International prices for poverty-stricken Mali’s two most valuable commodities have taken off in opposite directions: one skyrocketing to record heights, one falling fast.

But neither change has bolstered the West African nation’s struggling economy, said Modibo Makalou, an adviser for development to Mali’s president, told GlobalAtlanta during a recent trip to Atlanta.

Gold, a staple resource of the ancient Mali empire and the top export for the modern landlocked nation of that name, has steadily increased in international market value over the past three decades, hitting record levels this week.

But profits don’t exactly trickle down to the population. The gold industry in Mali is run by multinational corporations that can make the heavy initial investments required for mining on a large scale. All in all, the industry only employs about 2,000 of Mali’s 13.5 million people, Mr. Makalou said.

At the same time, the global price of cotton, Mali’s largest cash crop, has declined significantly.

“The international price is what is being paid to the Malian farmer when he farms cotton. It’s what goes in his pocket. But that price has been plummeting because of subsidies from industrial countries including the U.S.,” said Mr. Makalou, who visited Atlanta for a conference on freedom of information at the Carter Center.

Subsidies encourage artificial production, flooding world markets with supply and depressing prices.

Cotton farming is a key job creator in a country where three-fourths of the labor force is involved in agriculture.

Agriculture is Georgia’s best chance to use its expertise to help Mali, said Vince Farley, Mali’s honorary consul in Georgia.

Mr. Farley has helped foster interaction between the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Mali’s Ministry of Agriculture.

Scott Angle, the dean of that school, took a six-member team to Mali in December to look at possible areas of collaboration.

Mr. Angle has visited nearly every country in Africa throughout his career, and he said Mali’s poverty convinced him that Georgia should be part of the country’s economic solution.

“Everywhere we went it was just dire poverty, and to help them in any way possible is the right thing to do,” Mr. Angle said.

First on the list is to make sure Mali has the infrastructure to process the food it produces and keep that value in country. The country also needs significant investment in irrigation so that it can use arable land to diversify its agricultural products, Mr. Angle said.

Mr. Farley said Georgia’s poultry prominence is another area to explore.

“If Georgia were a country, it would be the fifth-largest producer of poultry in the world,” Mr. Farley said, noting that Mali has as many livestock as people and produces food for many of West Africa’s coastal countries.

But Mr. Makalou, who worked in the mining and petroleum sectors before he got into public service, knows it will take more than just chicken to solve Mali’s economic conundrum.

Appointed as an adviser after he worked on Amadou Toure’s successful 2002 presidential bid, Mr. Makalou now has experience from both sides of the economic fence.

One of his current responsibilities is to coordinate foreign aid, which accounts for about one-third of the country’s national budget and 70 percent of public works projects like roads and health centers.

The U.S. provides about $30 million of the approximately $500 million Mali receives annually in foreign aid, Mr. Makalou said, and a program set to go into action this year will extend that reach.

Millenium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government-owned company that aims to help impoverished nations, will contribute $460 million to Mali for the implementation of three projects over the next five years.

Such a large contribution isn’t handed out to just anyone. MCC evaluates countries’ democratic and economic policies to determine their eligibility. The country then submits a “Compact” outlining projects where investment is needed.

Upon approval by the MCC board, which is chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top U.S. trade officials, the Compact is signed and eventually implemented.

Almost three years after the official process began, Mali’s Compact entered into force last September, although the first wave of funds has yet to be disbursed.

Once they come, officials hope the funds will foster sustainable economic growth.

More than half of the money, about $234 million, will go to agricultural development, much of which will be focused on irrigation projects that will make crops in Mali, two-thirds of which is covered by desert, less susceptible to drought.

The investment matches the importance of agriculture in Mali.

“This is where most of the poor are, so if you act on agriculture you have a leverage effect and a multiplier effect on the whole economy,” Mr. Makalou said.

The rest of the MCC funding will be almost evenly split between an expansion of Bamako Airport in the capital city of Bamako and the development of an industrial park nearby.

The airport expansion will serve the twofold purpose of increasing exports and encouraging inbound tourism. Eventually, the airport could handle nonstop flights from the U.S., which could lead to even more travelers visiting Timbuktu, the famous Malian city.

Although many Americans use the city’s name as a general term describing remoteness, Mr. Makalou said the ancient trade and educational center is actually accessible.

“Many Americans go there, and they all want to have the stamp of Timbuktu on their passport,” he said. An annual music festival is held in Timbuktu each summer.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...