of the study is to provide knowledge useful to climate change programming into the future.

The principal message of this study is that a decentralized structure of governance can play a key role in facilitating problem solving across villages and create important vertical linkages with external actors and resources. The realization of these potential benefits, however, is directly related to the quality of such governance. This study describes the experience in Mali, and the many significant challenges facing the local governance process. In response to these challenges, the study recommends actions for integrating climate change adaptation into the local development planning process.

*Download the full text from the right-hand column. The text below is taken from the Executive Summary on page VI; please note that the sections below have been abridged.

Methods and Tools

This study was based on qualitative research. The target area was limited to three administrative regions in southern Mali: Mopti, Koulikoro and Sikasso. Five communes were sampled with the intent of capturing underlying agro-ecological and livelihood characteristics. Within each commune, three villages were selected to represent local variability. Sahel Eco, a local Malian nongovernmental organization (NGO), was contracted to conduct the fieldwork, which occurred over a period of six weeks during June and July 2016. At the village level, two focus group discussions were carried out, one with men and one with women. At least six household interviews were conducted to record individual experiences. At the commune level, key informants such as locally elected officials (maire and conseil members), local government administrators (prefet and sous-prefet), agriculture, livestock and forestry extension agents, school and health clinic staff, and local merchants were interviewed individually. In all, the field team completed 193 interviews and compiled more than 800 pages of responses. The field interviews were complemented by a review of secondary literature, existing reports and a comparative analysis of the development plans (Plan de Développement Economique, Social et Culturel, or PDESC) of each commune.

Ongoing climate adaptation

Traditionally, households in rural Mali have adjusted to changes in climate. During the research, households cited a range of strategies, including:

  • Technology change, such as improved seed and water and soil conservation
  • More confined management of herds
  • Adoption of cash crops such as cotton and sesame
  • Introduction of micro-irrigation on small plots for vegetable production
  • Diversification into non-agricultural micro-enterprise activities such as small business,handicraft production, food processing, etc.
  • Migration, both seasonal and semipermanent

PDESC: Challenges in Implementing Action on Climate Change

The legislation that established the local government system in Mali also mandates a five-year development plan at the commune level. This document, the Plan de Développement Economique, Social et Culturel, or PDESC, is meant to be a cornerstone of participatory development. In the process of elaborating the plan, each village is contacted to conduct an assessment of village needs and priorities. The assessment results are then compiled for consideration at a multiple-day workshop, during which the elected council (conseil) members and other leaders decide upon the actions that will constitute the PDESC. After another round of consultations, the document is finalized and sent to the district (cercle) level for approval.

The analysis indicates that the five-year development planning process is hampered by a lack of local technical expertise (and a reliance on outside consultants), a poor record of sustaining participation in the process and the lack of adequate funding to make the document a true planning tool. Furthermore, weak participation in development planning manifests an underlying process of political brokerage that often leads to the imbalanced distribution of public resources.

While the law governing PDESC procedures mandates participatory planning, the study identified these areas of concern:

  • Little technical capacity exists at the commune level to prepare a development strategy..
  • Of the five PDESCs reviewed, most appear to reflect a perfunctory preparation, with little evidence of a development vision, little assessment of the likely effectiveness of the proposed interventions and no review of the outcomes of the previous PDESC.
  • In interviews, most respondents in the commune said they have little or no knowledge of the PDESC or its content
  • As there is no local-level source of revenue to fund projects in the PDESC, the plan functions more as a wish list of interventions.
  • In all but one commune, the PDESC has no specific focus on climate change adaptation.

Local-level action on climate change (abridged)

Localized governance is most effective when local institutions play a “brokering” function capable of increasing access to resources and information along both “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions. In the horizontal dimension at the commune level, local governance has the potential to 1) harness the traditions of shared decision making and collective action, and 2) open formal channels of information sharing across villages. This dynamic can facilitate the spread of new technology and broader awareness of climate change and its impacts.

The vertical dimension of governance links the commune to external actors at both the national and international, which increases the inflow of resources and information and connects commune-level adaptation strategies to the national and international climate change community. Those communes with more effective governance institutions tend to be more successful in creating vertical partnerships and linkages that attract adaptation resources, such as soil and water management technologies.

Importantly, these two dimensions are mutually reinforcing. Considering both dimensions, this study concludes that localized governance in Mali influences climate change adaptation in the following ways:

  • The devolution of power to local-level institutions increased the role and influence of the central government at the local level.
  • Despite the differing quality and detail across communes, the PDESC is a public document that formally registers the needs, priorities and resources of each commune in the nation..
  • The effectiveness of the mayor (mairie) and local council (conseil) in promoting village collaboration and attracting external technical and financial resources simultaneously increases their capability to manage resources in ways that support adaptation to climate pressures.
  • Effective decentralized governance has likely played a positive role in the wide diffusion of adaptation technologies.
  • In some communes, local governance has been effective in promoting institutional arrangements that favor climate change adaptation through improved natural resource management
  • In some communes the PDESC supports strategies for livelihood diversification.
  • Effective governance at the commune level seems to mobilize more external resources, both governmental and nongovernmental.

Recommendations (abridged)

Overall, evidence from the study indicates that most communes do not have the technical or financial resources to elaborate a development pathway sensitive to the increasing pressures of climate and environmental change. No widespread adaptation vision guides development planning; the PDESC tends to be much more pedestrian in its scope, focused on solving specific, concrete, short-term and immediate problems. The local presence of an active NGO, however, helps overcome the major resource and technical constraints to development planning and can make the PDESC a true guiding document rather than a simple wish list or marketing brochure.

To increase the potential contribution of decentralized local government to climate change adaptation, the following recommendations are offered (these points are abridged – see the full text for more detail, including concrete actions for specific development actors in Mali).

  • Coordinated national strategy
  • Training and information sharing for local audiences
  • Revised PDESC procedures:
  • Popularization of the PDESC:
  • Improved monitoring and evaluation of the PDESC:
  • Improved financial planning:

These recommendations cannot be operationalized at the commune or village level alone. Some require changes in current policy and/or have significant resource implications, particularly the restructured financing of the strategic development plans. Collaborative partnerships between the GOM, donors, NGOs and locally elected bodies are necessary to address these recommendations.

This document was produced for the United States Agency for International Development by the University of Arizona for the Climate Change Adaptation, Thought Leadership and Assessments (ATLAS) Task Order, under the Restoring the Environment through Prosperity, Livelihoods, and Conserving Ecosystems (REPLACE) IDIQ.

ATLAS reports and other products are available on the Climatelinks website:

Authors (University of Arizona):

  • Dr. Tim Finan
  • Ida Nadia Djenontin
  • Dr. Mamadou Baro

Suggested Citation:

USAID (2017) Decentralized Governance and Climate Change Adaptation: A Case Study on Mali. USAID Technical Report. U.S. Agency for International Development: Washington D.C., United States of America.

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