Sunday, September 25, 2005

Lessons about conflict terrorism and development from Sri Lanka's Civil Wars

`In the future many of you will have the opportunity to give speeches to (in the words of the friend to invited me to give this one) an ‘group of notables’, The audience for this address, given last Friday night, was to the Board members and some friends, of the Social Science Foundation of the University of Denver. The themes were quite similar, but note how I had to adapt the material to a different audience and setting.

I am not only honored but also a bit daunted by this opportunity to speak in the presence of a friend who is not only a world class scholar and an outstanding Dean but the one of the most elegantly witty raconteurs I know. And to make tonight’s task even more daunting, my own equally outstanding Dean, Lou Goodman, well known for his high standards, is in the audience as well..

I just returned from spending a week in Hungary with the Balaton Group, a network of educators, policy analysts and public officials, concerned about sustainable development. It grew from Club of Rome’s global modeling work in the 1970s. Much of our discussion focused on what I call the extension function: how best to present and market lessons from policy oriented research to those who can benefit from them. Men and women like yourself, through your support of organizations such as the Social Science Foundation, play an essential intermediary role in this process. Programs such as your Social Science Foundation Scholarships emphasize what has become a mantra at my own institution, translating ideas into action and action into service.

The work I want to share with you, falls within this sphere. It culminates eighteen years of research and writing, which is captured in my new book. Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Development and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars. It is a big book – that’s what everyone says when they first view it – but its most important lessons can be conveyed in a few pages or so of text and, in a talk of 20 minutes or so.

· Two personal experiences lead me to an investigation of development-conflict linkages. First, I was employed as an engineering consultant, using my global modeling work, in Iran My group’s assignment was long range planning for the Shah’s cabinet ministers. Obviously we omitted important variables from our models. I wondered how our work might have contributed to the scenario that unfolded in Iran and what I might have done differently.

The second experience was at an international conference in Sri Lanka, shortly after my wife and I arrived for my first visit. The conference was international in name only because two weeks earlier, Colombo’s main bus station had been bombed, with heavy loss of life, and virtually all of the foreign invitees had stayed home. By this time, conflict and terrorism, catalyzed by devastating ethnic riots in the capital city had been a fact of life for more than four years. A question posed by one Sri Lankan seemed to capture the feelings of many: “How could we have come to this?” she said. “We never dreamed that it could come to this.”

Deadly civil conflicts and the terrorist tactics that accompany them may be the most tragic social pathology of the post cold war era. I say this because they impede so greatly the amelioration of other social pathologies: poverty, famine and chronic hunger, illiteracy, ecological degradation, AIDS and other epidemic diseases. These conflicts are pervasive, brutal, costly and, in many instances, intractable. When conflicts do abate, trajectories of post conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding are uncertain.

I believe that conflict prevention and peace building should be at the top of global and national political agendas.

`What made Sri Lanka, long described as a ‘paradise’ and a ‘development success story’ a case study from which I thought I could generalize about the causes of conflict, conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

First, Sri Lanka began life as an independent nation with what appeared to be extraordinarily good preconditions for a peaceful development scenario: a relatively robust economy, a relatively strong system of governance and relatively strong traditions of democratic pluralism. Thus it was possible to reject the most common explanations of conflict that emphasized the heritage of colonialism, rather than development policies implemented after independence.

Second, Sri Lanka’s leaders coped fairly successfully with the post independence social and economic problems that produced political instability and economic setbacks in many countries and brought authoritarian, one party regimes to power. They experimented with many of the economic development strategies whose merits and demerits were debated by international development practitioners. This provided an opportunity to compare divergent policies and assess which contributed most to circumstances that catalyzed intensifying conflict.

Finally, beginning in 1983, violent political conflict, including terrorist tactics, become the dominant reality in Sri Lanka’s political economic life. Between 1980 and 1990 the increase in conflict intensity was more than 10 – fold, with further increases, though less marked, in the next decade.

What are the most important lessons to be drawn from this work?

The most important is this. We know more than enough to choose policies that will help prevent protracted deadly conflict and terrorism. We also know more than enough to avoid policies that will cause protracted deadly conflict and terrorism. Our state of knowledge is analogous to our knowledge about the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. We know that smoking is a principal cause of lung cancer, though there are other causes. We know that refraining from smoking is the best way of avoiding lung cancer, though some abstainers may still contract the disease.

The proximate causes of escalating conflict and terrorism are well understood. These are organized activities. Militant groups are the organizers. Typically, they are committed to violent means as the only way of effecting radical changes. The foot-soldiers of militant groups are young men, and to a much lesser degree young women who have been radicalized. The root motivations of these youths are not that much different than those of the young men and women among whom I live in American University’s largest undergraduate dormitory. They want to feel good about their lives, about the circumstances in which they live and about the future prospects for themselves and their children. Youth are radicalized by disillusionment with the established order in their society and a climate of hopelessness about their future prospects and the future prospects of their children.

Development failures are a principal cause of hopelessness, disillusionment and radicalization. A good way of thinking about development failures, I believe is to begin with a definition of successful development. Shortcomings of the most widely used development measures, GNP per-capita, and the human development index are well known and discussed at length in my book. I believe an approach that emphasizes subjective well being is most promising because it goes to the heart of why people become radicalized and fight. My working definition of successful development is a scenario that is widely perceived by a country’s residents as constructively responding to their needs and aspirations. The measure of success is that residents, when queried, say they feel good about their lives, the circumstances in which they live and future prospects for themselves and their children.

Development failures are scenarios that fall short, often grievously, short, of this standard. They might be termed the second-order causes of escalating conflict and of protracted conflict. For the Sri Lankan case, I identified ten development failures which, if avoided or corrected, could have prevented escalating conflict and terrorism. Among them were

Unsustainable entitlement programs

Polarizing political rhetoric and tactics, especially tactics that sought political support by polarizing one ethnic group against another.

