Establishing democratic governance in postconflict countries is the trillion-dollar-challenge of the twenty-first century. The international community has no shortage of attempts at democratic governance but few success stories. However, the accumulated conventional wisdom of rapid-fire elections and propping up a national government with massive aid and Western-style institutions has not worked. Rather than promoting stability, democracy, and effective governance in postwar countries, it creates a rentier state rife with corruption. Instead, local governance mechanisms should be shaped around existing cultural structures while providing democratic accountability. Whether or not capable governance can take hold in postconflict countries will determine whether civil wars and failed states continue to proliferate.
Why does Postconflict Policy Matter?
Perhaps no international endeavor (other than war itself) has been so been so costly and had such paltry results as postconflict reconstruction. The United Nations (UN) alone has spent an estimated $69 billion on 64 peacekeeping operations since 1948. That number is dwarfed by the amount that the U.S. government’s reconstruction expenditures between its military and civilian agencies. The U.S. Departments of Defense and State/USAID spent $421.1 billion for FY2003-2011 in the “postconflict” period of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, amid thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in assistance, postconflict states largely remain fragile. Half to two-thirds of postconflict countries revert to war within a decade. The results are not compatible with the expectations or expenditures. Because most civil wars are actually continuations of previous conflicts, keeping the peace in postconflict countries would be the single most effective way of reducing civil war. The track record of creating democratic governments in postconflict countries, a major goal of international reconstruction, is even more uneven. Of the nineteen major peacebuilding operations since 1989, only two were liberal democracies within five years of the missions’ start. Nine countries did not meet any definition of democracy. Why have such sincere, wide-ranging, personnel and fiscally-expensive operations had such a dismal track record?
This paper will first examine the postconflict reconstruction paradigm and its flaws, then address common challenges facing postconflict reconstruction efforts and the relative merits and failings of national and local governance in these contexts. Somaliland will be examined as an alternate model of radical decentralization and indigenous self-governance in postwar conflicts, and finally, recommendations for future postconflict reconstruction efforts will be presented.
Much of the terminology used in the subject of this paper are steeped in connotations and loaded meanings that lead to misreadings. In this paper, democracy will be defined as a government that is responsive to its citizens’ needs and contains elements of balance of power and checks and balances as well as the capability to induct or remove a leader by popular consent. Reconstruction, likewise, is defined as promoting peace and self-reliance through building and facilitating governance mechanisms and practices that address underlying tensions.
The Reconstruction Paradigm
The United States, the UN, and others in the business of postconflict reconstruction have developed standard operating procedures over the past two decades: a national conference to form a negotiated peace settlement, write a constitution, and select an interim leader; elections for national office within a year or two; defense institution building and security sector reform (military, police and judiciary); and ongoing efforts to consolidate democracy. These steps and expertise assume a national focus—the State Department’s 2005 Post-Conflict Reconstruction Essential Task document outlines 54 essential tasks, of which only one focuses on sub-national governance. The mixed success rate of establishing democracy is attributed to failures to provide sufficient commitment, money, and/or soldiers and trainers rather than a faulty strategy. However, a more careful analysis of postconflict reconstruction efforts identifies problems beyond resource levels.
Problems with the Reconstruction Paradigm
This well-meaning model has not performed better because it relies on 1) faulty assumptions, 2) external actors’ ability to understand a country’s unique situation, 3) an almost exclusive focus on national-level leaders and institutions, 4) elections as a cure-all, 5) a dismissal of the normative and religious underpinnings of the rule of law, and 6) problematic aid and development strategy. These problems have conflated to undermine reconstruction efforts.
Flawed Assumptions. The postconflict reconstruction paradigm’s assumptions do not stand up to careful scrutiny. First, the international community believes that Western national institutions can be replicated in postconflict countries; second, that indigenous and external actors share a common view of the situation and the way forward; and third, that the international community has the money, personnel, and attention span to rebuild and sustain countries until they are self-sufficient. In many countries, the type of institutions promoted by reconstruction efforts never existed or was never anything more than a hollow shell. Even if such institutions did exist, oftentimes (particularly in Africa) they are colonial institutions that contributed to state failure and conflict. Furthermore, peace settlements often bring all the combatants together in power-sharing agreements, reversing Clausewitz’s dictum and creating a political environment that is a continuation of war by other means. Finally, postconflict reconstruction assumes ambitious, long-reaching goals without the political will, ability, or resources to accomplish those objectives. The international community comes in with a full-throated stump speech and leaves with a whimper, quietly claiming a limited victory and withdrawing.
