Using local knowledge to plan coherent post-conflict rebuilding

‘The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them. What has been broken can be rewoven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them.’ Meas Nee, Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages

This wonderful image captures for me the essence of rebuilding after conflict. It is a slow, gradual process of rebuilding the local structures and governance that has been destroyed or damaged by war. It reflects the idea that rebuilding depends on working with local people to restore and enhance their capacities and abilities, even as they are recovering from the trauma of what they have experienced. And it starts at the bottom of the system, and not the top.

I was thinking about this image as I read about the pleas of people in northern Mali for government officials to return, so that services can return to normality. IRIN News reported on Monday that people living in Gao and Timbukti, in northern Mali, are “calling for the rapid return of officials to re-start basic services and help run their towns, which they say are in a state of ‘complete chaos’. “ While the insurgent groups are mostly gone, thanks to the French, Chadian and Malian armies, only a few administrators have returned.

While they are waiting for the government officials to return, IRIN reported, “town residents – including village elders, chiefs, women and youths – are working to operate basic services and clean up the damage as best they can.” But while some key officials in Gao and Timbuktu have come back, officials responsible for health, energy, education, planning and other programmes have yet to return. Clearly, that limits the amount and extent of rebuilding that can take place.

However, those exiled officials represent an extremely useful resource of local knowledge that could aid military and government in ensuring that the transition from relief to rebuilding is a smooth continuum. Often in such situations, longer term planning (if it is done) is done from a distance by people who don’t know the area well, if at all. Regarding those officials as a ‘think tank’ full of local expertise could allow government and the military to create rebuilding plans that are meaningful and useful for local communities. Quick impact projects thus could be planned so they help form part of the foundation for long-term recovery that can begin once government officials return.

The situation points out, once again, the need for military interventions to be thinking beyond the shorter term aims of restoring law and order in places where conflict has occurred or is occurring.

Even as soldiers are sent in, someone should be planning for the time when peace will return and people will want services to return as well. That is a lesson that has been drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places which have experienced military interventions in the past decade or more. Such an approach is respectful of both local people and of the soldiers who intervene, ensuring that their efforts can have maximum locally-appropriate impact and thus make the best use of any available local resources, diaspora funding, and donor funding.

Reading:

Plea for return of officials to northern Mali, IRIN News, April 22, 2013
Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages, Meas Nee, 1999 – chapter 5.

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