This piece was prepared as part of the 2013–2014 Syrian Economic Reconstruction Project run by the Carnegie Middle East Center, which sought to help map the social, political, and institutional dynamics that will be generated when postconflict reconstruction begins in Syria.

The specific questions and challenges facing Syria’s reconstruction will be determined by the duration of the conflict and the nature of the political authority that emerges after the reduction and eventual cessation of violence throughout the country. These are intensely political issues that cannot be reasonably negotiated in a paper such as this, particularly when the outcomes are so unclear. Nevertheless, there are some key questions and challenges that will be central to reconstruction regardless of either the duration of the conflict or the nature of the next political authority. Identifying some of those key challenges with specific reference to how they unfolded in the Iraqi and Lebanese cases provides lessons about the future challenges of reconstruction in Syria.

The utility of comparing the Lebanese and Iraqi reconstruction experiences is determined by the specific points of comparison. One option is to draw on the four accepted pillars of reconstruction: security, justice and reconciliation, social and economic well-being, and governance and participation. Such pillars provide silos for thinking about the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of policies undertaken during reconstruction periods. However, policies carried out through such pillars tend to be grounded in universalizing norms that often betray the realities of postconflict societies. This is not to suggest that security is not a goal of reconstruction, but rather that the normative assumptions behind what security should look like are often divorced from the realities of how conflicts unfold and the specific needs of postconflict societies across social and political contexts. A comparison of the Iraqi and Lebanese cases using these criteria would be difficult, if not impossible, given the fluid and long-term nature of conflict and reconstruction in both countries.

Samer Abboud
Abboud was a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focused on the political economy of the Syrian conflict, with a particular emphasis on the matter of capital flight and its implications on Syria’s reconstruction.
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With this in mind, an alternative possibility for comparison is not in thinking about outcomes but rather in thinking about challenges. More specifically, it is useful to consider what processes are implicated in the ongoing reconstruction experiences of Iraq and Lebanon and what, in turn, these experiences can reveal about the Syrian case moving forward. In other words, what reconstruction challenges does Syria face?

A focus on challenges is one that sets aside the inputs and outcomes of reconstruction as typically measured by international donors, and concentrates on the process-related elements of reconstruction, including the role of different actors, the ideological underpinnings of the policy, the relationship between reconstruction and peace, and financing. How reconstruction unfolds depends on how certain central considerations and relationships are resolved. Broadly speaking, these considerations (or challenges) revolve around three key areas: financing and the relationship between public and private authority; the role of domestic and international actors; and social policy.

The aim of this working paper is to provide comparative insights on these central reconstruction challenges based largely on the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon but also by drawing on other cases. The paper will be divided into three main sections focused on each of the themes identified above. For the sake of simplicity and readability, and with the ultimate goal of inducing conversation around these key areas, each section will be structured in a similar way. The sections will begin with a brief overview of what are some of the general key issues in postconflict reconstruction. This will be followed by a discussion of the specific Iraqi and Lebanese cases around the key issues or actors, and a very brief lessons learned list aimed at generating discussion about Syria’s specific case. The conclusion of the paper will consider how these experiences can inform thinking about Syrian reconstruction and what the main challenges and questions moving forward are.

Financing and the Role of Public and Private Authorities

The question of financing is perhaps the most central issue to determine the scope and breadth of reconstruction in postconflict countries. Reconstruction experiences suggest that there are a number of funding modalities that exist and often overlap. For donor countries, these modalities include direct support through bilateral assistance or nongovernment organization (NGO) support; pooled funding mechanisms such as United Nations–administered funds; and directed funding to NGOs or international NGOs. Private financing can also occur through investment, diasporic remittances, private bank loans, multilateral trust funds, and, in some cases, microfinance schemes. These private funding sources are necessitated by the absence of public funds and the weak extractive capacities of the state. The revenue base of postconflict states tends to be very depleted and, thus, reconstruction policies cannot be undertaken by relying on domestically generated revenues or existing reserves.

