World Affairs

In Rebuilding a Nation, Bring the People to the Table

April 17, 2024  • Maria Eugenia Brizuela de Avila & Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh

This article was developed following the most recent session of the Aspen Ministers Forum in Copenhagen, where former foreign ministers and leading experts discussed three essential factors contributing to the challenges facing the international system, including emerging technologies, global power shifts, and transnational challenges. Both authors of this essay joined the session and from their discussions in Copenhagen originated the piece below outlining how to navigate post-conflict reconstruction.

The fragile nature of post-conflict states is a challenge that, despite substantial international goodwill, often results in short-term financial solutions prone to waning interest, political machinations, and corruption. A systemic approach to rebuilding conflict-torn nations is necessary – one that establishes mechanisms for internal dialogue and accountability, instead of overfocusing on the quantity of aid, financial transactions and donor-centric models.

The recent landmark funding deal for Ukraine, a substantial USD 54 billion package from the European Union spanning 2024 to 2027, stands as a testament to the evolving approach. Unlike its American counterpart, the pending Foreign Bill Act, this package is exclusively designed for reconstruction and long-term development rather than immediate relief.

But the question arises: Can reconstruction genuinely commence while conflict persists? The answer is yes, but waiting for the cessation of hostilities is a luxury that countries like Ukraine cannot afford. Investing in the recovery of the war-torn country becomes imperative not just for immediate economic needs but for long-term development. Reconstruction is an opportunity to not simply restore what was lost but to serve as a strategic investment in the country’s future, fostering modernization, digitalization, and the development of a green economy.

Yet, such long-term support started while conflict is on-going requires the will to rebuild relations between the state, society, private sector, and international partners on the basis of mutual trust and genuine partnership. Without this trust, the influx of massive amounts of aid and investment can lead to corruption and disorder war-torn countries. Long after donors are gone and aid and interest has dried up, it is this internal state-society dialogue that will keep long-term reconstruction of a nation on track. Yet, often, in the calculations of dollars and accountability to external actors and taxpayers of donor countries, focus on this internal relationship is lost.

Navigating the complexities of post-conflict reconstruction requires a two-fold approach.

First, post-conflict aid should align with national priorities and implementation, avoiding external imposition of conditionalities. The ‘Ukraine Plan,’ developed in consultation with the EU, for example, emphasizes structural reforms, good governance, and anti-corruption measures, closely tied to the perspective of EU accession. However, the plan must transcend a transactional relationship. It should serve as a long-term pact between the state, society, private sector, civil society, and communities. An inclusive approach ensures that reconstruction is a collaborative effort, strengthening bonds within the country and laying the foundation for enduring development.

For this relationship to transcend mere economic transactions between a lender/donor and a borrower/receiver government, it is imperative to create space for the voices of other national stakeholders – including local governments, the private sector, civil society, and communities, particularly women. This goes beyond merely identifying their needs; it involves delineating their own contributions. In doing so, both governments and donors must outline how these national stakeholders will actively participate in identifying needs, implementing projects at their respective levels, contributing their own assets, including in-kind support, and evaluating projects based on outcomes that affect change in their communities. For example, after a natural disaster, they all can coordinate on identifying priorities and needs, where the housing project will be relocated, the community’s labor contribution, the government allocation of public services, etc.

Achieving national ownership also necessitates active involvement and implementation by local authorities, without circumventing the state through parallel funding mechanisms. Frequently, attempts to expedite delivery have resulted in schemes that undermine the capacity of the state or create discord between local authorities and national counterparts. The distribution of foreign development assistance through Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, bypassing the central government is an example that should be avoided. In many other post-conflict situations, international NGOs also tend to become responsible for delivering social welfare directly to communities, without going through national institutions. Avoiding such pitfalls is critical to fostering collaboration and trust that strengthen the bonds within the nation.

Second, oversight and monitoring are crucial mechanisms in ensuring that financial resources lead to sustainable development. Oversight prevents abuse and fosters transparency and accountability, particularly in post-conflict environments susceptible to corruption due to the disruption of governance structures.

Accountability should extend beyond donors and governments, reaching local populations often neglected in financial transactions. Transparent financial processes build trust among stakeholders, demonstrating that funds are utilized for the greater good. Oversight mechanisms can guide decisions on where resources should be directed, improving resource allocation and outcomes that directly improve the lives of people, hence increasing trust.

The EU’s commitment to Ukraine emphasizes oversight through reforms in audit and control systems. This commitment underscores the importance of accountability mechanisms contributing to capacity building within the post-conflict country, strengthening local institutions and personnel to manage finances responsibly. To these requirements should be added oversight mechanisms that actively encourage citizen participation in decision-making processes related to investments in the long term. Participatory budgeting schemes where communities are given a role in the scrutiny and monitoring of the allocation of public spending projects are good examples to duplicate.

Too often, relationships created in post-conflict reconstruction involve external partners and the government while those most in need, the people, are left trying to listen through the door. Open communication that engages a nation’s citizens is a necessary ingredient for the long term that should trump other relationships. Aligning aid with national priorities necessitates systematic dialogue between all stakeholders at the national, local, and community levels.

The failure to establish this internal dialogue risks inefficiency and cleavages in fragile post-conflict situations. The goal of post-conflict support should be to rebuild national bonds and provide hope for sustainable nation-building. This approach is about more than infrastructure development and economy restoration, it is about nurturing the enduring spirit of nations.

About the Authors

María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila is a Salvadoran lawyer and former Minister of Foreign Affairs for El Salvador. She is the former president of Banco Salvadoreño and sat on the Board of the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE). She also served as director of Corporate Sustainability at HSBC for Latin America. Currently an Executive Coach and member of non profit boards such as JA Worldwide present in 120 countries.

Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, is an Iranian-American researcher and university professor, with thirty years of experience working as an international consultant with the United Nations specializing in human security, peacebuilding, counter-terrorism and radicalization in Central Asia and Afghanistan. She is currently associate professor at Sciences Po in Paris, teaching courses on Human Security and on understanding and responding to violent extremism. She is the co-author of A Rock Between Hard Places; Afghanistan in its Regional Security Complexes (with Kristian P. Harpviken) (Hurst, 2016), editor of Rethinking the Liberal Peace: External Models and Local Alternatives (Routledge, 2011) and co-author of Human Security: Concepts and Implications (Routledge, 2007).