For one war-wracked nation, a path to happiness

The world’s least-happiest country, the Central African Republic, is also one of its most fragile, a result of violent civil strife. Yet it is also the focus of an international effort to disarm and reintegrate its armed groups, bringing some hope.

A woman carries her child in a camp sheltering internally displaced people next in Bangui, Central African Republic.

One of the world’s most fragile countries is also its least happy. According to a new United Nations report, the Central African Republic (CAR) ranks last among 155 nations surveyed for “happiness,” even below Syria. (Norway tops the rankings.) Is there a way to help this landlocked country of 4.6 million people feel more joy and hope?

About the size of France, the CAR has plenty of reasons to be unhappy. Three years ago, a civil war erupted between its Muslim and Christian populations, nearly resulting in genocide before 13,000 UN troops intervened. One in 5 people remain displaced. Last year, with rebel groups still on the loose, the CAR accounted for nearly a third of all attacks on nongovernmental organizations in the world. And currently, about half of its people are experiencing “extreme food insecurity” – the highest proportion of any country.

But the CAR is also the focus of a concerted effort by the UN, World Bank, and others to show that fragile and war-torn countries can be turned around – and perhaps even rise up the happiness index.

Last year, a newly elected president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, signed an agreement with international bodies to reform the government and start disarming armed groups that still roam parts of the country. More than $2 billion in foreign aid has been pledged for the effort. About 4,000 fighters have been demobilized, with many given temporary work or education. Hundreds of others are being considered as police recruits. And this week about a dozen armed groups will meet with President Touadéra to further the process of reconciliation.

“Armed actors must understand that their future lies not as militants on the margins of society, but as productive, contributing citizens of the Central African Republic,” says Michele Sison, the United States deputy representative to the UN. Last week, the UN peacekeeping chief, Hervé Ladsous, declared the reforms have brought “remarkable progress.”

The CAR could become another model for what the UN calls the process of “demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration” of fighters in a country. Often, such efforts fail, as has been the case for rebel groups in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region. But Colombia just began a DDR of 9,000 Marxist rebels after a peace agreement was signed last year, ending a half-century of war. Somalia just opened its fourth rehabilitation center for former combatants of the Islamist Al Shabab group. Mali is returning many former rebels to local communities. And the UN and others are speculating about ways to achieve a DDR for Syria’s many militant groups once its war ends.

Mr. Ladsous says the CAR’s path will be long and difficult but that, with the commitment of its leaders and outside bodies, the country “will turn the page on the pain of its history and move toward a promising future.” And perhaps a happier one, too.

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