At the same time that public revenues are largely unavailable for reconstruction, public infrastructure and the capacities of public institutions to deliver services are also weak. This means that most of the public sector’s distributive and extractive capacities need intensive rehabilitation in order to contribute meaningfully to reconstruction goals. Such conditions necessitate the entry of private donors and actors into the process.

The challenges of financing are not solely in securing funding from different sources or ensuring that donors remain committed over the long term to sustaining reconstruction funding, but are also in negotiating the links between finance and donor conditionality. The phenomenon of conditionality has affected many reconstruction cases and led to policies that are often disconnected from on-the-ground realities and the reconstruction demands of postconflict constituents. Conditionality is often based on a set of assumptions that reflect the visions of the donors and not the postconflict realities, including ideas of what reconstruction should look like and who should assume responsibilities for implementing policies.

The example of donor-NGO relations illustrates this point. In the case of Bosnia, Bronwyn Evans-Kent and Roland Bleiker demonstrate how donor-NGO relations often functioned to the detriment of reconstruction activities and were characterized by high levels of mistrust and uncertainty. These relations quickly developed into informal and ad hoc relationships that were constantly being reorganized according to changes in donor priorities, staff turnover in both donor and NGO agencies, and the relative short-term thinking and results-oriented approaches of donor countries.

Because most NGOs in Bosnia and other postconflict countries were almost entirely dependent on donor financial support for reconstruction projects, they were pressured into adopting the languages and practices of donor countries. Funding applications and results reports had to conform exclusively to donor expectations. The short-term and results-oriented practices of donors had substantial impacts on what reconstruction projects were pursued. Evans-Kent and Bleiker make this point clear when they note that “while a school can be rebuilt in three months, for example, it takes several years to implement a curriculum that breaks down the stereotypes entrenched by the war. Without a vision for such long-term projects, and the funding to back it up, the peacebuilding process . . . is unlikely to be successful.”1 Financing for reconstruction does not come without inherent problems and limitations.

The Challenges of Financing

The relationship between financing and reconstruction is a complicated one that poses many challenges for reconstruction planning.

The first challenge is that of short- and long-term financing. Most donor states do not have the financial or political appetite to assume responsibility for long-term commitments to postconflict reconstruction programs. Even in the case of security issues—which top the agendas of most Western donors—there has been a reluctance to commit to long-term projects with high costs. While financing may be available in the initial years of reconstruction, past experience suggests that there is a gradual retreat by donors.

A second challenge involves linking financing to policy decisions. This applies to both donor and national government policies. The difficulty of creating direct linkages between policy decisions and outcomes is problematized even further by the third challenge of how to direct resources to agents of reconstruction. There is a wide range of public and private agents that are capable of implementing reconstruction policies, stretching from public-sector institutions to community NGOs. How financial support gets directed to agents of reconstruction is an issue for any reconstruction program.

The fourth challenge is in ensuring that financing does not perpetuate conflicts. In the case of Somalia, Ken Menkhaus argues that international actors actually perpetuated Somalia’s conflict by pursuing policies that ignored realities on the ground and strengthened the political power of groups that contributed to the fighting.2

And, finally, a fifth challenge is in delinking finance from donor expectations and, instead, encouraging the directing of funding to local and national agents with their own knowledge of the postconflict environment. A considerable amount of evidence in this area suggests that many international donor countries simply misunderstand the environment in which they are promoting certain policies.3

Financing in Lebanon and Iraq

In 1977, the Lebanese government formally created the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR). The council would survive the Lebanese Civil War and play a role in coordinating the policies and practices in postwar Lebanon. By 1991, the CDR was almost entirely staffed with people appointed by Rafik al-Hariri and who had a direct loyalty to him.4

The first attempt by the CDR to support reconstruction occurred with the creation of the National Emergency Reconstruction Program in 1991 that sought to generate donor support for a three-year emergency program. The program failed to garner much financial or political support from the donor community. In 1992, the CDR presented a new plan called Horizon 2000 that was to last from 1995 to 2007 and called for more than $14 billion in spending on infrastructure projects. The funding for reconstruction was to be generated from three sources: anticipated budget surpluses, borrowing from domestic and international markets, and grants from Arab states and international organizations.

