After the Conflict Has Ended Helping Countries Make the Transition from Crisis Is One of Our Greatest Foreign Policy Challenges

By J. Brian Atwood | The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

After the Conflict Has Ended Helping Countries Make the Transition from Crisis Is One of Our Greatest Foreign Policy Challenges


J. Brian Atwood, The Christian Science Monitor


No trend has been more closely scrutinized in the wake of the cold war than the proliferation of crises.

From Zaire to Bosnia to Rwanda, the international community is reeling from a series of vicious civil wars, refugee emergencies, and human catastrophes. The international system structured around the cold-war diplomatic notions of containment and detente is scrambling to adjust to the demands of peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.

One of the greatest challenges of this new world disorder is how best to assist nations emerging from conflict. The successful transition from crisis - the process of moving an entire society from conflict to enduring peace - is an extraordinarily difficult one. There are countless instances - Liberia, Afghanistan, Angola - where promising moves toward peace have quickly dissolved into shattered cease-fires and renewed conflict. Nations emerging from conflicts confront daunting obstacles. Their governments are usually weak or nonexistent, and they often face corruption, rising public expectations, and immature political leadership. They typically operate with barely functioning economies, scant resources, scores of former combatants lacking peacetime job skills, a proliferation of land mines, and lingering tensions that can quickly reignite into conflict. Government's weakness Four years ago, when I came to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) - the agency responsible for delivering United States humanitarian and development assistance abroad - the US government was poorly equipped to help nations during the tenuous interlude between war and peace. For foreign policymakers, this weakness was an Achilles' heel in a world where failed states and sweeping change were everyday realities. Donor conferences that commit millions of dollars but fail to quickly address on-the-ground problems do little to create an expectation of peace. In post-conflict situations, opportunity is fleeting, and if people don't see instant results, political violence and repression reemerge. I remember former Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger telling me, "If USAID can't deliver that, we need something that can." The Clinton administration decided to try a new mechanism to bring fast, direct, and overt assistance to priority countries emerging from conflict. With the support of Congress, USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) was launched in early 1994 to help countries move beyond conflict by addressing fundamental needs of emergency rehabilitation and democratic development. Since the office worked in crisis situations, it was given special legal authorities attached to international disaster assistance funding. Early success stories The early results are promising: OTI has shown it is a lean, flexible operation capable of targeting the key bottlenecks that prevent post-crisis societies from moving forward. In Guatemala, in support of the December 1996 peace accords, OTI is helping implement the demobilization plan for the Guatemalan rebel force, known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity - or URNG. …

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