Despite a hazardous situation in the African country of Mali, Catholic Relief Services is working to support displaced people and hungry school students, while calling for more humanitarian aid to help stabilize the country.   “Only last week, two CRS staff were stopped in Timbuktu while traveling by car, they were blindfolded and forced to kneel, and then all of their belongings were stolen,” Niek de Goeij, CRS country representative in Mali, told CNA Aug. 24. “They lived to tell the story, but this had a major impact on them, and it affects how and where we can work in the country.” A recent increase in violence is compounding already difficult circumstances for the people of the nation, he said. “The country faces many problems, not least the effort to re-establish a stable, inclusive and peaceful democracy across its territory. Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced and hundreds of thousands more face acute food shortages each year,” de Goeij explained. “With the right investments in the years to come, Mali could become a success story, but if not, there is a real risk of a further deterioration and destabilization of one of Africa’s largest countries.” He said Mali is very poor, but has a “very rich culture.” Before the political instability, the west Africa country was an example of democratic stability and was favored by humanitarian donors. But the military conflict revealed “deep corruption and failing governance.” The fall of the Libyan government in 2011 helped destabilize the region. Some soldiers who returned home to Mali joined a rebellion against the government, which displaced thousands of people. Many more were displaced after a coup in March 2012 led to a militant takeover of the country’s north. Over 10,000 foreign United Nations soldiers are in the country to try to keep peace. Other world crises have made it difficult to mobilize support for Mali. The country has been unstable, but violence has increased recently. Over 235,000 people have been displaced from their homes, CRS said. Now, the agency is helping provide essential household supplies and direct cash to those affected. The Mali government is a major partner with CRS programs in health and agriculture, but the government has no reach in the north outside of the major cities. “For Catholic Relief Services, this means that the lack of law and order in the North can cause humanitarian emergencies, and it creates a very difficult and dangerous environment for CRS and partners to implement programs,” de Goeij said. Despite the challenges, CRS is doing what it can to meet the needs of the people on the ground, while keeping its staff members safe. With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency helps provide 80,000 daily lunches to students.     “When I spoke with one of the parents on how this program impacted their children, she said that before the program, her children did not have the energy to walk to school, or if they made it to school they couldn’t learn because they were too exhausted. But since the program has been implemented, the children have the energy to make it to school, and because of the school lunches, they learned much better,” de Goeij said. CRS has been working on programs in Mali since 1999. About 118 of CRS’ 125 Mali employees are themselves from Mali. The relief agency is among the top three international NGOs in the country, according to de Goeij. Each year, its programs reach about 1.5 million people, almost 10 percent of the country’s entire population.