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 dtente 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.
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. OTI helped build the eight camps for URNG's demobilization and is providing training and education at the camps.
In Angola we have had a transition program to strengthen compliance with that nation's post-civil-war peace agreement, the Lusaka Protocol. OTI planned the demobilization centers that were taken over by UN peacekeeping forces. OTI efforts in Angola have been guided by the notion that security comes first. Until people feel a degree of safety, they are not ready for political development. That was a lesson of the first, failed transition in Angola.
The second time around, OTI supported mine awareness and removal, civic training and demobilization activities for excombatants, community self-governance, and a flow of accurate, uncensored news.
Almost 1.4 million Angolans have been reached by mine-awareness training and about 750 were trained in mine-removal techniques. The result has been a significant reduction in mine accidents, the reopening of large areas of the country to commerce and agriculture, and, most important, the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes.
In Bosnia we were on the ground to offer support when the federation was formed. We subsequently built on that experience to support the Dayton accords once they were signed. OTI programs in Bosnia have directly targeted the public disinformation campaigns that have fueled ethnic tensions in that region and helped train journalists and disseminate news that supports reconciliation.
To all involved, it was clear that the same public media that had been used as a powerful tool to provoke conflict could be just as instrumental in promoting peace. There are many difficult questions still ahead, but OTI was on the ground early and, if this effort succeeds in keeping the peace, this early contribution will have made a difference.
Steps for the future
The challenge of the next century will be to maintain a commitment to long-term development and crisis prevention, while at the same time developing fast and flexible instruments that will allow us to take direct and positive action in transitions or in situations where crisis is imminent.
Twenty years ago we might have directed the Central Intelligence Agency to take covert actions in these situations. Some would argue that in those days of East-West conflict we were capable of using coercion and brute strength to bring about the desired policy outcome. But the world has changed.
Today, our challenge is to develop overt mechanisms like OTI to quickly advance our strategic interests and both prevent crises and help nations move beyond conflict. The overt mechanisms of the 1990s, unlike the covert efforts of the 1960s, have to be transparent, democratic, and able to stand the test of public scrutiny. The diplomatic and development arms of US foreign policy must work side-by-side to prevent crisis, to transit from crisis, and to produce positive change.
Idealistic? Perhaps. But does an indispensable nation have any other choice?
* J. Brian Atwood is administrator of the US Agency for International Development.