Out of conflict can come opportunity

By Roja Heydarpour 31 August 2015

A woman holds up an inked finger after voting during the Tunisian presidential election in 2014. The country, while not in the safe zone just yet, has proven to be closer to the democratic ideals its people demanded during the Arab Spring than its neighbors. Photo by: Aya Chebbi / CC BY

While it may seem like the world is in constant upheaval, a shift in focus toward countries and communities that have managed to survive — and be successful — despite revolution, genocide and deep-rooted corruption can provide a window into strategies that have actually worked. They may even  offer ideas that can be translated and adapted to other places in transition.

There are more examples of positive change in the world than what may appear in daily headlines, but here, we briefly spotlight three countries in transition that seem to have, to some extent, cracked the code. Rwanda has emerged as a beacon of hope with its remarkable advances in health care since the devastating genocide that plagued its people in 1994. Georgia revamped its entire police force in the wake of its Rose Revolution with dramatic, far-reaching moves. And Tunisia, while it is definitely not in the safe zone just yet, has proven to be closer to the democratic ideals its people demanded during the Arab Spring than its neighbors.

With staggering numbers in health care improvement, Rwanda has left many wondering, how? Its national health care now claims to have almost 95 percent of the population covered (a number that some say may be exaggerated, but nevertheless does not diminish the impact of the program). Cases of HIV and malaria, infant mortality and maternal health have all plummeted exponentially since 1990, according to the World Health Organization.

“First of all, it’s the leadership,” said Doris Youngs, who was the chief of party of the Rwanda Family Health Program at Chemonics since its inception in Rwanda in 2012 until recently. “It starts with President [Paul] Kagame and it trickles down. And it’s not done in private, it’s done publicly.”

This transparency coupled with accountability has reached the most local levels, with 45,000 community volunteers who are now responsible for helping treat people at the village level. They are allowed, for example, to dispense medicine for malaria when they see symptoms, rather than waiting until it’s too late. The decentralization of the health system, coupled with strong institutions on a wider level, has allowed more people to be reached. Similarly, international partners like Chemonics and U.S. Agency for International Development who go into Rwanda to provide support are steered toward reaching goals Rwandans have set, not vice versa.

Culturally speaking, rather than continue to cripple the country, its citizens seem to have collectively decided to move forward from the scars of genocide. “They have managed to use the genocide as a motivation rather than as an excuse,” said Youngs. “They say we have to make up time. We have to make up for time lost.”

In a country much farther north, another dramatic transformation took place in recent history. In the first year after Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2004, President Mikhail Saakashvili fired almost the entire police force — some 25,000-30,000 people — in one fell swoop.

“Interestingly a lot of chaos was expected, but because the traffic police never did its job, traffic was still chaos — they just didn’t get bribes anymore,” said Mark van Embden Andres, director of partnerships at Elva, an organization that has used text messaging to connect citizens and local authorities on issues related to community security and development in Georgia. “He ended up hiring a lot of new people and retraining older ones.”

Conflict in Context: A monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID.

Increased tax revenues paved the path for higher salaries, which in turn resulted in less of a need for rampant bribery and corruption. This strategy led to less petty corruption across the board, including in education and health care, said Andres.

Of course, just like in Rwanda and elsewhere, problems still existed and continue to exist. While the petty corruption was rooted out, the rule of law was not necessarily solidified. In fact, the lack of rule of law, in some ways, allowed for such drastic measures to take place in the first place. Nevertheless, the sweep has been largely effective for what it is worth.

Of the three countries examined here, Tunisia may still be the shakiest example of a positive country in transition. Yet, relative to its neighbors, which also experienced the so-called Arab Spring, it seemed to be on more solid ground. Its transition to democracy has been much more inclusive of women and secular parties, allowing for a new constitution that alienated fewer people. There was a stronger culture of political dialogue than say in neighboring Egypt and Libya and Tunisia started with a more apolitical military, which helped in the transition, said Mark Freeman, executive director of the Institute for Integrated Transitions.

“They were much more engaged youth to begin with,” said Rebecca Wolfe, director of conflict management at Mercy Corps. “The education is better, the governance reforms were quite strong when [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali left. They have tried to be inclusive while having space for Islamic law. But it’s dominated by secularism by choice.”

That said, recent terrorist attacks on Tunisia’s soil have resulted in a state of emergency that threatens some of the basic democratic principles that Tunisia managed to instill. A strict new counterterrorism policy created to combat a growing number of people who have gone to fight with Islamic State group in Syria or who have gone to neighboring Libya, where they are trained by more extremist elements, is threatening to reverse some of the country’s earlier successes.

Despite the realities on the ground, Rwanda, Georgia and Tunisia all represent, to varying degrees of success, countries in turmoil that have turned things around. A common thread that experts agreed on is good governance. Most agree that without that, positive change faces many obstacles. Listening to local cultures and customs also emerged as a theme. Decentralization and empowerment of local volunteers proved inordinately valuable in Rwanda. Pre-existing cultural customs in Tunisia accounted for a lot of its success. That sensitivity to the inherent life and movements of a country is immeasurably important when it comes to learning from these lessons and translating them into other countries and communities in transition.

“It’s like a matchmaking exercise,” said Freeman. “You have to look at systems that have worked in other places, but to adapt them to another context.”

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

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Roja Heydarpour@rojarojaroja

Roja Heydarpour is a freelance writer and editor. She has worked for The Daily Beast, The New York Times, Al-Monitor, The NY Observer and The Times-Tribune. On Twitter: @rojarojaroja


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