In theory, the plan distributed the financing sources quite evenly. In reality, however, the plan failed almost upon inception. By the mid-1990s, the Lebanese economy was stagnant and the expected surpluses that were to be used for financing simply did not exist. This led to an immediate shift in strategy among authorities to rely more heavily on borrowing. In the 1990s, the government offered treasury bills that provided extraordinarily high interest rates. This created a cycle of borrowing that the government has yet to escape. The third source of funding has remained strong since the early 1990s and has included contributions from states, regional organizations (such as the Islamic Development Bank and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development), and the United Nations. Nevertheless, borrowing was the main means by which the Lebanese government financed reconstruction.

The accumulation of public debt paralleled the rise of private-sector actors in Lebanon’s reconstruction. The three main private companies entrusted with realizing the CDR’s plans mirrored the sectarian division of power in the country: Solidere, controlled by al-Hariri, was in charge of reconstructing the downtown Beirut area; Elyssar, mostly managed by Nabih Berri, was in charge of rebuilding the southern areas of Beirut; and Linord, run by Michel Murr, was charged with reconstructing the northern areas of Beirut.5 Of these three companies, Solidere was the largest and most public beneficiary of reconstruction plans in Lebanon.

The dominant model in Lebanon was thus one in which the public sector assumed the financial risk of reconstruction while particular private actors were given the responsibility to enact policy. This system had many flaws from the outset but was doomed to fiscal and practical failure when borrowing spiraled out of control and the Lebanese state could no longer overcome its massive debts.

Lebanon’s postwar elites were successful in capturing both the fiscal and institutional mechanisms of reconstruction. They failed, however, to engender a wider distribution of reconstruction benefits or to stave off central state economic collapse by accumulating massive debt.

This case strongly contrasts with that of Iraq, where planning, coordination, and financial mechanisms for reconstruction were entirely imagined and controlled by the United States. Even prior to the actual occupation of the country, the financial formula for Iraqi reconstruction was set in Washington. This formula relied on two sources of income—Iraqi oil revenues (existing and future) and substantial U.S. taxpayer funds—to form the fiscal core of reconstruction.

Decisions about how these resources would be allocated were largely made outside of Iraq’s formal political institutions as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took charge of the procurement system. At the same time, the CPA oversaw the radical overhaul of Iraq’s economy and its regulatory framework, creating, on paper at least, one of the world’s most liberalized economies.

The central role of the CPA, coupled with Iraq’s new regulatory framework, provided the basis for the penetration of the Iraqi economy by private-sector interests. With virtually no protections for Iraqi enterprises built into the new regulatory framework, there was no possibility for domestic enterprises to compete with external private-sector actors. The only area of the economy that was not immediately targeted for liberalization was the oil sector.

As both of these cases suggest, the issue of financing reconstruction is complicated and can create a range of political and economic consequences that actually hinder positive outcomes. As international actors often enter postconflict spaces with particular economic and political agendas, they tend to pursue policies that are at times divorced from the immediate needs of the population. Drawing on examples from Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and other conflict zones, Paul Jackson argues that the international community favors security reforms aimed at re-inscribing the state with a monopolization of force, which includes extensive support to police, military, and other security arms of the state.6 Such a focus on security often comes at the expense of reconstruction and development spending that could actually begin to reshape postconflict countries.

Postconflict countries are thus faced with a major dilemma: How do they attract financing for reconstruction while avoiding the prescriptions and policy preferences of the international donors? The fiscal base of postconflict countries is, by definition, small, and thus international financing becomes a necessary evil. As demonstrated in Lebanon, and to a lesser degree in Iraq, reconstruction actually provided the material basis for the cultivation and consolidation of a postwar elite whose power, both economically and politically, was directly tethered to the reconstruction program undertaken and led by al-Hariri. This sort of elite agreement has largely defined the post-1991 period, especially until 2005 when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon.

