After Conflict, Peacebuilding and Recovery Efforts Too Often Miss the Environment


    In June 2010, The New York Timespublished a front page story trumpeting a Pentagon announcement of roughly $1 trillion worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan. Officials said the discovery was “far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself.” Then-President Hamid Karzai soon inflated the figure to $3 trillion and then again to $30 trillion, enough to transform the country into the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

    Fast forward six years, and things look decidedly different. The Aynak copper mine, for which the government signed a $3 billion concession with Chinese company MCC, has been plagued by problems since work began. Observers have accused MCC of bribing government officials, damaging or destroying priceless cultural artifacts, and forcibly displacing locals. The company later announced it would renege on payments to the central government due to falling copper prices and ongoing attacks by Taliban fighters.

    The entire mining industry, once thought to hold so much development potential, now appears to be fostering violence. Foreign Policy reported in 2014 that illegal mining in troubled provinces like Helmand is financing the Taliban and other militant groups as they work to weaken the fragile central government. Most recently, Global Witness, a watchdog NGO, released a report demonstrating how lapis lazuli mining drives grievances and funds armed groups, constituting a threat to the stability of the entire country.

    So how did Afghanistan’s mineral reserves go from treasure trove to curse so quickly? In their quest to promote stability and economic development, the Afghan government and its international partners overlooked or deemphasized the role that natural resources play in fostering civil conflict. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not alone here. Natural resources have played an increasingly salient role in violent conflicts since the end of the Cold War, as work by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has shown. But the international community has not learned the lessons of this development, as we explore in an article published in the latest issue of the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development.

    Tracking Three Essential Elements

    Since former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published his Agenda for Peace in 1992, the United Nations, its constituent agencies, and bilateral and multilateral partners have developed an increasingly institutionalized process of identifying a war-torn country’s unique needs and coordinating a response after conflict.

    Natural resources have played an increasingly salient role in violent conflicts since the end of the Cold War

    While the circumstances vary widely from case to case, there are typically three essential elements of this process. The first is a Post-Conflict Needs Assessment (PCNA), which the peacebuilding community develops to identify urgent needs and lay out a series of priority actions to address them. Second is the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), which outlines an economic recovery plan for the country and divides responsibilities among partners. Third is the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), which details, coordinates, and outlines the role of the UN in the peacebuilding process, including the conditionality of aid to the host government.

    Using this sequence of documents as our data, we tracked attention over time to resource and environmental issues in seven countries: Afghanistan, Georgia, Haiti, Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan. We then compared those findings to baseline environmental assessments done by  UNEP, which enabled us to determine each country’s key environmental challenges in the wake of conflict. We asked which natural resource and environmental issues appeared in the peacebuilding assessment and planning process, which ones had staying power as the process moved from needs assessment to policy planning to funding commitments, and whether certain steps in the process captured the main issues better than the others.

    Lessons Learned (and Not)

    Our results include four major observations. First, the international community in these seven post-conflict cases focused its attention more on certain environmental topics. Particular attention was paid to infrastructure concerns, such as repairing the electrical grid or improving water, sanitation, and hygiene systems, and – perhaps more surprisingly – environmental governance. Far less attention was paid to ecosystem services, which may stem from the lack of visibility of these issues, or simply that more immediate humanitarian concerns tend to predominate in the wake of war.

    We also found that little attention was given to the impacts and controversies around mining and extractive industries. The Afghanistan case attests to the fact that while mining holds significant potential for economic development it can also perpetuate existing violence or contribute to its recurrence. Failure to manage impacts and controversies – including environmental effects, distributive consequences, and a range of impacts on local communities – may presage conflict and violence in already fragile settings.

    Simply changing how environmental issues are framed may be insufficient to the challenges at hand

    Second, we found considerable variation in the coverage and framing of environmental issues from one country to another. In an attempt to learn from early mistakes, UNEP and others have argued that the environment needs to be treated as its own discrete sector rather than a “cross-cutting” issue that (much like gender) tends to get secondary treatment. But we note that two of the cases that did a better job of capturing baseline environmental issues overall – Afghanistan and Liberia – did address the environment as a cross-cutting issue. Simply changing the manner in which environmental issues are framed in the documents may be insufficient to the challenges at hand.

    Third, our results suggest that, despite criticism of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers from some corners, in our cases these documents actually captured a larger share of baseline environmental issues (56 percent) than did the Post-Conflict Needs Assessments or UN Development Assistance Frameworks. PRSPs, which are prepared by the International Monetary Fund, have been criticized for over-emphasizing structural adjustments, and there are studiesthatsuggest they often leave out key environmental considerations. Yet, in our cases at least, they did capture some issues that were glossed over or omitted in the needs-assessment (PCNA) and donor trust fund (UNDAF) stages. This suggests the importance of coordination and of using these tools in concert with one another in post-conflict recovery planning.

    Finally, we note the relatively thin environmental content of UNDAFs, which fail to address the vast majority of environmental topics flagged in UNEP baseline country studies. Part of this may be the growing pressure to shorten and tighten UNDAF documents, as well as the fact that these frameworks may privilege the particular concerns of UN agencies in a wider international division of labor. Still, the tendency of environmental themes to fall out of the chain of analysis at the funding stage is disconcerting.

    While further research is clearly needed, our analysis does have some clear policy implications. The international community by and large does not adequately consider natural resources and environmental governance through the full cycle of post-conflict peacebuilding, as reflected in the PCNA-PRSP-UNDAF process. The major actors involved need to do a better job of accounting for key environmental and natural resource dynamics at play by identifying these challenges at the earliest stages of the recovery process and ensuring they are addressed through each subsequent phase, from recovery planning to donor coordination to funding decisions. Failing this outcome, we may continue to see issues like the corruption, illicit activity, and controversial community impacts of Afghanistan’s mining sector drive recurring conflict in war-torn societies for years to come.

    Tim Kovach is an independent analyst and blogger from Cleveland who researches and writes about climate change, disaster risk reduction, and environmental peacebuilding.

    Ken Conca is a Wilson Center fellow and professor of international relations at the School of International Service, American University.

    Sources: Al Jazeera America, Bloomberg, Dalal-Clayton and Sadler (2005), European Forest Institute, Foreign Policy, Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, The New York Times, South China Morning Post, United Nations, United Nations Environment Program, World Bank.

    Photo Credit: A peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of Congo approaches wreckage of a UN vehicle from the previous year, March 2014, courtesy Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo.