Afghanistan’s future hangs in the balance as its weak national government struggles to maintain support and legitimacy in the face of a widening insurgency, warlords, the heroin trade, and a disappointed populace. Across an arc extending from Afghanistan to East Africa, violence now also surges in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and beyond, to Sudan’s Darfur region. Everywhere, politicians, generals, and even diplomats talk of military strategies and maneuvers, but everywhere something utterly different is needed. Stability will come only when economic opportunities exist, when a bulging generation of young men can find jobs and support families, rather than seeking their fortune in violence. We are seeing again and again that a foreign army – whether NATO’s in Afghanistan, America’s in Iraq, Israel’s in occupied Palestinian territories, or Ethiopia’s in Somalia -may win a battle, or even a war, but never the peace. Peace is about dignity and hope for the future. Military occupation saps dignity, and grinding poverty and economic disarray sap hope.
Peace can be achieved only with a withdrawal of foreign troops, and the arrival of jobs, productive farms and factories, tourism, health care, and schools. Without these, military victory and occupation quickly turn to ashes. The United States government has proven itself blind to these facts, but the international community also remains ill equipped to assist in the restoration of peace following conflicts in impoverished countries. Repeatedly, a fragile peace has broken down because of the lack of economic follow-up.
Despite grand promises of foreign aid, economic reconstruction, and development in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, the actual record of international assistance to post-war reconstruction is gravely deficient. The scenario has become painfully familiar. A war ends; an international donors’ conference is called; pledges of billions of dollars are announced. A smiling new head of state graciously thanks the international community, including the occupying power. Months pass. World Bank teams from Washington start to arrive. But actual reconstruction and recovery is delayed, perhaps for years. Crony businesses from the US and Europe, which are utterly unfamiliar with local conditions, squander time, aid funds, and opportunities. Two or three years pass. The grand pronouncements become a pile of out-of-date World Bank studies. Recriminations fly, the occupying army remains, and a new insurgency spreads. Many factors contribute to this disarray, beginning with the shocking inability of the US, Europe, and international organizations to understand things from the perspective of poor and displaced people. Their lack of empathy is deplorable, but there are conceptual problems as well. The international agencies involved in post-conflict reconstruction have so far failed to understand how to start or restart economic development in a low-income setting. It’s important to distinguish four distinct phases of outside help to end a conflict. In the first phase, during the war itself, aid is for humanitarian relief–focusing on food, water, emergency medicine, and refugee camps. In the second phase, at the war’s end, aid remains mainly humanitarian relief, but now directed towards displaced people returning home, and to decommissioned soldiers.
In the third phase, lasting three to five years, aid supports the first phase of post-war economic development, including restoration of schools, clinics, farms, factories, and ports. In the fourth phase, which can last a generation or more, assistance is directed to long-term investments and the strengthening of institutions such as courts. The international community, the US in particular, is dreadful at the third stage. Once a conflict is over, aid agencies seem paralyzed. Instead of sending help, they send study groups. There is often a lag of years before moving from humanitarian relief to real economic development. By the time such help actually arrives, it is often too late: war has been re-ignited. In fact, it is possible to restart economic development through targeted “quick-impact initiatives. Since the economies of most impoverished post-conflict countries are based on agriculture, restarting farm output is vital. Impoverished farmers should receive a free package of seeds, fertilizers, and low-cost equipment (such as pumps for irrigation).
When such aid is made available quickly, former soldiers will return to their farms, and can establish a livelihood by the beginning of the first growing season following the end of hostilities. This type of aid does not require long studies, but quick action. Similar quick-impact measures should be undertaken to control disease. Small rural clinics can be built or rebuilt very quickly, within the first year of peace. Solar panels and wind turbines can provide off-grid power in isolated rural areas. Wells and cisterns can be put in place to ensure safe drinking water. These and similar efforts can mean the difference between famine and food security, epidemic disease and health, income and utter poverty, and, most importantly, hope and despair. Yet the window of opportunity closes quickly. Quick-impact economic development is exactly what is needed now to help end the horrific violence and suffering in Darfur.
Sanctions, threats, and peacekeepers are only short-term measures, whereas real progress there against extreme poverty is not only achievable, but also is something that the government and rebels can agree on. The same applies in Somalia. But the window of opportunity closes quickly in these and other post-conflict regions. Only by taking quick, meaningful action to fight hunger, poverty, and disease can there be a chance of creating conditions for long-term peace. Jeffrey D. Sachs is a professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).