Q&A: 'Reconstruction Is Not Development as Usual'

  • Liza Jansen interviews Dr. GRACIANA DEL CASTILLO, expert on countries in crisis (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

Despite continuous aid supplies from Western countries, developing a realistic comprehensive strategy for countries coming out of war often fails because of a lack of effective aid, technical assistance, and existent institutional arrangements, says Dr. Graciana del Castillo.

Del Castillo was the first senior economist in the cabinet of the U.N. secretary-general in the early 1990s and has been involved in ongoing post-conflict operations in Central America, Asia and Africa. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and recently published a book entitled 'Rebuilding War-Torn States', in which she evaluates the post-Cold War era of reconstructing countries in transition to peace.

In an interview with IPS, Del Castillo spoke about the difficulties the international community, in particular the U.N., faces in the process of rebuilding war-torn countries.

Excerpts follow.

IPS: In your book, you state that the U.N., as the leading global institution, would be ideally placed to deal with reconstruction but lacks the operational and technical capacity. What reforms does the U.N. require to properly deal with the reconstruction process? GRACIANA DEL CASTILLO: In the transition to peace, illegal, war-ravaged, state-led economies need to be transformed into functioning market economies where people can support themselves. Reconstruction is not development as usual. It is a political process since anything you do will have political implications and the country could revert to war.

Reconstruction will fail unless political reconciliation - not optimal economic policies - becomes the bedrock priority. Reconciliation requires that former combatants be reintegrated through productive activities. This requires job creation.

The U.N. lacks the institutional arrangements to integrate economic and political issues for effective reconstruction. The political department should lead in this area but it lacks the economic expertise needed to deal with other stakeholders in reconstruction, particularly the international financial institutions.

IPS: In your book you quote Lawrence of Arabia, a British military officer noted for his liaison role during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, who once said: 'Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.' Is the international community following this principle? GDC: The international community as a whole needs to be more in the backstage. They have to accept that countries coming out of war might not do it the way the international community wants it, and that is fine, as long as it is done

IPS: Do you think the U.N. is contributing positively? GDC: Actually, I think the U.N. does very badly in this area since they do not have the capacity nor the expertise to work more effectively with other players. They need to acquire such capacity.

If the U.N. were more involved they could ensure that the political objective of the transition takes precedence over some of the development issues. The record of countries in the transition to peace is both dismal and expensive. Half the countries go back to war, the other half ends up aid dependent. Why? Because the international community has been unable to help these countries to create jobs.

IPS: Has the U.N. peacebuilding commission improved the U.N.'s capacity to deal with reconstruction? GDC: The U.N. created a peacebuilding commission and a peacebuilding support office that lack operational capacity. Such capacity is essential if the U.N. is to play an important role in supporting countries in reconstruction. The commission has an advisory role only in countries that are not under review by the Security Council. This has added more duplication and waste in the process rather than improving it.

IPS: What is your advice? GDC: The transition to peace is a very complex situation. There is an imbalance between what the international community has done in the military and security areas and what it has done in the area of reconstruction.

To give you an idea, the United States has spent 225 billion dollars on the Afghanistan war since it started. Ninety-five percent of that money has gone to the Department of Defence and most of that money is spent outside Afghanistan. The five percent spent in reconstruction has been spent in a very fragmented way. In fact, the U.S. and other donors channel 75 percent of their aid outside the government budget, thus failing to support government priorities.

IPS: Some people think that reconstruction may last on average for at least three years. GDC: It will very much depend on the country. In Liberia, for example, nothing had been done in the first three years. In El Salvador, the reconstruction plan was implemented in five years. In Afghanistan, it will take much longer.

IPS: What particularly struck you when compiling the book? GDC: I have been directly involved in many cases and many things struck me, but what affected me the most is that 15 years after I first started working for the secretary-general's office in 1992 on these issues, many post-conflict countries and those supporting them are still discussing the same issues as if there were no lessons learned.

IPS: What would you consider to be the next best step? GDC: Well, at the time of the Marshall Plan in 1947, the U.S. government made a very important effort to debate the political issues but also the technical issues related to reconstruction. One of the things that was debated, for example, was whether it was good to give countries aid without a quid pro quo.

Because countries coming out of war at the end of the post-Cold War were at low levels of development, reconstruction was treated as 'development as usual' but with large volumes of aid.

But after 20 years it is clear that this approach has failed. It is clear that if conflict ever arises between the political objective of national reconciliation and the Millennium Development Goals, the former should prevail at all times. Otherwise the countries may relapse into conflict and development will fail anyway.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service