Cash for guns or buy-back programmes in post-conflict states have fallen out of favour as a method of ridding a society of weapons, and have been replaced by often elaborate schemes designed to remove money from the equation, but the debate continues as to the best way forward.
The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) community has grappled for years with buy-back practices and acknowledges they can have a profound effect on the nature of peace and even encourage a return to conflict. However, sometimes they can be termed “good practice”.
Nelson Alusala, author of a monograph published recently by the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies - entitled Reintegrating ex-Combatants in the Great Lakes Region, and charting the largest DDR programme ever undertaken to support about 400,000 ex-combatants in nine countries - outlines the dangers of buy-back.
A buy-back scheme by the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) “led to a near disaster” at Camp Schieffellen, about 35km east of the capital Monrovia, when former warring parties of the country’s more than decade-long conflict gathered to exchange weapons for cash.
On 7 December 2003 international peacekeepers were overwhelmed when more than four times the expected 250 people arrived at the camp, carrying weapons from AK-47 assault rifles to mortars, under the impression they would walk away with US$300 for each weapon surrendered.
“The riot began when they found out they would receive only $150 and the other $150 at the end of a three-week demobilization course,” Alusala said. In the ensuing pandemonium, as weapons were discharged in frustration, nine people were killed.
Alusala told IRIN he was doubtful about the benefits of cash incentives, as the cash was often spent by beneficiaries within a few days on “alcohol, drugs and sex workers”.
Apart from buy-backs raising expectations, other shortcomings were the practice of “double dipping” - where beneficiaries assume different identities to benefit from cash rewards multiple times - a malpractice “most common at the disarmament stage during the buy-back events, when cash is normally exchanged for weapons,” he said.
Andreas Mehler of the Institute of African Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, told IRIN: “Cash payments have shown their limits in several cases. In West Africa former commanders were gate-keepers and got part of the money when they selected the ex-combatants to be disarmed - a perverse effect prolonging authority patterns from times of war. There might be `good practice’ out there, but [also] inherent grave dangers… My gut feeling is that there is no universal solution.”
Danny Hoffman of Duke University’s Department of Anthropology, in his 2003 study entitled Like Beasts in the Bush: Synonyms of Childhood and Youth in Sierra Leone, recounts the disarmament process supervised by peacekeepers which attracted the surrender of weapons for blankets, buckets, slippers, soap and a small cash payment.
The problem was that the Kamajors militia structures meant that commanders held onto the weapons of the rank and file, and sought to profit from them.
“As Ali [a military commander] told me, if a commander held four or five firearms, maybe he would ask for a little something in return for giving them out to a few of his men,” Hoffman said in his study.
Hoffman told IRIN the goal of DDR in Sierra Leone was primarily to remove weapons in circulation, but it was a “losing proposition” considering how effective the arms trade was in supplying light weapons to conflict zones.
“The more serious problem is that the DDR model as it stands treats combatants as individuals, when any real `demobilization’ and `reintegration’ needs to deal with the networks that armed, mobilized and controlled these fighters in the first place.
“At least in Sierra Leone and Liberia, these networks continued to control ex-combatants very effectively after the war,” he said.
“I know a number of critics of the DDR process have argued that all that money should be going to fighters' home communities and the war's victims. I am sympathetic to that view, though I think it’s a little simplistic. If I had to make one concrete reform, it would be to use the funds available to enrol fighters in well-structured and relevant jobs training and public works projects, and to do so as entire units,” Hoffman said.
The UN DDR Resource Centre is cautious about buy-back practices and says on its website: “Incentives may be directly linked to the disarmament, demobilization or reintegration components of DDR, although care should be taken to avoid the perception of `cash for weapons’ or weapons buy-back programmes when these are linked to the disarmament component. If used, incentives should be taken into consideration in the design of the overall programme strategy.”
The UN’s aversion to cash payments for weapons, DDR specialist Wolf-Christian Paes told IRIN, was premised, among other things, on the argument it can create demand and “contribute to the cross-border proliferation of weapons”. The UN promotes programmes either dealing with collective incentives, such as arms-for-development “or more rarely non-cash individual incentives, `goods-for-guns’, for example in the Balkans”, he said.
Paes said where other incentives were used in the place of cash, such as lottery tickets in Macedonia, or tools in Mozambique, these essentially became “proxies for cash”, where people simply sold the supplied goods. “I think we need to have another look at cash incentives in the context of post-conflict stabilization.”
A paper published by York University’s Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit entitled Guns, Camps and Cash: Disarmament, Demobilization and Reinsertion of Former Combatants in Transitions from War to Peace, by Mark Knight and Alpaslan Özerdem, said the incomplete Mozambican disarmament process contributed “to the proliferation of weapons, not only throughout that country, but also in neighbouring countries such as South Africa, Zambia and Malawi. By 1998, Mozambique constituted the single largest source of small arms to the South African domestic market.”
“Cash payments require comparatively low overheads compared with other interventions, which make them popular with some donors but not with the UN Development Programme, are easily understood by all actors and most importantly actually work. Personally, I'm in favour of using them under some circumstances,” Paes said.
Cash sometimes appropriate
DDR specialist and a consultant with the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey Lydia Stone told IRIN: “The arguments against using cash in DDR programmes are many and well documented. However, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water - even though many dismiss the practice as open to corruption and abuse and creating the impression among affected communities of rewarding people who have committed terrible acts.”
She recommends a more nuanced approach to cash rewards, but sees the money incentive “solely for the disarmament phase” as “a bad idea”.
DDR planners in newly independent South Sudan have limited cash payments in their reinsertion package to $287 for ex-combatants, but the scheme also provides non-food items (NFIs) such as plastic sheeting and buckets, and a food ration for a family of five for three months.
Stone said the NFIs were “often inappropriate and many of the participants have simply sold the items on the local market,” and the food items were often expensive to transport home.
As an alternative it would have been better to provide DDR beneficiaries with the equivalent in cash, thereby stimulating the local market, and this would have translated “into tremendous costs savings for the participants and the programme since money would not be wasted on logistics and transporting huge quantities of commodities over vast distances…
“It's about considering the specific context of the DDR programme. While cash might be a terrible idea in one country, it might be very appropriate and even necessary in another. We need to be open-minded and consider those options which may instinctively appear to be wrong.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.