Winner take all official language policies which strove to exclude a large minority community from political power and economic opportunity

Failure to devolve power to localities and regions; an ‘outstation’ mentality in implementing development strategies and programs

Inadequate funding, politicization and ethnic homogenization of the security forces, and

Over ambitious and over politicized economic reform policies that promised far more than they delivered.

A deepened understanding of the causes of deadly conflict and terrorism and of development failures lead to ten 10 imperatives – or policy recommendations – for preventing deadly conflict and terrorism. Among the most important are these.

First, maintaining public order and preventing social turbulence from escalating into protracted deadly conflict are prerequisite to the success of all other development policies.

Second. Polarizing political rhetoric and tactics must be foregone, however tempting their short-term benefits may seem. Like mustard gas, which had to be abandoned as a weapon in World War I, this political strategy has a tendency to blow back upon the user.

Third. Meeting the needs and aspirations of fighting age young men should be the first priority of national development policies and of policies funded by international donors.

Fourth. Developing countries should have internal security forces (police and paramilitary) that are generously funded, professional, apolitical and trained to meet the complex challenges of maintaining public order in a changing society.

And finally, Multinational corporations, businesses and businessmens organizations should play a more active role in defining and supporting successful development policies.

Deepening an understanding of conflict escalation and developing recommendations for conflict prevention has obvious policy relevance for settings where one or more strong militant groups are not in place. But what about conflicts where preventing a strong militant group from forming is not longer an option?

This is, of course, the circumstance Sri Lanka and many other nations face. From time to time, I do provide advice to Sri Lankan political leaders, in confidence, on the current peace process and other matters. However two weeks ago I also participated in a public briefing, organized by the Sri Lanka Congressional caucus. My presentation concluded with four recommendations which, I suggested described a context within which a peacebuilding scenario must inevitably unfold, whether this be sooner or later. Taken more broadly, I believe these recommendations are relevant to many conflicts, not only Sri Lanka’s

First, there needs to be a candid acknowledgment, hopefully by all political parties and groups within Sri Lanka, that military subjection of the Tamil Tiger Militants is highly improbable. It is this reality, above all, that mandates continued political engagement and will mandate, ultimately, some sort of political solution. Arriving at this solution will, of necessity, involve negotiations with an organization that has been labeled ‘terrorist’ and continues to include some terrorist elements. The Tamil Tigers’ abandonment of terrorism will, at best, occur in parallel with the unfolding of some peacebuilding scenario. Many, on both sides, will view this scenario as falling far short of optimal.

Second, international community leaders at both multilateral and national levels should be realistic about their promises to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s political leaders should be realistic about their expectations that ‘international pressure’ will be of much help in solving their problems. Friends of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans themselves must recognize that in an international system shaped, increasingly, by the politics of ‘realism, Sri Lanka is a relatively small, economically marginal, geostrategically insignificant nation. When Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict is ultimately resolved – I pray this will come sooner rather than later – it will be Sri Lankans who have been the prime movers in crafting that resolution.

Third, conflict management and peacebuilding should be overriding national priorities, superceding all other national priorities for all of Sri Lanka’s mainstream political leaders. I have long believed – and said publicly – that there will be no peace with the Tamil Tigers until Sri Lanka’s leaders first make peace with themselves. Sri Lanka’s leaders should seriously consider a broadly constituted national government, with conflict management and peacebuilding as overriding national priorities. For many decades conflict in Sri Lanka has been characterized by what James Manor characterized as a poisonous cycle. The party in power, whichever party, proposes reasonable accommodations. The party out of power, whichever party attacks those accommodations to achieve short term political gains. This must change if there is to be peace.

Fourth, there will be no lasting peace in Sri Lanka until solving the problems of unemployment and lack of economic opportunity faced by Sri Lanka’s youth, especially young men, in both the north and the south are elevated as a national priority. In the concluding chapter of Paradise Poisoned I pointed to a reality that seems obvious to me, but has, for all practical purposes, been ignored by Sri Lanka’s political leaders, their contemporaries in other global south nations, and leaders of the international development community. Young men were the prime recruits of both the LTTE and the Sinhalese militant peoples liberation front and remain so to this day. That the segment of society with the greatest power to disrupt should be also be among the most disadvantaged seems paradoxical. The political consequences of failing to change this are perilous.

At the my book lunch in Colombo, the official culmination of this 18 year project, I shared an observation which seems appropriate for this evening, as well. Most authors, I said, want their work to be of lasting value, and of course most books wind up on the remainders shelf within a year or so? Should that grim fate be escaped, here is what I hope critics and commentators may be saying about Paradise Poisoned, five years from now.

First, Paradise Poisoned showed how contending explanations of conflict escalation could be represented in a single model, because they all describe parts of the same system,

Second, Paradise Poisoned emphasized the importance of targeting development strategies to meet the needs of youth, especially young men, who are the prime recruits and the foot soldiers of militant movements.

Third, Paradise Poisoned provided a basis for collegial, fruitful dialogue between those who view conflict prevention and resolution from the vantage point of development and those who view it primarily from the vantage point of security.

Fourth, Paradise Poisoned highlighted the role of police officers in development and conflict prevention, winning them the resources, respect, commitment to professionalism and freedom from political interference necessary to carry out their duties effectively.

Fifth, Paradise Poisoned convinced political leaders that the same rigorous cost benefit standards applied to development projects should be applied to the use of force and violence, and especially the decision to go to war.

The verdict on this work and, far more important, on whether the next decade is dominated by protracted conflict or peacebuilding will be very much in your hands and the hands of others like you. Because of who you are, where you are and what you have accomplished, you cannot escape this responsibility.

4 Comments:

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