A Fork in the Road


A friend of mine once said “Washington’s not a city, it’s a campus.”  What he meant is that on any given day you can find several, and often a lot, of free lectures, debates and seminars.  You almost trip over people willing to tell you about their latest project, research or analysis.  If you’re in to learning, it’s very satisfying.

Yesterday I attended a session entitled “Harnessing Natural Resources for Peacebuilding: Lessons from U.S. and Japanese Assistance” hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.   Speakers presented 16 case studies of peacebuilding and tried to deduce some general lessons from their experiences.  The countries that were covered over the day included Afghanistan, Liberia, Timor-Leste and Cambodia just to name a few.   One paper captured the essential message of the day pretty succinctly – engineering (agricultural, mining, civil) interventions can on the face of it offer opportunities for peacebuilding, but their success is dependent upon local socio-economic and political consideration.

Jon Unruh presented work undertaken in Afghanistan, “Road Infrastructure Reconstruction as a Peacebuilding Priority in Afghanistan” (co-authored by Mourad Shalaby).  The paper recounts efforts to build a road network in Afghanistan and some of the challenges in installing the road network.  Essentially, while roads provide arteries for economic development, they also provide challenges to governance.  Not only are roads used for peacebuilding, but they are also used by people wanting to engage in war making.  In one respect it’s a rather obvious point, but Unruh and do a good job of examining where the negative outcomes emerge.  Based upon his talk it became pretty clear that effective governance is central to building an effective road network.  One of the central problems the local populations have with the road is that it brings armed groups – coalition, Taliban, criminals – into close proximity.  Where one group comes another is sure to follow.  While the road makes it easier to get crops to market, it also facilitates violent conflict.

It struck me as odd that only a few weeks earlier I had been in the same auditorium listening to a different talk.  This one was given by Sasha Lezhnev of The Enough Project.  Lezhnev’s presentation focused on mineral mining undertaken in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  There artisanal miners extract minerals and sell them to dealers who export those minerals for processing outside of the DRC.  Proceeds from these mines go to fuel the purchase of arms and other goods used in conflict.  The government in the DRC has an interest in curtailing and ending such mining practices.  Lezhnev claims the key problem the DRC faces is installing roads in to the mining region.  With those roads would come police and other elements of government that would go a long way to inhibiting the trade in illegally mined minerals.  Yet, the illegal mining network demolishes nascent roads, in order that central government cannot extend its control into the hinterland.

In Afghanistan the road helps to stimulate new economic activity, create wealth and bring the promise of prosperity.  In the DRC the road offers the promise of ending lawlessness and reforming unsafe and dangerous mining practices.

Good governance comes on the back of trucks and cars that travel down roads.  Yet, without good governance roads are hard to build and maintain.  It would be nice if there was a simple uniform answer.  Sadly, no such simple answer presents itself.  I am sure, however, that the answer lies somewhere in the local context.  Engaging with the local population and seeking their solutions will certainly be the best way forward.

This entry was posted in land, Peace and Conflict, reconstruction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Fork in the Road

  1. Yesterday I mentioned the paper written by Jon Unruh and Mourad Shalaby, “Road Infrastructure Reconstruction as a Peacebuilding Priority in Afghanistan”. A major thrust of the paper is on the impact road construction has on land values. As another demonstration of unintended consequences in peacebuildling, Unruh and Shalaby found that land prices soared. Land speculation has become an engine of profit-seeking in Afghanistan, and was probably not the intended outcome of those who build roads.

    Still, building roads is likely better than not building them. The challenge is foreseeing what is current unforeseen and then taking action to counter its influences. Of course civil engineers typically don’t think about such things, and social scientists can’t build roads. Maybe they could talk to one another on occasion to address this problem.

  2. Lucy Perry says:

    Could you share your list of where to find the best free lectures, debates, and seminars in Washington?

    • Hi Lucy,

      One of the big complaints around DC is that nobody has a comprehensive list. I like the universities (Georgetown, GWU, American, Catholic, Howard) and then there are places like National Geographic and other less political places. Brookings, USIP, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, CSIS are all pretty even handed in how they approach things. Then, of course, are the more political places like American Enterprise Institute, Cato, and Heritage. Somebody has tried to put together a directory of public lectures and events but I don’t know how successful they’ve been. I looked for it for you, but I cannot lay my hands on it. If I run across It I’ll post it. Many of these places, once you get on their mailing list, keep you informed about what is happening. That’s how I manage it. Hope that helps.

  3. Lucy Perry says:

    Thanks so much – very helpful!

  4. Lucy,

    Check out http://dc.linktank.com They have a reasonable list of ‘think tank’ related talks. Unfortunately, they don’t have good coverage of the arts, but it’s at least a start.

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