Not too early to think about reconstruction

Friday 18/03/2016

Russia’s unexpected partial exit from Syria has greatly improved the climate of the Geneva peace talks. The war in Syria, now entering its sixth year, has already killed nearly 270,000 people, mostly civilians. Violence and destruction continue to be the rule in Yemen, Iraq and Libya. But with the retreat of the Islamic State in the Levant and signs of budding diplomatic processes, it is not premature to raise the issue of regional reconstruction.

When the guns eventually do fall silent, the world will be left with the more daunting task of rebuilding societies and econo­mies, many of which were distressed and dysfunctional to start with.

International involvement will be imperative. In Syria alone, tens of billions of dollars will be needed. Experts estimate that even if war stopped today reconstruction would take at least another 15 years.

Global institutions experienced in reconstruction-oriented investment and development will have a big role to play, and there also may be the need to establish a regional Middle East and North Africa (MENA) development and reconstruction bank as was proposed in the 1990s.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) has already developed a programme called “the National Agenda for the future of Syria”.

The scope of the reconstruction effort would be close to that of the Marshall Plan. After the second world war, the United States spent $100 billion (in current dollars) to rebuild Europe.

The US was motivated in large part by the strategic desire to prevent Soviet advances.

Similarly, a major reconstruction programme in MENA would have the strategic goal of stifling the forces of extremism.

The global private sector also must play a role in the reconstruc­tion process, although subcontracting the reconstruction process to the lowest bidder is not the answer.

World powers seem much more eager to participate in war than in reconstruction. The files of the British House of Commons reveal that the 2011 military intervention in Libya cost the UK treasury 320 million pounds. In the ensuing four years, Britain allocated 25 million pounds for “stabilisation projects” in Libya.

World powers will have to overcome their natural stinginess if the MENA region’s reconstruction is to succeed. And geography compels Europe to act more than other world powers.

Reconstruction is not just about bricks and mortar. According to the Aleppo Project — a Budapest-based collaboration among refugees, experts and policymakers — 72% of Aleppo’s inhabitants would return once the war ends.

But those with a post secondary education are 14% less likely to return than those who are less educated. The emigration of the well-educated and the professionals from countries at war will further handicap their futures. In Syria, already half of the country’s doctors have left.

“The longer the conflict goes on the more likely it is that those who have integrated economically and socially into new commu­nities will stay put and build new lives outside Aleppo,” said the Aleppo Project pollsters.

Of course, responsibility for reconstruction does not lie solely with the outside world. MENA countries will have to assume their role. Without an end to imperial ambitions and a commitment to peaceful resolution of conflicts and internal reconciliation, no amount for external assistance will be able to produce the kind of future that the region’s people deserve and desire.