Viewing entries tagged
Syria

Post-Conflict Reconstruction is Dead


I have argued for many years that post-conflict reconstruction is a thing of the past but only recently, at Making Sense of Syria 2014, did I realize that a more direct spotlight needs to be shone on this issue. Already there is an inconsistency in language in which I find many planners label post-war reconstruction and post-disaster reconstruction as nearly the same thing - which they are not, as environmental disasters take on an array of variables and conditions entirely separate from acts of human violence.  But the notion of post-conflict is entirely flawed, as ultimately, today we only have the ability to respond to stabilize and build - with little contribution available in terms of creating remedies rebuilding.

Much of our thinking on the notion of reconstruction is rooted in the reconstruction of London in 1666. In response Christopher Marlow did much to improve the city through the state led rebuilding process. Our conception of reconstruction was then solidified with the Marshall Plan of WII, again a process of state led rebuilding which also led to local improvements, such as exemplified through the reconstruction of Warsaw, Poland.

But today post-conflict/post-war reconstruction is obsolete because the nature of conflict has changed. Wars do not end with a clean resolution. Rather, contemporary wars are resolved through entropy, wherein the pace of conflict is reduced to a simmer.  Protracted over many years and subject to bursts of violence, spaces in conflict remain under the stress and pressure of danger, and are inhibited by its demands.  

Furthermore, cities and regions in conflict no longer exist as a neutral stage for the conflict theatre. Whereas WWII was fought in the rural hinterlands and urban cores between two states - with little regard for the landscape itself - contemporary conflicts are fully integrated with the terrain, as the ultimate stakeholders and primary actors are the local populations.  

We no longer experience state-to-state conflict. Unless a dramatic incident initiates large-scale international conflict (such as 9/11 and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) the primary conflicts consist of non-state actors either against the state or against other non-state actors. The motives, capabilities, and organizational structure of these groups vary greatly, thus further shifting the landscape into frenetic patterns.

From this context, it is clear that the efforts made to rebuild a wart torn city must change. If a city is destroyed by an aggregate of non-state actors, then is it reasonable to expect state-based reconstruction to be effective? What if the state hires businesses If the war was fractured and erratic, will a largely institutional process (such as via the United Nations) mend the wounds? Can populations traumatized by the violent atrocities of their own neighbors work put grievances into the past and work together for community-based development?

Unlikely. 

Yet these are the standard response mechanisms in place. This can and must change. I've written below some of the key lessons I've learned over the years to better facilitate reconstruction, though this list is by no means complete. Maybe one day I'll get around to writing a book. But for now, lets just stick with the list:


Steps toward effective resolution and rebuilding for cities in conflict

1. We must recognize that conflicts do not have a clean end, yet there is a turning point wherein enough variables for continued conflict reach a collective low-point, providing a point of entry for external variables toward response, stability, and construction.

2. The ability to conduct any form of development or positive social contribution exists only in relation to the level of security available. In a city like Aleppo, there is no room for things such as "personal agency" in the midsts of high-intensity conflict.  

3. Traditionally high-need systems (such as food markets) continue to exist, but they change form in response to the conflict, frequently becoming more widely distributed and with a higher cost of access. We cannot assume any traditional elements of society continue to function unchanged while under duress.

4.  Linear planning is a waste of time. Sequence planning can be feasible, but the success of each sequence cannot be dependent upon the success of a preceding or adjacent sequence. Each one must autonomously reach success or fail. In Afghanistan, NATO pursued an approach based on key locations to function as interdependent sequences, yet this structure is too feeble and can not respond to dynamic conditions.

5. Failure must be strategically integrated within the planning process.  

6. If a city was destroyed by disparate non-state actors, then its greatest potential to pacify and rebuild is is also in the hands of disparate non-state actors - not the State or by external institutions.  The symmetry of destroy/rebuild by fractured processes is more than aesthetic, but is essential to long-term stability and functionality.

7. We can at best inject materials and actors to nudge existing variables into new forms. Strategic intervention is inept to shift the context of the conflict, yet we must realize that introducing new variables will not merit success. Sometimes it is essential to wait for less variables to exist.  You must be patient to let the conflict play out sometimes. Mogadishu waited 21 years to bounce back, and there were likely only 3 other points in time in which it had the potential.  

