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This time, let's do it right

The overwhelming loss of life and material damage caused by Hurricane Mitch has produced an outpouring of international assistance. Some has been used to help people get through the immediate emergency. Far more will be used to rebuild the countries' devastated economies.

How will this future aid be used? If the result of rebuilding leaves these countries exactly where they were before the hurricane, a great opportunity will have been lost, particularly in the cases of Honduras and Nicaragua. Both these countries were already extremely poor. A history of civil war, foreign intervention, revolution and dictatorship has left their democratic systems very fragile. Their governmental institutions remain rife with cronyism, corruption and inefficiency. The still-modest private sector mirrors the inefficiencies and corrupt practices of the public sphere.

These countries have been the victims of catastrophes caused by nature and by man. While natural disasters cannot be averted, their effects are magnified by the actions of people.

For example, after the Nicaragua earthquakes of 1972-1973, Anastasio Somoza, Nicaragua's former dictator, said that the event was a "revolution of opportunity" since it opened the way for massive investment and the aid flows to finance it. But the "opportunities" flowed directly into the pockets of Somoza and his cronies, and seven years later another type of revolution broke out, this time triggering a civil war with U.S. and Soviet involvement. Today, two decades later, the country's per capita gross domestic product stands at the level of 40 years earlier.

If we hope to break the cycle of natural and man-made disasters, international aid must be channeled to these countries with much greater care than in the past. Although humanitarian assistance cannot be made conditional, the long-term rebuilding must start from the premise that traditional aid reconstruction programs will not work.

We know, for instance, that much of the damage caused by the hurricane was due to massive deforestation. Therefore, the international community should help to promote massive reforestation plans in these countries and insist on a supervised ban on lumber exports until rational forest management programs are in place. The reconstruction program could include a substantial component of international aid to swap for natural-resources conservation and restoration.

The present emergency should not sidetrack the process of strengthening democratic institutions, particularly those that bring order, security and trust, such as the judiciary and regulatory agencies. The worst thing imaginable would be if inefficient or corrupt management of aid were to deepen the distrust of the citizens of these countries in their democratic institutions. Similarly, aid money must be spent where it is most needed. It should be used to rebuild poor districts, not middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.

Reconstruction should also be an occasion for rationalizing the role of the military. For the first time in history, the Nicaraguan and Honduran armed forces are under civilian authority. But their equipment still consists of tanks and other weapons which are useless in a democratic society with no external threats. They have no bulldozers or transport vehicles. Outfitting and training the armies and the police to work in reconstruction and protection of natural resources would help to consolidate one of the most sensitive aspects of the transition to democracy.

Finally, the incoming aid could help advance the process of Central America's economic and political integration. The destruction of bridges in Honduras and Nicaragua has disrupted trade within the region. Increased poverty could swell the already alarming flows of refugees to Costa Rica. We should seize this opportunity to establish supranational authorities for development of border areas; such programs have been on the drawing board for years, and are strategically important for development in Central America.

These are only some ideas. Our challenge is to transform tragedy into opportunity and make a virtue of necessity.

--The writer is chief of the IDB's State and Civil Society Division and a former Nicaraguan legislator. This article was adapted from a piece that appeared in the Spanish newspaper El PaÌs.

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