No.8 - July 2013

by Graciana del Castillo

Rebuilding War-Torn States: Is the UN System Up to the Challenges?


With civil war raging in Syria, and with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa embarking on a complex and multifaceted transition to peace and stability, the time is past due for the UN system – including the Bretton Woods Institutions – to examine in depth how it can improve its record in supporting countries in such a transition.

Despite the peculiarities of each particular case, when civil wars or other chaos end, countries need to address the root causes of the conflict to make the fragile peace sustainable. In this context, countries need to establish public security; to create participatory political systems; to restore social cohesion; and to construct functioning economies.

The fact that the economic transition — also referred to as “economic reconstruction” or the “economics of peace” — takes place amid this multifaceted transition and not independently from it makes it fundamentally different from “development as usual.” The experience of the last two decades has shown that war-torn countries cannot move into sustainable long-term development unless they engage first in the economics of peace — an intermediate and distinct phase which must aim at reactivating the economy while simultaneously minimizing the high risk of relapsing into conflict.

Only by addressing the root of armed conflict in an integrated manner can fledgling transitions to peace and stability become irreversible.  The peace objective should prevail over development ones, and countries need to avoid aid dependency so that they can eventually stand on their own feet.  How can the UN system assist these countries to achieve such goals?  This question cries out for a coherent international response, and the answer should reflect a broad debate.  It is not only traditional Western donors that are having second thoughts.  Other critical donors for these countries, in the Arab world and China, also are reluctant to channel aid through the UN system because of its perceived ineffectiveness and waste.

Graciana del Castillo was a senior research scholar, adjunct professor of economics and associate director of the Center of Capitalism and Society at Columbia University. She worked with war-torn countries as the senior economist in the Office of the UN-Secretary-General in the early 1990s, and later at the International Monetary Fund. She is the author of "Rebuilding War-Torn States: The Challenges to Post-Conflict Reconstruction" and the forthcoming "Guilty Party: The International Community in Afghanistan."
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