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What to do with ex-combatants after the peace deal is signed?

March 8, 2012

It’s something of a truism that the Reintegration component of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes for ex-combatants is often the hardest part to get right. Provided the politics and security situation are conducive, it’s often not that much of a push to disband and retrieve at least some of the weapons from armed groups. But the tricky business of helping ex-soldiers and militia members back into civilian life has long bedevilled the international and national agencies responsible.

Some of them have committed acts of violence against their own communities, even their own families. Some were recruited – often press-ganged – as children and have been educated into violence and institutionalised into the command structure and brotherhood of their units. In many cases, the economy into which they are supposed to “return” and find a place is threadbare – sometimes that was one of the contributory factors to the very conflict in which they fought. Many – often most – have little in the way of practical skills to offer in the peacetime jobs market. Many are traumatised by what they have seen and done. Girls and women frequently face even more of a challenge than their male counterparts in returning to civilian life.

A lot of wars have ended over the last twenty years – it’s one of the dividends of the end of the Cold War. A large international industry has grown up around DDR. Unfortunately, the “R” component has often failed to work well. Reasons for this vary from context to context. But we can identify some of the more generic ones. Skills training is often provided, but is ill-matched to the actual jobs and self-employment opportunities which exist in the market. Being trained as a plumber in a place without running water, as a fish farmer in an area without a market infrastructure for selling fish, or as a hairdresser when the ratio of salons to customers is already high, is not much help for a young man or women trying to adjust to civilian life. Indeed, when participation in these training and rehabilitation programmes leads only to unemployment, it can be even more demoralising to ex-combatants than if they had received no training at all.

Often the programme planners fail to involve the soon-to-be ex-combatants in planning the programmes they are supposed to benefit from – where do they plan to go? what would they like to do? what networks do they have? – so the service providers fail to address their real interests and needs. Frequently they also fail to consult businesses to find out what kinds of skills they need, and what opportunities they might provide. Meanwhile, seldom are many ex-combatants provided with the one-on-one attention and advice many of them need, and for some, the psychological help they need to come to terms with what they have seen and done. Not only is such help too expensive to provide, but the number of clinical psychologists in many war-torn countries tends to be low.

The fact is, it is devilishly hard to help some ex-combatants back into civilian life, whether in the USA, Liberia or Sri Lanka. In the end, “reintegration” is something far too complex to reduce down to a simple “project”. And it is doubly hard for those working in the UN and other international institutions to do so, because their systems for project design, approval and implementation are so rigid, and so slow when they should be quick, and quick when they should be slow. And because it is hard for them to engage in the post war politics which also play such an important role in defining what is and isn’t possible.

The case of Nepal

So it is interesting to see what has been happening in Nepal. The Maoist rebellion ended with a peace agreement in 2006, which among other things called for around 23,000 People’s Liberation Army fighters to be housed in cantonments, pending the integration of a proportion of them into the Nepalese army. The rest were to be disarmed, demobilised and reintegrated. Politics has slowed this process down. One issue under discussion has been whether to provide the first 7,400 or so people opting for demobilisation, and who are now leaving cantonments under the DDR scheme, simply with a cash payment, or with a more internationally typical “package” of training and assistance, plus a smaller pay-out. Eventually, the total number demobilising will rise to about 13,000, once a second round of demobilisation happens.

The international agencies – such as donors and UN – involved in these discussions with the government and other Nepalese stakeholders, have been adamant that the ex-combatants should get the “package”. As far as I understand things, this is partly because they have a genuine fear that unleashing all these ex-combatants with money in their pockets and insufficient preparation will destabilise Nepalese communities and society; partly because they fear for the safety of those who fail to reintegrate successfully or are subject to revenge attacks – and especially of the more vulnerable among them.

One international representative explained in a meeting in Kathmandu last week that donors were concerned about the “fiduciary integrity” of the funds provided to ex-combatants – presumably code for a worry that some of the recipients might be “taxed” by the Maoist party to which they presumably still owe loyalty, or by other factions or gangs. As it turns out, the cash payments (around 500,000 – 800,000 Nepalese Rupees or $6,000 – $10,000 each, five to eight times Nepal’s per capita GDP at purchasing power parity) are being funded by the Nepalese government, not external donors. But since money is by definition fungible, and donors are paying for other elements of the peace deal, it is easy to see why donors and the UN feel they have an interest in this issue.