A second consequence of the financial dilemma is the necessary inclusion of private business interests in the reconstruction program. This is not inherently a negative process, but, as shown in Iraq, the obsession with private-sector involvement in reconstruction came at the expense of the public sector’s involvement. Treating the public-private balance as a zero-sum issue, CPA planners sought little to no role for the public sector in Iraq’s reconstruction. The inclusion of the public sector in reconstruction could have served to address Iraq’s immediate social needs, coordinate policies, reduce socioeconomic marginalization, and provide a broad base of employment for Iraqis. Instead, the privileging of the private sector meant that Iraqi hardship increased in the post-2003 phase, and most Iraqis remained removed from the wealth and distributive economic gains generated by the reconstruction period.

Lessons Learned

The following list summarizes some of the main lessons learned about financing and reconstruction challenges:

  • Financing has a substantial impact on what policies are pursued. International donors tend to favor short-term programs. Thematically, these donors overwhelmingly favor security-sector reforms and technical and institutional rehabilitation programs.
  • Domestic financing is not a realistic option to finance reconstruction policies when the extractive capacities of the state are weak.
  • Borrowing and debt can hamper reconstruction as much as they can support it.
  • International funds can create false or parallel economies that do not directly serve reconstruction needs.
  • The demands of financing often mean that private-sector actors take on a significant role in reconstruction.
  • There is a high probability of elite capture of reconstruction opportunities.

Key Actors

In virtually all postconflict cases, insider-outsider dynamics have influenced how reconstruction unfolds. Actors on the outside include international financial institutions, states that provide bilateral support, international NGOs, diaspora communities, regional and international capital interests, and regional and multilateral institutions. Insider actors include government authorities, domestic NGOs, socioeconomic networks, clandestine and other informal networks, and other community and regional organizations. These actors are all embedded in the reconstruction process in various ways. Owing to the financial, technical, and institutional demands of reconstruction, the linkages between the different actors tend to be as vertical (insider-outsider) as they are horizontal (insider-insider or outsider-outsider). The central question then becomes how insider-outsider partnerships can support reconstruction.

There is a constant paradox present in these insider-outsider partnerships. Countries engaging in reconstruction are often vulnerable to donors’ financial contributions and political agendas. For example, most Western countries centralize security reform as the cornerstone of their reconstruction support. Such privileging of outsider interests tends to marginalize domestic voices and policy options, particularly when financing comes almost entirely from these outsider actors. Along with financing come ideas and assumptions about how reconstruction should occur. These assumptions are often at odds with the needs and interests of insider groups who are handicapped by their desire to promote positive reconstruction change while trying to avoid dependence on outsider ideas and funds.

There are of course possibilities for positive insider-outsider partnerships, but the potential is complicated by the compromising financial dependencies that reinforce conditionality and the spreading of Western ideas and practices during reconstruction. Thus, there are both material and epistemological interventions by international donors that have a profound impact on reconstruction.


The international community has played a large role in the efforts of postconflict societies to engage in reconstruction. The depth of international involvement ranges from the more intrusive forms of intervention, such as the control of transitional administrations and neo-trusteeships (as in Iraq), to cases where there has been no intervention whatsoever (like Somaliland). The norm, however, is for extensive international involvement. This is largely the result of two main factors: first, the demands of financing reconstruction policies that cannot be met by domestic political authorities who typically lack the revenue base to support reconstruction spending, and, second, the political investments made by international actors who develop stakes in the cessation of conflict.

The determinants of international involvement vary widely. The liberal perspective suggests that international efforts to strengthen and consolidate postconflict states are in the interests of maintaining global peace. Indeed, this seems to be the dominant motivation behind reconstruction efforts by the international community. There is considerable evidence to suggest that much of the international community has focused its efforts on key areas of security-sector reform. That reform’s centrality in reconstruction largely stems from the international community’s interest in state building and the perceived link between establishing the state’s monopoly on violence and state building. Thus, for many donor states, the central goal of reconstruction should be to enhance the capacities of the state, in particular, its violent apparatuses that can maintain order and prevent a return to conflict. The centrality of security in reconstruction has given rise to the security-development nexus as a reference to how donor states promote development through security, or, in other words, how they see development and security as intertwined.

