Despite bringing violence to a halt, local communities were unable to proceed to the next phase. Up until this point the meetings had been self-initiated – though they had received some financing from the government and NGOs – and community leaders had not felt the need for a more systematic strategy. But the time was ripe for external guidance in order to proceed from an objective of stopping the violence to a more creative goal. A small group of experienced civil society leaders formed a facilitation group to provide guidance for locally-led initiatives. They elaborated a strategy for managing the current situation based an analysis of the recent experiences of adapting traditional skills for peacemaking. The facilitation group emerged out of a partnership between local actors and Norwegian Church Aid (NCA).
The NCA had been involved in northern Mali since 1984, when it started a relief project in Gourma as a result of a call for help from the Malian government. They soon became the biggest external agency in the north. In 1987-88, the operation became an integrated rural development project and over time NCA developed strong relations with people who were to take top positions on all sides of the conflict. Two senior staff members, Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohamed (FIAA) and Zeïdan Ag Sidalamine (FPLA) became general secretaries of their movements. Another senior staff member, Mohamed Ag Erlaf (a member of the MPA), became minister in the transitional government 1991 and remained in various ministries until 1999. Whereas all other international NGOs discontinued their activities for long periods of time during the war, the NCA remained and carried out activities based on the policy "as much as possible, where it is possible, whenever it is possible." This policy had a heavy cost and seven Malian staff members were killed. Yet NCA's operations were highly valued and it was generally trusted by all parties.
In April 1994, Zeïdan Ag Sidalamine called his former NCA colleague, Kåre Lode, to ask for assistance: "We are in a promising process towards peace, of which we should not lose control. I want you to be 'the oil in the works'." They needed a respected outsider to add credibility and money from a reliable NGO to support the process and turned to Lode because of their own history of personal relations and trust. When approached by Zeïdan, Lode could immediately give a positive answer knowing that NCA would take care of the budget and his current employers in the Norwegian Missionary Society would accept any involvement in the peace process.
The first step was to form a facilitation group consisting of Lode, Zeïdan, UNDP Consultant Ibrahim Ag Youssouf, and two people who had served in the Commissariat of the North, Abacar Sidibe and Aghatam Ag Alhassane. The four Malians in the group were men who were respected for their integrity. Each had practical experience with the earlier inter-community meetings and these experiences became the basis of the facilitation group's peace process strategy, with Ibrahim and Zeïdan as the main contributors. Kåre Lode met with the newly appointed Commissioner for the North, Mohamadou Diagouraga, who was both open to innovation and supportive of civil society initiatives. After discussing the plan with him for approximately half an hour, Diagouraga gave Lode a free hand to proceed with the programme, on the sole condition that he was kept informed of the progress. His support was invaluable and on several occasions he protected the process against officials and parliamentarians who sought to control it.
The process began with an inter-community meeting in Gourma, which used the facilitation group's basic design. Its immediate success created a widespread demand for meetings elsewhere as the strategy responded to a deeply felt need. The process seemed to release unstoppable social forces for change. Yet the NCA had insufficient funds to support additional meetings and it seemed politically risky for it to be responsible for the entire process throughout the north. Instead, by joining with other donors, including the Canadian, German, and Swiss development agencies and by obtaining funds from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they created a 'Fund for Reconciliation and Peace Consolidation in Northern Mali' (FAR-Nord). Lode became coordinator with the other facilitators' continued involvement, joined by representatives of the consortium partners. In response to demand, a total of 37 community meetings were organised across the north with the support of the fund.