How Universities Help Nations Rebuild After War

“In efforts to rebuild war-torn countries, policy makers and planners have long overlooked one of the oldest institutions in contemporary society—higher education.”

This is the argument of Higher Education and Post-Conflict Recovery by Sansom Milton, a senior research fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, in Qatar.

Milton argues that institutions of higher education can play a valuable role in rebuilding societies in the aftermath of war, in the short and long term, and he makes the case using recent examples from around the world, but with an especially acute focus on evidence from Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine and Syria.

The conventional wisdom about post-conflict recovery, Milton writes, has favored primary education over higher education. From the 1980s onward, the World Bank lent money for reconstruction based on a “rate-of-return analysis”: primary education was more likely to produce money-earning individuals than higher education. But by the turn of the present century, this policy fell out of favor. The results were found to be unconvincing in practice, while awareness grew of the value of reconstruction goals that were not narrowly economic, and this involved reconsideration of the role of higher education.

The book is as much a retrospective analysis as a forward-looking policy recommendation.

Historically, Milton shows, a donor country would help a young adult by awarding a scholarship to study at a university in the donor country, not at a university in the student’s own country. While this kind of support has benefited thousands of talented people, many of its beneficiaries don’t return to their home countries once their education is complete. The result is “brain drain.”

In response, a number of nongovernmental organizations—notably Spark, which is largely funded by the government of the Netherlands—have emerged in recent years, offering scholarships for study at institutions in the post-conflict area. This approach enables graduates to remain in their home country, or at least in the region near their home country, and eventually to contribute to their home country’s development.

The Syrian war has led to much of this kind of new thinking about the role of higher education in post-conflict societies. The numbers of Syrians compelled by war to leave the country included a high proportion of students or university-age young adults. International organizations such as the United Nations refugee agency have responded to this demographic feature by increasing support for emergency higher education for refugees.

Another lesson of the Syrian war is that a country’s universities often remain areas of stability in the midst of chaos. The resilience of Damascus University, for instance, which has remained open since the start of the war despite terrible conditions, offers hope of valuable continuity into the post-war period. “The experience of coping in adversity,” Milton writes (in prose that is often, unfortunately, heavily laden with jargon), “can form the basis of powerful narratives of resilience that can strengthen corporative identities and support reconciliation in higher education communities affected by conflict.”

The wrong kind of intervention in higher education in a post-conflict society can be worse than no intervention at all, he argues. The parade example of this is Iraq after the United States-led invasion in 2003, where the interim government—the Coalition Provisional Authority—imposed a drastic “de-Baathification” order requiring the removal of all members of the formerly ruling Baath party from official positions.

“Despite protestations from Iraqi academics that de-Baathification would lead to an ungovernable university system, the order removed an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 academics and university staff from their posts, the majority in senior positions,” Milton writes. “De-Baathification went too far by removing academics that held only nominal Baath party membership, which was a necessity to career progression and not a strong indicator of high-level party involvement.”

Higher education has a part to play in the immediate aftermath of conflict as well as in the long-term redevelopment of a country, Milton argues. First of all, “simply reopening higher-education systems may have a positive effect on short-term stabilization efforts” by giving young men an alternative to joining a violent group. And universities can mobilize students and faculty to quickly provide humanitarian relief services—as the American University of Beirut did during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. After that, institutions can provide advanced skills that lead to stable jobs. And further, a university can adapt its curriculum to meet the imperatives of a new era. Higher-education institutions and their leaders could also play a role in post-war truth and reconciliation.

It’s interesting to note an example from Libya in its present period of turbulence to show how local powers can thwart the best intentions. The University of Tripoli’s Program for Rebuilding Libya began in September 2011 with the support of the United Nations Development Program, a budget of five million Libyan dinars (then worth about $4 million) and pledges of assistance from international partners including the United States embassy, Milton writes. The aim of the program was to train a nationwide network of “civic educators,” and to support student civil-society initiatives. “The first few months were widely judged a success.”

“Yet on 24th December 2011 the program was effectively closed down. It is reported that the minister [of education] was uncomfortable with the program’s ideological aims and … likened civil society to ‘an alien object’ that ‘would be rejected by the Libyan body.’” Civil-society programs on campuses across the country came to an abrupt halt.

Finally, although this book offers valuable insights into developments in Arab countries, its reach is global. It supports its argument with examples from a wide range of countries where higher education played a role in post-conflict reconstruction, most notably Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, East Timor, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. This global approach enables multiple comparative perspectives. Over all, this is a helpful and authoritative book.


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