Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)

World Bank

Parallel Session 6

Urban Rebuilding Beyond Bricks and Mortar

Toward a New Architecture for Durable Peace for the MENA Region


The World Bank is collaborating with Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), to rethink its approach to reconstruction in the post-conflict MENA region. The jointly produced Flagship Report “Building for Peace in MENA” aims at establishing a new paradigm of reconstruction beyond the traditional “bricks and mortar” focus, that contributes to transformative and sustainable peace and addresses the root causes of conflict. Focusing on urban spaces, the “Urban rebuilding beyond bricks and mortar – Toward a new architecture for durable peace for the MENA region” session at the PBF offered an opportunity to present the conceptual approach from the Flagship Report. It also allowed the teams working on the Flagship to gain additional insights and “food for thought” from experts from different fields of work, which could feed into framing the study, and, eventually, the potential policy recommendations to support urban rebuilding for peace from a multidisciplinary perspective. Contributions to the three-hours “deep dive” session came, amongst others, from psychologists, architects/urban planners, experts and practitioners working on peacebuilding, on dealing with the past, and with the Internally Displaced Populations (IDPs)/refugees as well as youth and women’s rights activists and NGOs from Germany, the MENA region, the Balkans and beyond.

Key takeaways

Experts highlighted that it is not sufficient for urban reconstruction to support the rebuilding of damaged physical infrastructure, such as buildings, electricity, water, schools and roads, but that it needs to equally invest in human relations and (re-)establishing the social fabric. Reconstruction efforts need to be aware of the physical violence and damages, but also of the non-physical violence, uncertainties and fears people have experienced or are still experiencing due to the conflict. (Re-)building trust within the population but also between the people, their government and its institutions, which is the so called “new social contract(s)”, is key if reconstruction efforts in the MENA region are to contribute to forge sustainably peaceful societies. These “soft” aspects of reconstruction, of mending relations between sectarian groups for example, need to be a priority before, during and after urban reconstruction has taken place. This is even more important as the loss of trust is a main aspect of trauma – re-establishing trust needs to involve the provision of physical safety and security, economic safety, social wellbeing but also the recognition of the human suffering caused by the conflicts. Thus, respecting both the tangible cultural heritage, as well as the intangible heritage of urban spaces, including locations of suffering and memorials, is crucial. This implies that reconstruction should be planned and implemented with a focus on people’s needs, rather than particular interests of politicians or businesses.

Particularly after conflict, urban planning and reconstruction need to take into consideration how to create “safe spaces” for people and respect their privacy, while at the same time providing a conducive environment to connect people, including those belonging to different groups who might have found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict. In this respect, one can often learn from old, traditional cities that, by reflecting dignity and culture, bring together people and functions in shared spaces – a space for nature’s needs to be provided and ecological aspects considered.

Rather than ready-made plans and structures, urban reconstruction needs to provide opportunities for organic growth, for the unplanned and unexpected to happen and develop. People, including survivors and victims, need to be given the opportunity to become agents of their own lives and society again, to regain trust and hope, to take things into their own hands and reclaim contested spaces. With the appropriate support, this can be a valuable contribution to peacebuilding and reconciliation – as shown by the example of the joint reconstruction of a contested street by community members from opposing sides of the conflict in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Having said this, it is important not to romanticize community-driven processes: while they are crucial, they do not automatically guarantee an inclusive and non-discriminatory approach, as vulnerable or marginalized groups might be excluded from local mechanisms, thereby reproducing the stagnant patterns that lead to violent escalation of social conflict in the first place. While community-driven processes are crucial, they are often by nature localized and on a small-scale. An important question is thus whether and how these interventions can be scaled up to meet the vast needs in the region. Likewise, the relationship between local-level projects and processes on the one hand and national strategies and the interests of national governments on the other hand can be a challenging one.

The importance of contextualizing reconstruction was emphasized during the deep-dive session, as the root causes of conflicts and preconditions for peace vary between, but also often within, conflict contexts. Thus, an in-depth, inclusive, participatory context analysis is crucial: It needs to be carried out in a conflict and gender-sensitive way, looking at local urban contexts down to the neighbourhood level, actor groups, existing structures, power relations and how they affect different gender, age groups and minority groups. Issues such as how gendered norms and patriarchal power relations influence the ability of groups, particularly women or young people, to participate in social and political life and shape their own and their societies’ future in the framework of reconstruction need to be well-understood. By doing so, post-conflict planning will ensure that urban reconstruction follows a truly inclusive and participatory processes rather than cementing discriminatory patriarchal power structures. Questions related to vulnerability - e.g., who is vulnerable and why; how can they be engaged; how to deal with people/groups who are considered as having been on the “wrong side” of conflict - need to be assessed as well. Participants working in the MENA region highlighted that the analysis needs to take into consideration not only what happened during the most recent or still ongoing conflict, but to go back in time to understand the multiple layers of conflict and violence the region has experienced. Following a participatory and inclusive bottom-up approach while doing this exercise is crucial; but likewise, the government needs to be involved, acknowledge what happened, and take the responsibility for non-recurrence of violence.

The session also discussed urban reconstruction should encompass aspects of reviving the economic life of the communities by allowing for investments and jobs to return and flourish. It is crucial to understand how rebuilding cities serve different roles such as reviving the social fabric, revitalizing the economy and ultimately contributing to durable peace. This multidisciplinary approach allows the actors involved in reconstruction to tackle simultaneously the different aspects of the city’s life that need to be rebuilt.