Misunderstanding the Country. The second problem with the conventional wisdom is that it depends on a set of standards can be applied to a wide variety of postconflict situations. The model may be a set of ideal conditions, but they often do not address the roots of the problems and the unique history of the country. The problem comes when international actors attempt to mold the country’s institutions and society into an imitation of themselves, ignoring how foreign and disparate the juxtaposition may be.
An Exclusive Focus on the National Level. Within weeks of the start of a reconstruction mission, the capital city is flooded with soldiers, military and government advisors, humanitarian workers, reporters, and contractors of every flavor setting up command centers, hooking up generators, and ratcheting up rent and hotel rates. The mission and aid may not be felt outside the capital for years, if at all. The international community deals with the national government and institutions almost exclusively, regardless of whether the national government is the best actor to accomplish the goals of reconstruction. Most contemporary conflict sources are domestic, so treating violence as a national problem rather than an escalation of local and regional conflict misses the root of the problem, especially because the causes and level of violence can vary greatly across areas. Only looking at one level of analysis and negotiating with one national leader provides simplicity for which international actors are so desperate and the postconflict situations are so bereft, yet it distorts the situation and the proposed solutions.
Relying on Elections as a Cure. Elections provide a great success story, photo opportunities of purple thumbs, a clear winner, and reams of data to analyze and pick apart. However, elections in postconflict countries rarely provide the legitimacy, happy ending, and popular consensus that they are designed to produce. Elections are inherently divisive. In postconflict countries, there is so much at stake that the losers may not accept the outcome and fight back—with press conferences or guns. Elections become a continuation of and an impetus for conflict, not a solution. This is not to dismiss democracy, but to argue that elections are not the solution, but the fruit of the solution; the solution is security and political order.
A subset of this problem is reconstruction’s dependence on transformational leadership. The international community looks for a George Washington or Nelson Mandela figure that will unite the country and selflessly and fearlessly enact the West’s laundry list of reforms. This all too often leads to disappointment and disillusionment, both among the indigenous population and the international community. While visionary leadership is important, leadership should create nations—not personas—crafting a shared identity with a hopeful future.
Misunderstanding the Normative Values of Governance. Political institutions—and especially rule of law—are grounded in normative beliefs informed by indigenous religious and cultural values. While scholars are quick to use childbirth metaphors to describe new countries, the development of law and political institutions is far closer to evolution: it is measured in centuries rather than months. This process can rarely be cut short. “One of the great problems with trying to import modern Western legal systems into societies where they did not exist previously, in fact, is the lack of correspondence between the imported law and the society’s existing social norms. Sometimes the importation of legal rules can speed up a process of social change,” writes political scientist Francis Fukuyama. “But if the gap between law and lived values is too large, the rule of law itself will not take hold.” Sadly, in Africa and the Greater Middle East, where much postconflict reconstruction takes place, the West has more often undermined rule of law than supported it, further separating law and lived values. The two must be fused for the rule of law to be real.
Aid Creates Perverse Incentives. The nature of aid distorts the incentives to become independent and fiscally responsible. Money pours in during the first year, when the indigenous government is largely unable to deal with such hefty sums or lead large development projects. Lack of indigenous capacity encourages many donors to funnel the aid into contractors, NGOs, and Western military forces to attempt large projects quickly (and at great cost) instead of the host government. In Afghanistan, 75% of aid is routed outside the government budget. Finally, aid frequently has what Frederik Galtung and Martin Tisne call the “potlatch effect,” where resources are provided with little consideration of what the indigenous country wants or can absorb, making corruption and waste all but a foregone conclusion.  While there are frequently short-term gains achieved by a quick influx of cash and hastily-constructed projects, the pattern of corruption and sidelining the indigenous government backfire a few years later in reconstruction, when the states institutions are tested, corruption becomes apparent, aid drops, and high expectations are frustrated. Financial accountability and other standards are usually inconsistently—if ever—enforced, further disconnecting aid from performance. Finally, the amount of external money dwarfs whatever tax revenue the country is able to secure, making the government answerable to donor countries rather than their citizens. The two groups frequently have different interests and priorities.