Over the last few weeks, a meme has spread on social media asking Facebook users to compare a photo of themselves from ten years ago, with one from today. Among Syrians, the photos provided a stark reminder of how much the country has lost during almost eight years of conflict. It also begs the question: what will the next 10 years bring? In order to answer that question, one must consider the hurdles to reconstruction. Although the Syrian government and its allies are anxious to rebuild, such discussions are premature, creating the potential for abuse and corruption. They are unable and unwilling to lead the type of open, transparent process necessary for successful reconstruction. Studying best practices will allow policy makers and advocates on all sides to plan properly for the future and understand the conditions that need to be in place before reconstruction commences.
There is a wealth of research available on the post-conflict reconstruction programs of other countries that have been implemented in recent decades. While not all have been successful, together they offer a variety of important lessons, three of which are highlighted here:
Reconstruction must be centered on dialogue with local communities. Too often reconstruction agendas are driven by donors and implementers instead of the local community that will be utilizing the infrastructure on a daily basis. Reconstruction plans need to be formed as part of an active dialogue with local communities. This should go beyond discussions with local governments, and instead include the broader public, comprising a wide cross-section of different ethnic groups, religious faiths, and other communities, each of whom may have unique needs that can be addressed through reconstruction. To date, the current government has pursued the opposite technique, using reconstruction as a tool to dislocate residents, such as the creation of the new Damascus development, Marouta City, which is replacing unregulated housing with expensive new apartments well outside of the financial means of the previous residents.
Reconstruction requires extensive planning and cooperation between donors, governments, and implementers. The American led reconstruction of Iraq saw massive amounts of waste when similar projects were unnecessarily duplicated, a result of a lack of communication between the many different organizations and branches of government involved in the planning process. Ideally, reconstruction should be centralized, with a clear framework for communication among all partners, to ensure that money is being used effectively. Such planning is a challenge in post-conflict settings, because the conflict often results in damage to the infrastructure necessary for a government or other institution to closely monitor partners. The Syrian government does not control the entire country, and many areas it has recently retaken are still transitioning back to government control after institutions had been run by opposition groups. With the government’s control still so tenuous, it would be extremely difficult to closely manage a country-wide reconstruction program in a fair and equitable way.
Reconstruction should be transparent and include protections against corruption. Physical reconstruction usually involves the granting of lucrative construction contracts, laying the groundwork for massive profit. If not appropriately guarded, government allies can use reconstruction as a road to wealth. Additionally, the ability to claim rebuilt housing or access new facilities needs to be equitable and transparent. Abuses are already visible in Syria, as Assad’s allies, including infamous businessman Rami Makhlouf, profit from reconstruction agreements and laws governing property expropriation to ensure that the government has effective control over who will benefit from new construction. In order to guard against such corruption, reconstruction projects require strong oversight. Likewise, property disputes need to be carefully adjudicated within the framework of a larger property restitution and return program.
Ultimately, post-conflict reconstruction is not a process that stands on its own. Rather it is one aspect of a larger transition, which is about rebuilding not only physical infrastructure but also institutions, societal relationships, and trust in government. To achieve this more comprehensive type of reconstruction, Syria will need to implement a wide variety of transitional justice programs, including security sector reforms, property restitution, and a truth and reconciliation processes in tandem with construction and infrastructure projects.
The types of elite-driven reconstruction plans promoted by the current government will create opportunities for widespread abuse and corruption, and will not be able to nurture the reconciliation and stability necessary for long-term peace. When the next #10YearChallenge circulates on social media, will a vibrant society be bustling from home to work on Syria’s roads, or will IDP camps be overflowing in the country sides? Will children be back to their studies, or will schools and universities remain in ruins? Will families have the resources and necessary infrastructure to access fresh food and clean water, or will they remain dependent on humanitarian aid? If Syria is going to look drastically different in ten years, preparations for reconstruction must begin now. Studies show that reconstruction is a long-term process. One World Bank study estimates that low-income countries need about five years just to develop the capacity to properly utilize large-scale reconstruction funds. In Syria’s case, even the beginning of such a process is still out of reach. Nevertheless, civil society organizations and the international community must plan for a thoughtful, comprehensive plan as part of a large peace agreement, in the hope that the next decade provides the opportunity for meaningful reconstruction and long-term stability.