The libertarian in me says why not just give them the cash? They are adults, they have borne arms, many among them have lived and fought in difficult conditions over a number of years – why should they not be able to fend for themselves in civilian life now? With half a million rupees each at their disposal, most of them should be able to buy some land, build a small house or a business, or fund their entry into the large pool of Nepalese migrant labour in the Gulf and South East Asia and make a living. If nothing else, the combined total payout will mean a boost of almost $100m to GDP.

Far from being bereft of social support, a lot of the ex-PLA are married with children; many will presumably go home, and where necessary will ask and obtain forgiveness. They have been in cantonments since 2006, but not cut off from communication with friends and family. Indeed, they have been out on leave, and many will have visited home or elsewhere, prospecting for where to start their new lives. No doubt the party itself will remain an important network, even an institution, for many.

There will, no doubt, be problems. Some will spend their money too fast and then be left on their uppers. Perhaps others will spend their money on drugs, drink and prostitution; or buy into or start new criminal gangs; or join hardline Maoist or ethnic factions to wage further armed struggle. There will also, no doubt, be instances of revenge attacks on life, limb and property. There’ll be problems here and there when young men flush with cash return home to communities where husbands of young wives are away working in the Gulf. But Nepal is a big place, with plenty of existing social and economic problems; it can withstand a few more. Can 12,000 ex-combatants really destabilise a large and diverse country of 30 million people? Yes, probably. Are they likely too? Maybe, but I don’t think the question of “cash or a UN package” is what will tip the balance.

In any case, the politics of the situation – which the international agencies as so often are ill-equipped to engage with – seem to say quite clearly that cash pay-outs are the answer. I was in Nepal for a few days recently but can’t claim to understand the politics well. One issue seems to be speed: politicians have dragged their feet on this issue for so long, and time is officially running out for the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Emptying the cantonments – into either civilian life or the Nepalese army – is a critical milestone in that process, and it needs to be completed soon. Giving people a wad of cash has the merit of being quick.

Another apparent issue is murkier: the ex-combatants still owe some kind of allegiance to the Maoist cause, and may be asked to contribute some of their payment to the party. Indeed, many may be keen to do so, having been indoctrinated into the cause during their time in the field and while in cantonments. It is a lot easier to tax a $6000 cash payment, compared to someone’s UN package, consisting of a smaller pay-out and the receipt of training and advice.

Some in the international community in Kathmandu remain vexed about this outcome, finding it hard to accept that their advice, based on international best practice, is being ignored. They are looking for other ways to help the ex-combatants. Fair enough, provided they get their targeting right, and make sure they help reintegrate the ex-PLA into a decent and functioning local economy, wherever they settle. That means above all two things: targeting development assistance at the wider communities into which ex-combatants will be absorbed; and knowing enough about the individual ex-combatants to target the assistance appropriately.

The 60:25:15% rule? 

In some ways this issue of targeting is the nub of how to “do reintegration”. An ex-colleague of mine Tony Klouda once demonstrated convincingly to me that for most social improvement programmes, one can divide the “target group” into three segments of unequal proportions. At one end of the spectrum, you have the people who are easiest to help, but who least need help. For teachers, these are the easiest pupils to teach, as well the ones who would most easily learn with minimal help. For reproductive health projects, these are the better-off men and women in the most stable family environments, who will readily agree with and respond to suggestions about safe sex and family planning, and might well have had fairly safe sex lives and spaced their births anyway. For micro-finance projects, these are the trustworthy people with collateral who can most easily access loans. Let’s call this the 60% group.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the hardest to reach, and the ones least likely to change. In class, these are the pupils who really don’t want to learn; would rather be elsewhere, and disrupt the learning of others. In the field of reproductive health, these are the risk-taking young men and women who practise unsafe sex with multiple partners, and whose circumstances and attitudes make it very hard indeed to reach them or change their practices. In the field of mico-finance, no-one would willingly lend these people money. Let’s call this the 15% group.

