Rebuilding society after war: Reconstruction and democratisation

When armed conflicts reach a ceasefire, international attention often fades away. The process of reconstruction and democratisation does not merit the same interest or coverage. In this piece I want to look at some of the peace activities which take place — on both micro and macro levels — during and after violent conflicts, to share some observations, to postulate some theses and to raise some questions.

Wars have changed

The possibilities for democratisation and reconstruction in a post-war country depend a lot on the way wars are fought. The waging of war has changed a lot since the First World War. civilian causalities have risen from 5 to 90 percent — innocent people with little or no responsibility for starting the conflict. Most wars today are within countries rather than between states — the UN system is not made for internal conflicts and has had problems adapting to these new situations. In most civil wars the age of the soldiers has gone down and thousands of children — girls as well as boys — are recruited as soldiers. The distinction between soldiers and civilians as regulated by international law is not always easy to observe in internal conflicts. The use of mercenaries has developed enormously since the end of the Cold War — these troops support either state armies or different militias, warlords and rebels. We have also seen more and more of what have been correctly called "sobels" (soldier-rebels) who work as soldiers in daytime and raiders and rebels by night — looting the local population to feed themselves.

Every post-war country has to deal with its war veterans. In most modem wars they are younger and have taken part in more brutality than in the pre-World-War period.

Almost every single citizen is a victim of these wars, and all of them have an influence on the building of a new and democratic society after the weapons have been silenced.

Initiatives from above

As mentioned, the UN system is not set up to deal with civil wars — during the Cold War its negotiating fiction was often blocked by the Security Council, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it has been neither efficient nor effective inmost internal conflicts.

The EU, OAU, ASEAN and Nato are other international bodies which have taken initiatives in recent conflicts. Their combination of carrot and stick has forced some parties to sign peace agreements, but often one or more of the signatories never took the bulk of the agreement seriously — the ink didn't have time to dry before the fighting resumed.

At the same time it is obvious that these international bodies have in some cases been able to create ceasefires -sometimes lasting — and have stopped the killing of both soldiers and civilians. During the blockade of Sarajevo few groups other than the US, EU, UN and Nato had the power to force the Serbs to stop shelling the city.

Initiatives from below

In the last ten years we have seen an increasing number of peace initiatives from below in war zones. In the Balkan conflict there were more nonviolent interventions from all sorts of NGOs than in any other war. At the same time we saw an enormous amount of activity from domestic groups. The interactions between international and domestic groups have often changed all involved the degree to which they have supported each other, and how they have changed each other's agendas have still to be researched and evaluated. These NGOs work on the micro-level and on a wide range of act' Minorities. Women's groups, peace organisations, trade unions, political parties, human rights watchers, religious groups and humanitarian networks have all had their own agendas and links in the region. Some have focused on reconciliation at a village level and others on humanitarian aid. In the early stages we saw a multitude of nonviolent actions like protest marches, public meetings and leafleting — not all of them well prepared or supported by anti-war groups in the region. A number of naive actions with no strategic context created conflicts between international and local organisations.

When the weapons are silenced

In those cases where an agreement has been forced on the fighting parties, inter-national bodies which have taken part in the negotiating process have an obvious role in the next steps to be taken. These steps include injecting finance, preparing for elections, setting up democratic institutions, and setting up international military forces to monitor the agreement or to rebuild the infrastructure. Most of these activities are done on the macro-level and from above.

However, I think that the most important tasks in any reconstruction and democratisation process have to be done from below. I realise that ceasefires come from above, but without the active engagement of ordinary people no agreement in the world can create a just and lasting peace. I believe that the outcome of that work will depend a lot on what was done during the war. The number of contacts, the small-scale activities, the building of networks -- international as well as local — are crucial for the emergence of the new, post-war society. The main fruit — good and bad — of all the work done during the war will be seen in these reconstruction years.

Reconstruction from above

When international organisations try to implement peace and democracy in a war-torn country they always lack a deep under-standing of the country's culture, history and traditions. We saw such problems when the UNJUS invaded Somalia and we have seen similar situations in Rwanda and the Balkans. A combination of large resources and a lack of genuine understanding can create not only confusion and misunderstandings, but also disastrous results.

The conditions under which financial support is given differ from case to case. The IMF and World Bank normally give loans in order to reduce local demand and to devalue local currencies and rates under the terms of a "structural adjustment policy" they aim to stimulate exports in order to ensure the repayment of the loan. The long-term effect is to transfer economic power from local governments to Washington. Little attention has been given to the distributional effects of the economy of post-war countries, but normally the already rich get richer and the poor are made even worse off than before.

These strong international institutions need to be balanced with strong domestic ones. Democracy cannot be based on only a few powerful centres. A pluralistic society is a necessary prerequisite for a solid democracy.

One enormous task in any reconstruction process is dealing with those who have committed war crimes. Different countries have dealt with this in different ways. The Truth Commission in South Africa offered those who carried out the crimes the possibility of an amnesty if they publicly helped the commission and confessed their part in the crimes. The commission has been criticised for dealing only with those at the bottom of the pyramid and not with those with political responsibilities. Perhaps each area needs to develop its own system based on traditions and political circumstances.

When a country has been liberated or saved" by military means, the military structure has tended to infect' the civil administration and new infrastructures. This is not necessarily the best influence for a democratic society. How can it be done differently? Can NGOs be helpful at this level? Or is their knowledge not very helpful to governments in periods of transition?

Reconstruction from below

In cases where money was given to NGOs the effect has often been to create a dependence on foreign funding. We have seen many projects trying to satisfy donors' requirements rather than local needs. Few grant-giving foundations have emphasised the necessity for self-sufficiency in the long run.

Many NGOs seem to get trapped in their own dependence on the projects they are running. They are unable to see when it is time to leave or to let local social institutions take over. Many of the organisations set up during the war years fear becoming "casualties of peace" — they will always find arguments to prolong their stay in the area. It is necessary to find ways of "liberating" projects from external support.

Money provides power. In 1996,3000 development NGOs from OECD countries controlled and dispersed up to US$5.7 billion. This money influences the reconstruction process. How is that power used and how are the decisions taken? We have seen too many examples of new forms of imperialistic politics in these cases.

The peaceful pockets — or perhaps just less violent — created during the war will be the bases for building a new civil society. All those hundreds, or thousands, of microlevel activities of reconciliation and peace-building must be multiplied and become the foundations, bricks and mortar of the new democratic society.

How to carry on?

I have discussed reconstruction and democratisation from two main perspectives: from above and from below. From both perspectives we can see difficulties and possibilities. From below it seems difficult to establish a ceasefire and from above it seems difficult to implement a lasting and just peace for the civil society. Can good advice for the future be extracted from the experiences we have seen over the last two decades? Is every case so unique that there are no common conclusions to draw? Or can we find patterns that can help us develop better tools and skills to use in coming conflicts? How can we act during a war in order to prepare for the best possibilities when peace arrives? Are there conflicting interests between the new governments and the grassroots organisations? How can they push in the same direction and not contradict each other? Can we expect them to do so? Or even: do we want them to do so?


Jørgen Johansen is a big, cuddly Scandinavian pacifist with a dry sense of humour. He will be facilitating the theme group on Reconstruction and Democratisation at the WRI Triennial.