Reforming the investment system is the gateway to better futures in Iraq and Syria

EPA / AHMED JALIL

An Iraqi Investor looks at an electronic board showing shares information at the Iraqi Stock Exchange in Baghdad, Iraq, 24 April 2016.

Peace efforts must focus on four pillars reforming investment systems and business laws, investing in infrastructure, building state institutions and investment in human capital – in order to help citizens, see the dividends of peace.

 


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 The recent escalation of violence in Ghouta in Syria has brought the failure of peace negotiations into sharp relief. Yet while efforts to bring the war to a close are clearly essential, it is also worth investing time into thinking about what comes after peace on paper is signed: how can we restructure and rebuild the society in a way that increases the legitimacy of the state, and reduces the likelihood of violence breaking out again?

The internal dynamics of civil war present a unique set of problems, making attempts to secure peace especially difficult. One major problem is that since there are no agreeable boundaries for the different parties to retreat behind; when the fighting is over, people who were literally shooting at each other the day before, among them terrorist allies and their victims, are expected to live side-by-side, as witnessed in Lebanon and the Balkans.

These problems are particularly acute in Iraq and Syria – two countries close to my heart.

Though complex, one thing is clear – the current approach to peacebuilding isn’t working. Billions of dollars have been invested globally into programmes aimed at building basic government services. This is done under the assumption that basic services foster state legitimacy, yet, the reality is proving otherwise. Increased investments in these areas have actually failed to yield any major increases in government legitimacy, nor have they provided the much-needed support at ground level.

While funding from wealthy donor countries is essential, this money has too often been directed and administered by foreign groups who, though arriving with the best of intentions, ultimately suffer from a poor understanding of realities on the ground. There are manifold examples of this failure, from Iraq and Afghanistan to South Sudan and Haiti.

More effort needs to be invested into supporting projects that can demonstrate the concrete benefits of peace. Education and healthcare are the prime examples of this – they benefit all parties through providing an opportunity for investors and quality operators to achieve reasonable and, importantly, measurable returns; while improving the lives and well-being of the local community.

The link between peacebuilding and education is well documented, with UNICEF identifying education’s role in converting ‘negative peace’ (simply the cessation of violence) into ‘positive peace’ (structural changes that address social injustices that may be the root cause of violence).

It is for these reasons that we at the Marya Group have focussed our CSR efforts in these two sectors.  The company is working to increase participation in STEM driven education to establish a foundation for the future, and to fund further research into diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Such measures are just one way to help reduce reliance on volatile primary resource extraction, as a revenue and employment provider; something many countries in the Middle East regularly face.

Any negotiated peace deal will, at least initially, serve only to plaster over an uneasy truce which is likely to remain until scars and perceived grievances begin to fade. A key obstacle to peace is thus figuring out how to rebuild a collective civic narrative among an understandably sceptical population.

An important way of doing this is through investment: citizens need to see a peace dividend, such streets being cleared, new schools and hospitals opening, and normal life returning to their towns.

This is crucial if citizens are to begin to believe, to paraphrase the famous medieval philosopher Maimonides, in the plausibility of the possible rather than the necessity of the probable.

 

So how do the four pillars help create better futures? 

Investment is the necessary first step in re-establishing durable, long-term peace. And here external funding is essential, owing to the extensive damage wrought to domestic economies by violence – let alone networks of trust. This investment is vital but, as mentioned previously, frequently misdirected.

As a solution, the West should spend time seeking out local and regional partners, establishing joint ventures that couple foreign financing with local expertise. As well as benefitting both sides, actively including local populations provides an even greater incentive for them maintain peace.

Reconstruction projects aimed at improving the situation for citizens on the ground, funded in the first instance by donor countries and foreign countries, also help to reduce the appeal of extremism, as well as lessening animosity towards the other and the state.

It is crucial for post-conflict societies to embrace best practices from around the world in rebuilding and development projects. During my time as CEO, Arabtec and Samsung forged one of the largest and most successful joint venture partnerships in the Middle East, so I know first-hand the benefits that JVs such as these could bring to recovering populations.

Infrastructure is also essential because it is one of the most visible ways for people to see the benefits of peace. If no tangible benefits are visible, then groups may begin to view short-term gains derived from conflict as the only source of subsistence available.

Institutions are critical since they function as a central means of converting violent conflict into non-violent political competition. If disagreements can be addressed through dialogue and official channels, the impetus for a group to grasp for weapons is severely curtailed, as the positive example of Liberia under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf demonstrates.

Finally, it is essential to directly focus efforts on the individual level, since these domestic actors will ultimately be responsible for progress in these countries.

While not forgetting how crucial resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to broader regional stability, the four pillars – reforming investment systems and business laws, investing in infrastructure, building state institutions and intensive investment in human capital – can nonetheless serve as a roadmap for rebuilding Syria and Iraq, and for improving conditions in the Middle East.

While we cannot expect to solve all the problems, this should not be used as a pretext not to try and solve any of them. It’s crucial to remember: Even limited solutions save whole lives.

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