In between, we are left with the remaining 25%. These are the pupils who could learn, given a decent opportunity to do so; and the individuals and couples who could and would adopt safer reproductive health practices if only you and they both had the time and resources needed. They are the people who take loans at extortionate rates, and who can thus never get their heads above water, but who could change their lives if only they could access cheaper capital.

Tony Klouda’s thesis as I remember it, was that projects and programmes tend to focus too much on the 60% and 15% groups, ignoring the 25%. In doing so they not only squander scarce resources, but also fail in their objectives. Very few of the 15% actually change their attitudes and bevahiour; and while projects will be reporting great success from providing services to the 60%, this is largely a false claim because many of the 60% would have passed their exams, practised healthy good reproductive lives or accessed loans anyway. Of course we should not be ignoring the 60%, nor consigning the 15% to oblivion. Nevertheless the rational application of scarce funds must surely be to the 25%.

Applying this knowledge to the world of DDR, it seems to me that the task is to identify who is in each of the 60:25:15% groups, and target the DDR programme accordingly. In public policy and programming terms, this might look as follows.







Those unable to cope outside institutional life; sociopaths; unlikely to fit in, and likely to cause trouble wherever they go Those with the potential to succeed, but who are somewhat traumatised, ill-educated, lacking in confidence…. Women especially Relatively stable & intelligent well-adjusted individuals, with family or other networks; perhaps better educated (either formally or informally); they have a plan for what they’ll do in civilian life

Policy/ approach

Keep them in uniform if possible, or otherwise under surveillance. Take steps to protect the most vulnerable, especially children, girls and women, from abuse. Eventually, if resources permit, extended psychosocial counselling Intensive training and follow-up and monitoring; proactive follow-up by case workers; advice with live skills; smaller cash pay-out, perhaps in small tranches and conditional on certain milestones or personal achievements. Cash, a bit of advice; remote monitoring –perhaps some kind of helpline in case they have questions they need help with

This is a generic approach, not in any way designed specifically for Nepalese ex-PLA. But the advantage of this kind of public policy approach is that it channels the resources to those who can use them. Those who will benefit from it most, get the most attention; while those who least need it don’t get encumbered by having to deal with too much attention. It seems like a win-win.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2012 8:40 pm

    Hey Philvernon,
    In addition to your post I was wondering, Since Cain killed his own brother Abel, the world has not known peace. There has been some sort of conflict going around the world since then. With the growth of the humanity, the conflicts also grew. There is so much of hatred and conflicts around that peace seem to be a thing of distant past. The Peace sign was introduced as apart of the peace movement in the 1960s.

  2. Worthy Glance permalink
    March 10, 2012 5:03 pm

    Phil this really seems an understudied aspect of peacebuilding so I am happy to see it looked at in greater depth. Are there any texts that have done longer term studies on DDR? I know “DDR” from one certain country but didn’t realize it was used universally. One of the ironies of reintegration we should remember is that lack of employment, an incentive to join insurgents, is often still a reality when they try to reintegrate; and then the difficult issue of giving job preference to a former insurgent over perhaps more qualified individuals.

  3. March 12, 2012 10:16 pm

    Thanks Phil for bringing up this very important topic. We really do need to include a focus on reintegration; as you wrote “the tricky business of helping ex-soldiers and militia members back into civilian life”.

    In addition to economics as mentioned by the above commentator (“Worthy”), dialogue is another key. There are many powerful examples of those who had the courage to cross the so called enemy lines that were constructed, to meet with those they victimized, and to sit together in Circle to heal and rediscover our mutual humanness. Healing and community building need to be a part of our overall peacemaking efforts.

    I agree with you Phil that the majority of ex-combatants can be reintegrated with some support as suggested. It is disheartening that so many people are held for such long periods of time when really we need to support them in returning to families and communities.

    I need to further reflect on your suggested 15-25-60 rule. I wonder what you mean by keeping the 15% “in uniform”?

  4. March 13, 2012 8:18 pm

    I’ve read through 5 different blogs on this and this is definitely the best. Thanks!

  5. Julia Mercier-Weiner permalink
    March 16, 2012 2:28 pm

    You might be interested in reading this paper
    – Walt Kilroy looked at participatory approach to DDR, this article is an extract from his phd with his findings from Sierra Leone.


  1. Why young people are so critical to peace? | Phil Vernon's blog

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