The types of security reforms include bilateral as well as multilateral support. All evidence from the direction of foreign aid from Western countries into postconflict zones suggests that issues of security are paramount in their decisionmaking and can include everything from enhancing border controls to militarizing the police forces. In Australia, for example, capacity building for policing forms one of the cornerstones of that country’s contributions to postconflict reconstruction.7 Similarly, the Canadian government has directed the majority of its postconflict resources for Haiti into supporting the reorganization of the Haitian police force.8 In both cases, these efforts simply led to an enhancing of the coercive apparatuses of the state and, in the case of Haiti, to substantial increases in arbitrary arrests and police brutality. These are only a few examples of how the security-development nexus materializes in postconflict spaces. In the recent generation of postconflict planning, this nexus has emerged as an important determinant of international policies toward postconflict spaces.

Despite the stress on security issues in postconflict spaces, international actors have pursued other policies with direct relevance to reconstruction issues. For example, Hamieh and MacGinty have distinguished between Western and Gulf support in Lebanon.9 Western states have tended to proffer what the authors call software issues, including the building up of institutions and governance capacity. Gulf states, on the other hand, have favored physical reconstruction projects, what they termed hardware. These two approaches—software and hardware—had different results in Lebanon, but, as the authors argue, it was the hardware approach that had a more positive impact in postconflict Lebanon. The reasons behind this were quite simple: most Lebanese could not see the benefit of interventions in governance issues when so much of the country was in need of physical reconstruction. Ultimately, the responses from different donors are shaped by their attitudes toward reconstruction.


In much of the academic literature on postconflict reconstruction, domestic actors are generally referred to as stakeholders. These groups are conceptualized as either being grounded in the pre-conflict social landscape of countries (such as political parties and business associations) or conflict-era factors (like militias and criminal networks). These stakeholders play various roles related to postconflict reconstruction, either as enablers or obstructors of policy. There are also real issues about how policymakers misread the role of stakeholders and fail to incorporate them into, or in some cases exclude them from, reconstruction planning, thus leaving major gaps between the presence of political and economic power on the ground and the policies being pursued to achieve reconstruction. These gaps tend to accentuate and contribute to the longevity of conflict-era patterns, especially those associated with criminality, informality, and violence. The challenge, then, is not simply to identify who the stakeholders are in the Syrian case, but to interrogate the potential role that they can play in reconstruction and whether or how they can emerge as key agents.

A useful way to think about this question is to inquire into the social contexts of stakeholders. Social context is extremely important in understanding legitimacy in society and stakeholders’ interests and capacity in participating in postconflict reconstruction. In Syria, the social context of agents is changing rapidly. Among the many transformations under way in Syria are those induced by the contraction of regime authority throughout the country and the slow tearing of the socioeconomic fabric of Syrian society. Both processes have created possibilities for the emergence of new power structures in Syria and for the proliferation of new groups of actors whose agency and positioning in society are currently being determined by their roles vis-à-vis the conflict. These emergent power structures look different throughout the country and are grounded in different realities. Criminal structures, for example, are predatory and have arisen to reap the economic benefits and opportunities of the conflict. Local governance structures, meanwhile, have emerged within local social structures in neighborhoods and cities and have incorporated popular expectations into their activities. The spectrum of new power structures is thus wide, and can range from the predatory to the popular.

Predatory networks are those that have a stake in the continuation of conflict and are direct beneficiaries. This is in contrast to popular networks that have more rooted social bases and that have the agency and power to participate in postconflict reconstruction. This participation takes on multiple forms, and it can include the effective replacement of collapsed state institutions or the control of violence in specific areas. As such, these popular networks become inherently political and acquire a political agency and legitimacy that is derived from their conflict-era activities. This raises a serious dilemma concerning how to integrate popular networks: “Ignoring or excluding them [from postconflict reconstruction] can threaten political stability” while “including them undermines reform plans.”10 The position of these popular actors in postconflict spaces depends on a number of factors, including the degree to which their supporters desire to participate in postconflict spaces, their level of formal and informal incorporation into the new body politic, and whether they have strong enough vertical linkages with other networks of power to influence reconstruction agendas. For postconflict planners, the challenge is in how to incorporate these networks into the institutions of governance in ways that contribute positively to reconstruction.