8.Stress, fear, and survival instincts are the biggest factors to judge how populations will respond to a given scenario and who will participate in an intervention, to what extent, and for how long.   While the boring elements of life continue to exist - such as the need to go to a job and earn an income - these systems adapt to the above concerns.

9. Anyone that wants to do "development" while within a state of conflict is not thinking clearly. It is essential for a turning point to arrive - which also, cannot be forced.

10. The key to sustainable transformation is speed. Bad decisions, bad policies, and bad infrastructure can be repaired and modified. But taking a long time to do it the "right way the first time" will undermine everybody. It is better to work from general to specific so that all actors can witness and participate in the transformation.

Democracy 2.0 - Asking the People in Syria for their Input


Before taking any further steps in Syria, why not ask the people in Syria what they want to happen?Sounds outlandish, but with a little imagination and some basic technologies, its completely possible.  It even has a precedent.

Many city governments such as in New York City have discovered the value of combing the landscape for metrics and using this data for city management while organizations like Datakind specialize in extracting and interpreting information from neighborhoods. From mapping the spatial distribution of poverty at the World Bank to Kenyan citizens reporting violence with tools like Ushahidi, lots of organizations have discovered the value of obtaining and leveraging local level information to make informed decisions.

The technologies used to collect and organize this data do more than provide a picture to experts. These technologies also open the floor for broader participation.  I am in no way saying that technology solves all problems, but as a tool for communication, it can make voices heard that would have otherwise remained in the shadows. 

At this moment the world is in panic and American's are distraught over the decisions regarding Syrian intervention.  The decision making process is reliant now upon the influence of popular opinion, congressional interests, media storms, intelligence collection, international agreements, and back room discussions.  Yet among all the talk, the most important voice has been excluded from the conversation - the voices of people living in Syria.

Engaging an entire national population, let a alone a population under pressure from the horrors of war, is no easy task. But it is possible, at least to a degree, to use a mobile phone technology like rapidsms for citizens to vote by text message just like popular tv programs that ask audiences to vote for their favorite performer.  I was informed this morning by a friend with family in Syria that the mobile communications infrastructure in Syria is not steady, but over the last year it has been working off and on.   With a little ingenuity it would be possible to create a window for voting and to filter messages.  A little bit of scripting and it is possible to cancel multiple-votes from the same number and even to map the distribution of votes across the landscape. 

A simple text message voting system will not capture popular opinion of everyone in country, but it can provide a statistically viable sample.  More significantly, implementing a tool such this could refigure the entire future of foreign policy and global security.  International policy makers already have the tools at their disposal to engage those populations most affected by military intervention, leaving imagination as the only missing piece to the puzzle.

Planning for the Future Reconstruction of Syria from Chaos and Complexity



The world is abuzz over the current civil war and the possibility of external military intervention in Syria.  While the conversation is primarily focussed on the use of chemical weapons in violation of the Geneva Charter, there has been little discussion about the long-term implications of the civil war, regardless of the role imposed by outside militaries.  What will be the result of so much bloodshed and how will the nation rebuild?  In what form?

Spatial Distribution of Conflict.  August 2013.
The severity of physical and social damage established in the last two years, broad distribution of conflict and the lack of unity among non-state actors within the conflict suggests that the civil war will be a long one, perhaps 10 years or more.   The resolution to this will not be political process as the lack of clearly established leadership among rebel groups positions no one to pursue negotiations with the State.  The massive refugee outflow, consisting 50% of children, weakens the social fabric of the nation and will continue to do so.


Engineering A New Outcome

If you discover that you are genetically predisposed toward a certain ailment, you adapt your lifestyle to mitigate the future.  You hedge your bet.  Likewise with Syria, the most probable outcome right now is protracted conflict followed by a painful reconstruction process (like Afghanistan).  But if examine the current variables, and measure the inter-relations between those variables, we can attempt to coordinate a strategy toward a desired outcome - ie., less war and more rapid recovery.   Because each variable maintains the same potential as a butterfly to inspire a hurricane, we don't have the control as we do with our bodies, but we do have the ability to better position some social and structural elements in terms of probable outcomes.  If this process were to begin now in Syria, it could potentially lead to a better future.

In this case, the goal is for the war in Syria to play out in such a manner that all relevant resources (community groups, finances, areas of destruction vs. preservation, social allegiances and so on)  are best organized for a rapid and successful reconstruction process.  The variables are numerous and so too are the methods of working with them.  So where do we begin?

