One of the more cheering images to appear on the news in the last few weeks was the sight of thousands of jubilant Malians, lining the roads of Timbuktu to celebrate the end of the occupation of their city by rebels and Islamist extremists. Watching the footage of people dancing and singing in the streets, it was tempting to think that the troubles of people in northern Mali were coming to an end.
The truth is more sobering as Mali, along with several of its neighbouring countries in the Sahel region of West Africa, remains in a state of crisis. The rebel threat has not gone away, despite their withdrawal from strategic towns, and the recent fighting has increased tensions between different ethnic groups, some of whom have been associated with the rebels' cause. Moreover, for many people living in the cities of northern Mali, relief at the end of occupation is tempered by the more familiar threat of serious food shortages.
Though the television cameras focused mainly on conflict, the Malian crisis was always twofold. The fighting - which displaced more than 260,000 people within the country and sent 170,000 people to neighbouring countries - compounded a pre-existing food crisis across the Sahel region. Drought and rising food prices have been putting a strain on communities for years, and though good rains from June to September last year improved the situation in some parts of the Sahel, the refugee crisis and the disruption of commercial supply routes meant many farmers were unable to capitalise on these conditions The situation is of serious concern as the UN estimates that 10.3million people across Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania, are at risk of hunger and over 1.4million children could suffer severe malnutrition.
So what needs to be done to support the recovery in this most vulnerable of regions? Humanitarian needs in the Sahel - as elsewhere in the world - can only be met by the coordinated efforts of dedicated humanitarian and development organisations. Despite the important role that international assistance can play, the real impetus for building resilience to conflict and food shortages in Mali and other Sahel countries needs to come from the countries themselves and from within the communities most at risk.
It is local organisations - whether through national poverty reduction plans or in response to specific needs in their local areas - who can make the decisive contributions to rebuilding lives in conflict and hunger-stricken countries. These are the groups who are best placed to listen to people's needs, who understand the local context and can provide long-term support.
This is a principle that struck me as being of vital importance back in November 2009 when my constituency, many miles from Mali, suffered from flooding. It was the incredible response of the local emergency services, who suffered the tragic loss of a very brave local police officer, which made such an important difference. It made me realise, that in emergency situations, you ignore local knowledge and expertise at your peril. These are the assets that help an effective emergency response lay the foundations for long-lasting stability, and yet, too often, local knowledge is ignored.
So what does that mean for the role of the international community? There will be cases where direct on-the-ground support from international organisations is required, particularly where local groups are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, but we must look to provide greater support to local civil society.
It was local organisations which helped international agencies continue supporting vulnerable people throughout the conflict in Mali. The INGO Christian Aid and its sister organisation Norwegian Church Aid, for example, were able to support food distributions in the eastern town of Menaka even while it was under rebel occupation, thanks to local partners GARI (Groupement d'Artisans Ruraux d'Intadeyneé) and their knowledge of covert transport networks and strong relationship with community leaders. GARI are now working to lay the foundations for long term stability and continue to tackle the deeply entrenched problems that have left Sahelian countries so vulnerable to food shortages. It is organisations such as this that can show the way towards long lasting solutions and we must do all we can to support them.