Insider-Outsider Dynamics in Iraq and Lebanon

Both Iraq and Lebanon have undergone dramatic and sustained long-term events that contributed to the destruction of the political and economic life in those countries. In Iraq, the war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and subsequent multilateral war against Iraq, the sanctions regime that followed, and, finally, the 2003 invasion and occupation of the country by U.S.-led forces all contributed to decimating the country’s economic capacities. Lebanon’s recent experiences bear similarities: a long civil war layered against continued Israeli occupation, a postwar order structured around Pax Syriana, and sustained and brutal attacks by Israel in 1996 and 2006 that destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. It obviously remains to be seen what the future holds for Syria in this regard and whether the current conflict subsides or morphs into new forms of conflict in the long term.

In Iraq, the role of the international community was paramount in reconstruction. Specifically, U.S.-led efforts to establish a political and economic system in its specific vision resulted in the creation of an economic reconstruction program that was entirely divorced from Iraqi reality. The failure to see the Iraqi economy for what it was, rather than for what planners wanted it to be, led to the dramatic exclusion of Iraqi social forces from reconstruction. This was made possible particularly by the absence of Iraqi political forces, civil society groups, or autonomous private businesses from the discussions on reconstruction. Early planning in Iraq was almost entirely premised on the activation of regional and international capital interests that were incentivized to enter the Iraqi market through a procurement system established by the CPA in the first year of the occupation. This procurement system paralleled the spectacular emasculation of Iraqi public and private capacities to engage in reconstruction. This occurred in various ways and was driven by both political and economic ideological commitments. Politically, the actors and institutions of the state were equated with Baathism and targeted for weakening. Economically, planners adopted a strategy for reconstruction that sought to open up the space for the entry of private capital into the economy. This came at the expense of the rehabilitation of the Iraqi private sector, which remained on the sidelines of reconstruction.

The Iraqi case after 2003 represents a more radical form of international involvement whereby international actors played the central role in directing reconstruction. Insider-outsider relationships in Lebanon did not tilt heavily toward the model of neo-trusteeship in Iraq and the CPA, yet outsider pressures were still strong. On the one hand, the emergence of Pax Syriana created political and economic limitations for Lebanon’s reconstruction planning. On the other hand, the bankruptcy of the state necessitated the involvement of a different range of international actors. Lebanon has seen no shortage of outsider penetration of its political system and involvement in reconstruction. This has taken multiple forms and includes financial support and assistance from Gulf countries, technical and institutional support from multilateral and regional organizations, as well as partnerships between international and Lebanese NGOs.

By design, Lebanon’s postconflict economic policies were liberalized. Unlike Iraq, which had radical liberalization imposed from outsiders, Lebanon’s postconflict elite more or less agreed on the utility of a liberal economy to attract resources and funding to support reconstruction goals. The momentum toward private-sector inclusion in the process was given further impetus as Lebanon became more dependent on international donor support for its reconstruction policies.

Syria’s situation is considerably more complicated as international trusteeship and stewardship seems unlikely to guide reconstruction. At the same time, Syria’s conflict has given rise to a range of social forces and political actors that are likely to demand inclusion in planning, even if postconflict reconstruction is largely driven by the elite as it was in Lebanon. Unlike Iraq, Syria had a private business community that participated heavily in the country’s economy, and it is likely to participate in reconstruction, regardless of the political outcome.

In both Lebanon and Iraq, the involvement of the international community tends toward particular outcomes: international debt, involvement of external rather than domestic private economic interests, elite-driven reconstruction goals, and the exclusion of domestic social and political forces. Such a scenario has been more or less repeated in many other postconflict spaces as outside forces have assumed the lead in reconstruction at the expense of domestic participation.

