Comment: Iraq Reconstruction - Heeding Balkan Lessons

Before moving to rebuild Iraq, West should make sure it has learned from past development mistakes.

Comment: Iraq Reconstruction - Heeding Balkan Lessons

Before moving to rebuild Iraq, West should make sure it has learned from past development mistakes.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

As the international community begins designing strategies to help Iraq recover, it should remember to draw on experience from past assistance to post-conflict societies, especially in the Balkans

Development assistance needs to be effective and appropriate. There's no shortage of hard lessons to be learned from previous interventions in such places as Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan. Yet it appears that as each new crisis arises, many international aid organisations are stricken with amnesia. Donors rush in, repeat old mistakes - and in a year or so the spotlight shifts to another, more urgent crisis.

With this in mind, let's take a look back at what went right - and wrong - in earlier post-conflict interventions, Kosovo in particular, to see how initial emergency work in Iraq might one day lead to a stable and democratic state. Some clear pointers emerge.

Start earlier, and stay later. Funders often make grand promises which raise expectations on the ground, but it then takes months or years for funding to come on line - if it ever arrives at all. Moreover, as we've seen in Bosnia, Kosovo and most recently Afghanistan, funding ping-pongs from crisis to crisis, never taking root in any one place long enough to make a meaningful difference.

Development is a continuum. Assistance in post-conflict situations often comes in three phases: emergency: humanitarian assistance; construction: building infrastructure; and development: supporting economic and democratic reform.

Some international organisations recognise that these phases are part of a continuum. Many do not, and fail to integrate development objectives into the first two phases. Others shy away from developmental goals because they take longer and it's harder to measure success.

But in the end, if all that is left in place is new buildings and infrastructure projects, short-term progress can be little more than a mirage.

The local community must be viewed as part of the solution, not the problem. By this we do not mean the all too common approach where international organisations and donors come up with a ready-made solution and get the locals to carry out the work.

Pre-packaged solutions create a donor-driven environment in which international organisations assume the role of "dictators of goodwill". Local communities are left with new bridges, homes, schools and hospitals. But we have failed to engage and develop their own talents.

If the end goal is to build a democratic society, it cannot be done with bulldozers alone.

Establish partnerships with communities outside the capital. There is a danger that we forsake country development in favour of creating city states. Many international groups set up shop when they arrive in the capital, and stay put. Following the war in Kosovo, the majority of the 500 western aid organisations worked in, and out of, Pristina.

As in many volatile societies, rural parts of Kosovo have been the starting point for a variety of popular movements, militant and otherwise. Even today, some of these carry the potential to destabilise the region. Impoverished, and neglected by development programmes, rural communities have also become fertile recruiting grounds for extreme political elements and organized crime.

There are successful models to be learned from, too. In Kosovo, some organisations fostered community engagement in developmental objectives early on, in the humanitarian assistance and construction phases.

These donors provided aid to towns and villages on condition that the communities there established councils that were representative of their political, social, ethnic and gender make-up. The councils were charged with prioritising the needs of their communities, while the donors did the funding.

Building on the partnership, the councils were asked to make projects happen by supplying labour and in some cases community funds to build bridges, schools and hospitals. Out of the councils emerged officials who based their political campaigns on the needs of the community, and non-government organisations and associations that began taking a more proactive role as agents of change.

Focus on NGO development. Autocratic regimes generally enact laws and policies to ensure that there are no truly independent NGOs. A critical first step is therefore to develop the legal and regulatory framework that will allow them to form, operate, and sustain themselves.

In the initial stages many - or most - new NGOs are set up to meet the demands of international donors. This creates an explosion in the number of one-man organisations that often see themselves more as job creation schemes rather than fostering civic engagement and responsibility.

In Kosovo, there were more than 2,000 registered NGOs. Most of them folded once international emergency aid dried up. The experience left a lasting negative image of the non-governmental sector, and a lack of public trust.

In Iraq, we need to start encouraging NGOs that are truly issue-driven, and we need to focus on making them sustainable.

Finally, we need to kick the habit of adrenaline-driven development. Self-proclaimed "mission junkies" are already planning their next reunion in Iraq, abandoning "finished projects" such as Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan.

Donor organisations themselves often suffer from the same affliction. They like to fund quick-impact crisis interventions instead of long-term development.

For too many donors, the challenges they faced in the past are effectively forgotten. No wonder many of our friends think we suffer from amnesia.

Fron Nazi, director of Balkan Projects at the East West Management Institute, is based in Kosovo Doug Rutzen is Senior Vice President at the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law in Washington DC.

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