A muslim trader reads his Quran in the Grand Marche, the main market in the city centre of Bamako in Mali. Photo: Christine Nesbitt.

Fortune has not smiled upon Mali recently. An alarming new report by the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security initiative predicts that global climate change will curb agricultural output in Mali more than any other country, except its West African neighbours Niger and Burkina Faso. Landlocked and surrounded by poor states with weak infrastructure, Mali is especially vulnerable to climate-induced food crises.

Since 2009 the northern and central provinces of Mali, comprising nearly three-quarters of its territory, have been under the threat of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). The murder and kidnapping of several foreigners by the terrorist group has effectively closed the region to outsiders and halted economic development.

Only a few members of the group, which is dominated by Algerian extremists, are probably from Mali but Mali’s vast desert expanses are nevertheless AQIM’s preferred staging post for operations.

Malians could be forgiven for thinking they deserve better.

Two decades ago they courageously brought a brutal dictatorship to an end. Today the former French colony is among Africa’s most respected democracies, a moderate Muslim country with good relations throughout the international community. These facts would suggest that the government’s security and development challenges are not insurmountable.

Most analysts predict, however, that Mali’s current woes might pale in comparison to what awaits: its population “time bomb”. There were just 5 million Malians at independence in 1960, but the population is now estimated at over 14 million, with an estimated growth rate of 3.5 percent, almost the highest in the world.

Marriage, especially in rural areas, is common at just 15, and women give birth on average to over six children, in part due to cultural norms encouraging large families. As a result, Mali has a very young population. Half are under 15 today, and more than 70 percent under 24 years old.

The capital, Bamako, where the population has doubled to 2 million in less than two decades, is believed to be the fastest growing city in Africa, and increasingly one of the most expensive. Annual per capita income is stuck at less than $700 (R4 830) and half the population lives below the poverty line.

Not only is a tsunami of young people flooding an anaemic job market, but across a range of human development indicators, from literacy rates to primary school attendance, Mali sits near the very bottom of global rankings.

No wonder a senior official privately conceded that the government’s “minor” reforms were merely “postponing chaos”.

Chaos is currently playing out in the arc of Arab countries to Mali’s north, though no one should lump the democrats in Bamako together with the dictators clinging to power in Tripoli or Damascus.

Mali’s government has done much right, indeed it is something of a mystery why its economy has not done better. Its challenge in turning reforms into growth and growth into jobs is similar to those of other states, notably in sub-Saharan Africa.

Next year’s presidential elections will mark the end of Amadou Toumani Toure’s second and final term in office. He has successfully kept a fragile peace with nomadic Touraeg groups in the north, who once fought a bloody war with Bamako. He has also been more candid than other Sahelian leaders about the need to improve governance and stamp out corruption.

During his tenure the government has followed a structural adjustment programme that has seen improvements and new investment in mining, which accounts for about 70 percent of Mali’s exports, and its other main economic activity, agriculture, where preparations are under way for the privatisation of the cotton sector.

In both sectors Mali has tremendous untapped potential. The Office du Niger, an autonomous public enterprise established in 1932 by the French to build an irrigation system on the Niger River and recruit and settle farm families in the region, has 1 million hectares available for cultivation. Yet less than a fifth is being utilised.

Mali is Africa’s third-biggest gold producer, yet production has been hindered by acute energy and transportation constraints. Little mining exploration has been conducted in the past two decades, though experts believe there is scope for expansion to uranium, diamonds and other gems and minerals. But this sector, while providing income to government, offers few jobs.

These might come from tourism, perhaps the sector with the greatest potential. Mali has four World Heritage sites, some of Africa’s most culturally and historically rich tourist destinations, and in Timbuktu, a priceless “brand” with global renown.

Sadly, though, Mali has got terrorists rather than tourists. AQIM has rendered all the main attractions off-limits. Last year just 75 000 tourists arrived in Mali, which put it in 122nd place worldwide.

Mali cannot solve its security problems alone. That requires much greater regional co-operation and, inevitably, more weapons and assistance from foreign countries.

There is nothing Mali can realistically do to mitigate climate change either, but it can adapt to it by changing the way it farms its land, not only to provide a reliable food supply but also to enhance the country’s export earnings.

There is nothing, either, that can be done about Mali’s “youth bulge”, at least in the short term. If harnessed wisely, however, Mali’s “demographic dividend” could help the country’s development. In the experience of the East Asian Tigers a generation before, a large population of youth proved to be a major dividend, providing the impetus for rapid economic growth.

In part, trying to create jobs presents challenges to all states competing against China. This is not helped in Mali by an education system that is not fit for purpose: the government estimates that just 10 percent of university students graduate with any relevant skills.

And, leaving aside questions of security or climate change, Mali will not be able to replicate East Asia unless the government is more willing to take and follow-through on some hard political decisions.

Stability in Mali has been achieved in part through a strong tradition of inclusiveness and building broad consensus, ensuring that no groups are excluded. Yet this otherwise positive trait makes it almost impossible for the government to make hard decisions in the national interest, the kind of decisions that are to the short-term detriment of some but in the long run help the country’s development.

The government’s attempt to introduce a new Family Law in 2009, granting greater rights to women and a new minimum age for marriage, is a case in point. This long-overdue law was abandoned for the sake of stability and national unity when it faced a popular backlash from Muslim groups. Yet the continued effective exclusion of women – notwithstanding Mali’s female prime minister – from full participation in Mali’s economy is a major hurdle to growth.

If the government avoids the hard choices, its much-admired democracy is sure to falter under the weight of young Malians’ unfulfilled expectations.

Greg Mills is the director of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, Terence McNamee is the deputy director. They recently visited Mali. The Brenthurst Foundation is engaged in youth employment research in several African countries.