The role of strategic planning and development within the battlefield is not new.  As an expansion of the Hearts and Minds campaign of Vietnam, development was heavily undertaken by NATO in the Iraq and Afghanistan and implemented via Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The PRTs were designed and operated in coordination with a broader mandate of Counter Insurgency doctrine (COIN). This was not a flawless system, it required massive layers of security that isolated the infrastructure creation process from the populations served, and when the projects were turned over to communities, unsurprisingly the outcomes were not always as hoped. Yet these methods were only viable as a strategy because of the massive allotment of resources.  Furthermore, PRTs had an inconsistent impact across regions and populations.  It is a tactic that will be likely replicated in the future but it simply won't apply in Syria.

In the recent 21 years of conflict in Somalia, intervention was limited to MSF operations, WFP, and other UN backed initiatives typically implemented by local NGOs.  In this regard, Somalia is a better region of comparison to Syria.  The problem here is that such agencies are designed only for humanitarian relief. This is essential, but it doesn't facilitate a resolution as much as institutionalize a process of triage across a fragmented society.  The inequitable distribution of services doesn't maintain a status quo as much as introduce a new variable, randomly redistributing the lines of power among a downtrodden population.  Potential outcomes vary from relief to militarization.


Urban Planning and Development In the Syrian Conflict

Typically when I tell people that I apply urban planning methods to mediate violent conflict, people imagine I'm referring to zoning and bike lanes.  Sigh... thats so boring.  But I suppose on the imaginative level there could be something here as one could argue that territorial patterns of warfare form emergent conflict zones, interconnected by supply corridors - don't forget that al-Shabaab had covered Mogadishu with a complex network of trenches to quickly mobilize troops and supplies yet also grinding the speed of territorial changes to a halt.  Yet these concepts in the current state of the conflict can only apply to analysis and not to planning outcomes.

A more pragmatic approach is to better understand the diversity of stakeholders in the conflict, as the fragmentation of non-state actors is a major obstruction to the peace process.  This obstruction was likewise a major obstacle in Afghanistan and it is no surprise that the suitcases of money provided by the CIA in 2002 to mobilize diverse ethnic groups for a common interest did not build a sustainable peace or found strong governance.  

Expanding and integrating diverse stakeholders is a cornerstone of the urban planning process, and while stable nations have the benefit of easily organizing community groups or legal proceedings,  it remains possible to mobilize stakeholders in hostile territories.  A key feature of this "non-rational" process is that it does not necessarily require strong, easily defined internal leadership.  Rather the process only requires an entity committed to the interest of all stakeholders, committed to a win/win outcome, and who can manage an otherwise neutral disposition.  Notably, this entity will not be successful if all authority is founded on outside power (US intervention for example), but rather this entity must have acquired a local, grass-roots level of respect combined with recognition among high-level community leaders.  At the moment, there is no one of this description involved in the conflict. Yet this can change.  After all, the war could take 10+ years so its completely feasible for an individual or organization to emerge to do the work.

Another critical element toward the future pacification and reconstruction of Syria is the role of the internally displaced and refugee populations.  The role of displaced populations could effect rebuilding of Syria in a combination of ways, yet two possibilities are immediately obvious.  When the war in Afghanistan drove thousands from their homeland, many children were left secluded in Pakistani refugee camps where Saudi madrasas promoted Wahabist beliefs, laying the foundation for the emergences of the Taliban.  During the same time, the war in Somalia drove thousands abroad who were then exposed to a variety cultures, educations, and lifestyles.  The return of Somalis in diaspora has made the sudden rebuilding of Somalia a possibility as they return with new social capital to invest.

Number and Location of Syrian Refugees. US State Department 2013.
At present the 1.9 million displaced refugees are primarily distributed throughout Lebanon and Turkey.  While I don't believe those nations would have a detrimental impact upon the refugee population and the long-term psycho-social advancement of the youth, it is unlikely that those nations have the resources necessary to invest.  At present, Turkey is already hosting 200,000 refugees in camps and has 200,000 refugees outside of camps.  
As you can see from the map, many of these camps are open, but it is clearly getting stretched to a limit. If it is becomes commonly accepted that the the civil war will be long and drawn out, initiatives to excel the resettlement of Syrian families into new communities could provide the investment needed for the future of Syria to be founded on socially productive and worldly populations.