The question of legitimacy was also put to the fore: who are the legitimate political actors to engage with in urban reconstruction, given the violent past, the interests of­­ the different domestic and external stakeholders (‘patrons’) and the role political leaders (as actual or perceived ‘clients’ of external patrons) play in this? How do we engage with armed actors and / or those who might have an incentive to block (‘spoil’) the reconstruction process? ­­Given that much of the reconstruction in MENA will take place outside conventional ‘development’ contexts, particularly in middle income countries (e.g. Libya, Iraq), what is the role of conventional donors – bilateral and multilateral (like the World Bank)? How can the latter, in order to for its interventions to be perceived as legitimate by the stakeholders on the ground, facilitate or provide platforms for locally owned reconstruction processes and ensure accountability for their actions?

A related and highly sensitive issue is that of handling the political and financial corruption, as well as the mismanagement of the resources that would eventually be channeled to finance the reconstruction process. The perception that specific political, social or armed elites have benefitted personally from large-scale reconstruction projects in the past can further undermine trust and increase existing grievances, thus harming the peacebuilding processes. Furthermore, resources in the hands of conflict actors can further fuel conflict and violence. These are all issues that should be taken into consideration in the planning phase, in order to ensure that the reconstruction efforts would serve the intended purpose of fostering sustainable peace.

Another dilemma identified was that of balancing domestic interests and political pressures in the global North and neighboring countries in MENA on one hand, and the needs of the people in the MENA region on the other hand. An example is the political pressure for a quick return of refugees and IDPs settled in host communities, while the conditions on the ground are not yet suitable for their return; also keeping in mind that people who have left their countries/homes might not want to return. Based on experiences from Bosnia and Herzegovina, experts emphasized the need to critically review the reconstruction/ return logic: rebuilding cities and urban settlements is not the only prerequisite for the return of refugees and IDPs. In fact, history shows that some people might decide to leave while reconstruction is ongoing, because progress on the non-material societal reconstruction aspect in particular, is perceived as slow, unjust (to the victims and survivors) and non-inclusive. Likewise, the idea of a conflict going through clear-cut phases needs to be questioned, as reality is less clear-cut and sequenced than this theoretical concept.

Another highly political issue is that of Housing, Land and Property rights (HLP), which are often at stake in post-conflict and authoritarian contexts: How should reconstruction efforts engage with legislation in some of the focus countries, which erode the rights of people – especially of those that are most vulnerable? To what extent does reconstruction unintendedly foster such processes and what would a conflict-sensitive approach look like to avoid that?

Participants also pointed out that rather than only focusing on the phenomenon of urbanization, the aspect of “ruralisation” of cities should be tackled. The rural population have migrated into cities either as part of regular development over decades, or at an enhanced pace, by displacement in contexts of violent crises. These populations bring with them to the cities their specific traditions, social and political views, capacities and priorities. This needs have to be taken into account, as it implies that the dynamics and needs within an urban space will change, as well as the urban-rural nexus.

Key recommendations
  • Reconstruction in the MENA region is set in an environment deeply influenced by protracted (and often still ongoing) conflict and violence that will shape the region’s context for decades to come. Actors involved in reconstruction have the responsibility to ensure that this exercise does not cement past inequalities, the previous ‘old’ social contracts between state and society, that will lead to renewed inequality and conflict; or stabilize the situation that led to conflict and violence in the first place.

  • Planning for reconstruction needs awareness of what happened in the past and looks towards how it can contribute to building sustainable, peaceful societies in the future.

  • Instead of focusing on the damages and needs of the conflict-affected countries, policymakers and donors should shift their attention to the assets present in these communities and societies, focusing on the potential that exists within the population to rebuild their communities, and the chance to allow for the transformation of these countries into peaceful and inclusive societies.

Next Steps

At the end of the three-hours panel, the “Building for Peace in MENA” World Bank team was asked to consider three main questions while proceeding with the next phases of the project:

  1. Whom is the reconstruction for;

  2. What is the political economy of aid that governs the donor community and will thus finance and support reconstruction;

  3. How should the reconstruction community deal with the “spoilers” who do not have an interest to support the inclusive and sustainable reconstruction strategy?

Beyond the key takeaways highlighted above, participants shared recommendations with the World Bank team that will further inform the Flagship Report. One of these main recommendations is the necessity to go beyond the theoretical and ideal scenarios for post-conflict interventions. It is crucial to use the analysis of the different incentives of the stakeholders involved in the region when designing specific policies and projects. This requires using a realistic approach that is anchored in a deep understanding of the geo-economics and geo-politics of the region. Indeed, this is part of the research done in the current and first phase of the Flagship Project, which is expected to be published by early 2019.

As part of the vision for the “Building for Peace in MENA” Flagship Report, the World Bank is planning to carry out extensive consultations with stakeholders in and from the MENA region. The Peacebuilding forum was the first in the series of such events that will allow the project team to collect input and recommendations from experts with diverse first-hand experience in peacebuilding. This will support the World Bank to “do things differently” rather than “doing different things” when it comes to reconstruction in post-conflict context.


Asma Khalifa
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Benno Albrecht
Iuav University, Italy
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Dr. Abdallah Al Dardari
World Bank
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Dr. Bernhard Trautner
German Development Institute, GDI
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Dr. Christiane Bögemann-Hagedorn
Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany
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Dr. Karin Mlodoch
HAUKARI e.V., Germany
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Ellen Hamilton
World Bank
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Francesca Recanatini
Center of Institutional Reforms and Informal Sector (IRIS) & World Bank
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Jule Schultz
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)
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Lea Baroudi
MARCH, Lebanon
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Marwa Al-Sabouni
Arch-news, Syria
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Selma Porobić
University in Olomouc/ Foundation for Women's Empowerement, Bosnia und Herzegovina
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Anita Ernstorfer
CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (CDA), USA
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The FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum is a series of events on current and overarching challenges and trends in peacebuilding. With the Peacebuilding Forum, we want to provide future-oriented impulses for the development of peacebuilding and strengthen the visibility and importance of the policy field in its entirety.


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