This is an especially troubling trend in both Iraq and Lebanon because it can serve to reinforce the marginalization of political forces that may already be on the outside of postconflict politics. In the absence of efforts that incorporate social actors who emerge during conflict, rather than keep them on the periphery, reconstruction programs run the risk of perpetuating many of the same grievances that propelled the conflict in the first place.

Lessons Learned

In almost all postconflict cases, the international community has a profound part to play. In the cases of Iraq and Lebanon, this role was very strong and had a considerable impact on how reconstruction materialized, often to the detriment of strategic goals, including security. Ultimately, in the Syrian case, the level of international involvement will be determined by the nature of the political authority that emerges after the conflict and the degree to which that authority is able to project its power across Syria.

The following list summarizes some of the main lessons learned around the challenges of insider-outsider dynamics:

  • Outsiders tend to shape reconstruction in ways that betray on-the-ground realities.
  • Inside actors are more likely to exercise influence and agency in the postconflict period if they incorporate popular aspirations and have strong social roots.
  • The political agency of insider groups needs to find institutional expression in the postconflict period.
  • Central coordination of reconstruction is virtually impossible; thus, a large landscape of insider and outsider groups working on reconstruction issues should be expected.
  • Outsider influence on the reconstruction process creates distortions and dependencies (such as debt) that are difficult to overcome.

The Demands of Social Policy

How reconstruction policies are formulated depends on how problems are diagnosed. The issue of how to read a war economy is a central reconstruction challenge. One issue worth exploring is the relative absence of social policy from reconstruction programs, which tend to focus on material and immaterial outcomes. The material outcomes involve the rebuilding of infrastructure and the lived environment. The immaterial outcomes include the enshrining of political and social rights in postconflict arrangements, including constitutions and new laws. Yet, in most cases, social rights have been neglected at the expense of these other outcomes and appear to be peripheral to overall reconstruction policies.

The lack of robust social policies is striking given the relationship between social policy and social stability. Achieving the latter is often equated with institutionalizing certain political and civil rights. In Kosovo, for example, political rights were institutionalized through powerful regional institutions, including the Provincial Assembly. Civil rights were guaranteed through judicial reforms and the creation of new legal institutions. Entirely absent were new institutions aimed at the protection of social rights. The importance of strong social policies during periods of reconstruction should be obvious: they can contribute to social justice while furthering the economic goals of wealth distribution, employment, and social betterment. Social policy also holds the possibility of “re-knitting the local social fabric” of societies torn apart by war. It thus holds the key to repairing and reconfiguring social relations while laying the groundwork for postconflict reconstruction.11

Cocozzelli distinguishes between social projects and social policy.12 For him, social projects dominate reconstruction planning and involve small, localized projects designed to address the immediate social welfare needs of targeted populations, such as villages or neighborhoods. A reliance on project-based social policies absolves planners and agents of responsibility for building robust social welfare systems. The social policy challenge during reconstruction is to resolve the tension between project- or system-based solutions.

Social Policy in Iraq and Lebanon

Iraq and Lebanon faced somewhat similar social challenges in the aftermath of war and conflict. These included challenges around refugee repatriation, fostering social peace and reconciliation, and enhancing economic opportunities for the citizenry. In both countries, new institutions emerged to address some of these issues, but, for the most part, social policy was an afterthought in much of the reconstruction planning.

In Lebanon, for example, the Ministry of the Displaced was created to help support and finance repatriation projects. This was to be accompanied by targeted reconstruction of the areas for returning refugees. Unfortunately, the plans for large-scale return never materialized as some combination of corruption, political infighting, embezzlement of funds, and mismanagement led to stalemates.13 Such examples have been repeated in both Iraq and Lebanon, where the bureaucratic functioning of ministries is hampered by their politicization. Additionally, there are the very real problems of planning and coordination in the postconflict periods that have often inhibited thinking about social policy beyond project-based policies.

