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Messner and Shank: For Reconstruction, Put Libyans to Work

With the excitement about Moammar Gadhafi’s downfall beginning to fade, Libya’s new management has begun governing and reconstructing the war-torn nation.

Plenty of attention is being paid to the governance angle: Is the National Transitional Council a legitimate, representative body? When will elections be held? Is the new Libya going to be run by Islamists? Certainly these are important issues. Just as important, however, is the Libyan economy and how to get Libyans back to work.

The issue of employment is significant for a couple of reasons. First, though Gadhafi was a pariah who oppressed his people, these were not the only reasons Libyans eventually saw to his downfall. The Gadhafi regime had for decades deprived much of the population of economic opportunities, and the revolution was as much about economic disempowerment as it was about tyranny. Libya’s new leadership must recognize that it will be expected to deliver economic opportunities quickly.

Secondly — and possibly most crucially — there are now tens of thousands of armed young Libyans who find themselves with a victory but few spoils. The rebels have experienced the collective euphoria that comes with revolution. However, that euphoria will soon fade as yesterday’s revolutionary freedom fighters become today’s unemployed and well-armed youth.

Libya’s new leaders, along with the international community, should recognize that without an immediate focus on the provision of economic opportunities for many of the young fighters who helped win the war, this could well become a movie that we have all seen before throughout the Middle East. It is one that does not tend to end well.

The reconstruction of Libya will require a three-pronged strategy: political reforms and a representative and effective democracy, the repair of a decimated economy and national infrastructure, and effectively managing the expectations and needs of a newly hopeful, but demanding, populace. And all three objectives must, to the extent possible, be pursued simultaneously.

To meet the latter two objectives and to avoid the challenges posed by idle hands, it will be imperative for Libya to rapidly implement policies that provide some form of employment and economic opportunity. In the short term, this may require a program of national service, where young, working-age Libyans are conscripted into a professionalized security force, civilian reconstruction corps or similar structure that is in turn deployed to begin rebuilding the shattered country. Roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure need to be repaired and businesses, both local and foreign, must be given the confidence and the wherewithal to restart — or even begin — operations and investment.

To be sure, such a program of national service would not be a permanent, long-term solution. But it would bring the advantages of keeping idle hands busy, providing economic opportunity, contributing significantly to the rebuilding of destroyed infrastructure and providing new skills and training to young Libyans formerly deprived of many such opportunities. With a primary focus on addressing reconstruction, such a corps of workers could accelerate Libya’s resurgence, funded by both a well-endowed treasury (with as much as $170 billion in foreign assets, $250 billion in foreign exchange reserves and continuous revenues from a strong extractive sector) and international assistance.

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