March 1, 2024

Economix: How to Rebuild a War-Torn Nation

When trying to rebuild a war-torn nation, focus first on security, not economic development. Then make a few highly visible improvements, like free health care for small children or restoring regular electricity. Also, hire female police officers.

These are among the recommendations in a new report from the World Bank that assesses the best strategies for donor nations seeking to improve conditions in countries mired in self-perpetuating cycles of violence.

The bank, which underwrites development projects, tries each year to focus attention on a particular aspect of international development. In recent years, it has moved from a longtime focus on big-ticket projects to grapple with broader issues, like climate change, and to embrace incremental solutions.

This year’s topic is the debilitating impact of violence on economic activity.

High levels of violence, political or criminal, are much more destructive than natural disasters. The report found that criminal violence in Guatemala cut economic activity in 2005 by more than twice as much as the damage caused by Hurricane Stan.

“People in fragile and conflict-affected states are more than twice as likely to be undernourished as those in other developing countries, more than three times as likely to be unable to send their children to school, twice as likely to see their children die before age 5, and more than twice as likely to lack clean water,” the report says.

The report’s specific and sometimes surprising prescriptions are based on a study of nations that have made progress toward stability and prosperity, including Chile, Colombia, Ethiopia and Indonesia.

First, an impressive caution: “It takes a generation.”

The World Bank reports that no nation has made significant and sustainable progress toward reducing corruption in less than 14 years, and that on average it took successful nations 27 years. Reducing the role of the military in politics? No less than 10 years, 17 years on average.

Second, it emphasizes the importance of first establishing the legitimacy of a new political system by making quick progress in a few visible and tangible areas, rather than the standard tendency to announce a long list of goals.

“At the end of 6 or 12 months people look back and say, ‘What has the government done?’ and they really want to look back and see that there are two or three things that have changed,” said Sarah Cliffe, a principal author of the report.

In South Africa after apartheid, the government focused on providing health care for pregnant women and children under the age of 5. In Liberia, the government promised to restore electricity in Monrovia, the capital city, within one year.

The report also touches repeatedly on the value of gender equity and female involvement in political decision-making, including law enforcement. In Nicaragua, for example, it says that increased hiring of women as police officers produced a crackdown on sexual violence. In Liberia, the report says that the creation of all-female units that worked alongside the local police helped to restore public confidence.

Two final suggestions are pointed at donor nations. The report says that assistance for troubled nations too often jumps and plunges, which is not healthy. It says that donors instead should commit to providing steady, reliable, long-term funding. Issues of corruption, inefficiency or ineffectiveness should be dealt with through changes in management or focus, rather than reductions in aid, the report says.

A chart from the World Bank shows the volatility in aid to four countries from year to year. Humanitarian aid and debt relief, excluded from the statistics, would increase the volatility, it said.Source: World Development Report team calculations based on O.E.C.D. A chart from the World Bank shows the volatility in aid to four countries from year to year. Humanitarian aid and debt relief, excluded from the statistics, would increase the volatility, it said.

It also suggests the use of a radical new method for judging the effectiveness of rebuilding efforts: asking people in the recipient nations. The World Bank sees such polling as a way to demonstrate incremental progress even as it seeks to shift investment toward long-term plans that may not yield tangible results as quickly.

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