Lessons Learned

The following list summarizes some of the main lessons learned around social policy challenges:

  • Strong systemic solutions, rather than project-based ones, are needed to address social problems in the reconstruction period.
  • Social rights need to be institutionalized during reconstruction along with political and civil rights.
  • Social policy should be geared toward the long-term rehabilitation and reconfiguration of social relationships, particularly those between the citizenry and the state.
  • A strong social welfare system forms the basis of reconstruction, and it should not be viewed as an outcome but, rather, as a prerequisite of reconstruction.

One of the pillars and normative goals of reconstruction should be the achievement of social objectives.


Syria’s postconflict reconstruction needs will be unique to the country. Nevertheless, the experiences of Lebanon and Iraq offer some insight into what the Syrian situation may look like in the future and what policies may, or may not, support reconstruction and reconciliation efforts. What emerges from this comparative discussion are some broad challenges and dilemmas facing Syria, which revolve around financing, the public-private sector balance, social policy, and the role of the international community in reconstruction. None of these dilemmas will have an easy solution, but how they are addressed will have serious long-term consequences on the country and the success or failure of its reconstruction program.

Syria’s future reconstruction needs will have to directly address the social and economic transformations wrought by the crisis. Doing so will require not only comparative analysis of what worked and what did not work in other countries, but an understanding of the nature and trajectory of the socioeconomic transformations of the last four years and beyond. Much like in Lebanon and Iraq, Syria’s reconstruction program will run the risk of drifting away from the distributional goals of reconstruction should the policies not be grounded in a robust assessment of the country’s needs and capacities to pursue those goals.

Meanwhile, equating reconstruction merely with the physical restoration of the country or with various indicators of economic growth will not serve to heal the very deep, collective social traumas experienced during the crisis. Here, too, reconstruction policy can play a central role. If the cases of Lebanon and Iraq demonstrate anything, it is that ignoring the social effects of conflict and failing to incorporate them into a reconstruction plan can only serve to perpetuate conflict in future generations.


1 Bronwyn Evans-Kent and Roland Bleiker, “Peace Beyond the State? NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” International Peacekeeping 10, no. 1 (2003),

2 Ken Menkhaus, “Somalia: ‘They Created a Desert and Called it Peace(building),’” Review of African Political Economy 36, no. 120 (2009).

3 For example, on Australian police and international capacity building, see Vandra Harris and Andrew Goldsmith, “Police in the development space: Australia’s international police capacity builders,” Third World Quarterly 33, no. 6 (2012): 1019–1036; on U.S. misreading of the Iraqi economy, see Samer Abboud, “Failures (and successes?) of neo-liberal economic policy in Iraq,” International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies 2, no. 3 (2008): 425–442; on misunderstandings of criminality, see William Reno, “Understanding Criminality in West African Conflicts,” International Peacekeeping 16, no. 1 (Feb 2009): 47–61; on security sector reform failures see Paul Jackson, “Security Sector Reform and State Building,” Third World Quarterly 32, no. 10 (2011): 1803–1822.

4 Rola el-Husseini, Pax Syriana: Elite Politics in Postwar Lebanon, (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2012).

5 Ibid.

6 Paul Jackson, “Security Sector Reform and State Building.”

7 Vandra Harris and Andrew Goldsmith, “Police in the development space: Australia’s international police capacity builders.”

8 Kevin Walby and Jeffrey Monaghan, “‘Haitian Paradox’ or Dark Side of the Security-Development Nexus? Canada’s Role in the Securitization of Haiti, 2004–2009,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 36, no. 4 (November 2011): 273–287.

9 Christine Sylva Hamieh and Roger Mac Ginty, “A very political reconstruction: governance and reconstruction in Lebanon after the 2006 war,” Disasters 34, issue supplement s1 (January 2010): S103–S123.

10 William Reno, “Understanding Criminality in West African Conflicts.”

11 Fred Pompeo Cocozzelli, War and Social Welfare: Reconstruction After Conflict (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

12 Ibid.

13 Georges Assaf and Rana El-Fil, “Resolving the issue of war displacement in Lebanon,” Forced Migration Review 7 (April 2000): 31–33.