By Mark Malloch Brown (IHT)

NEW YORK: Several days ago the United Nations appealed for $35 million in humanitarian aid for Haiti, funds needed urgently to buttress peacekeeping efforts and keep the country from spiraling deeper into lawlessness and abject impoverishment.

Later we will surely be seeking longer-term assistance for reconstruction of the country and political reconciliation. But Haiti needs some of this money right now – to disarm rebels, restore basic services and persuade ordinary citizens that the worst of the crisis is past.

Outside the capital, weapons abound, food is scarce, and the new government is barely visible. Unfortunately, the ad hoc fund-raising system the international community uses to respond to such crises will delay needed assistance, making the task of keeping the peace and rebuilding a government much more difficult.

Haiti is not an isolated case. In recent years we have seen similar calls for emergency aid in Afghanistan, Angola, East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Somalia, to name just a few. In most, there were dangerous lags between the time when substantial aid was most needed and when that assistance actually arrived.

Just last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, stood together at the United Nations to urge financial support for Liberia, a shattered country at a critical juncture between possible recovery and an equally possible descent into further violence. The good news is that the response was gratifying, with more than a hundred countries pledging more than $500 million in reconstruction aid. The bad news is that it took nearly six months from the August signing of a peace agreement until the time it took just to convene the donor conference. The funds committed in New York last month are only now beginning to be disbursed in the country.

In that volatile interim between August and February, Liberians remained jobless and hungry in an economy in ruins, as government ministries tried to function without desks, chairs or phones. Worse, young men rioted because full funding was not yet in place for the UN disarmament program, which is predicated on economic incentives. If we cannot give former combatants alternative civilian opportunities, and quickly, many will simply pick up their guns again and chaos will ensue.

When warring factions suddenly agree to cease fire, when governments collapse or dictators flee, the following few months – or weeks – can determine whether a transition to stabilitywill succeed or fail. Like a cardiac patient whose survival often depends on the care received in those first critical hours after a heart attack, these nations desperately need outside support when it first becomes possible to restore order and build hope for a stable future. Yet the international community does not have the immediate funds to help countries in this critical period as they grapple to restore order and security.

This recurring problem could be remedied by a stand-alone, multilaterally managed post-conflict fund, which would draw on the resources and expertise of all the agencies that routinely respond to these crises.

This fund would be available to assist countries during the critical initial period of reconstruction, without waiting months for assistance. It could make the difference between lasting peace and persistent conflict.

International organizations could respond not only with food, tents and medicines, but also with immediate help to jump-start the economy, support governing institutions and provide basic social services. Since we all anticipate further such crises, having the money and experienced people already available, on standby for the inevitable, would make for sound global policy. In recent discussions with the Security Council, I have voiced the views of many UN development professionals that peacebuilding cannot – and should not – wait for fund-raising.

As we have repeatedly seen, conflicts are overwhelmingly likely to reignite in the first year after hostilities cease. UN agencies have become highly skilled at emergency logistics and short-notice delivery of aid. But we still find ourselves scrambling, after the fact, in ad hoc fashion, to convene willing donors who can finance and help us provide this urgently needed assistance.

International intervention needs to be swift, smart and on sufficient scale to turn the tide towards a sustainable peace. We need to go beyond the tokenism that too often characterizes the world response to post-conflict societies: a handful of combatants reintegrated; a school or two re-built; an underfunded young government lauded abroad but unable to deliver jobs or law and order to its war-scarred people at home. Liberia and Haiti both demonstrate that we cannot afford the gap between cessation of conflict and the need for rapid disarmament and resources to rebuild governments.

Nation-building after conflicts appears likely to be a hallmark of 21st century geopolitics. When we deal with the next Haiti, and the next Liberia, we should not have to wait for the next gathering of world leaders, or another UN emergency aid appeal.

Mark Malloch Brown is the administrator of the UN Development Program and chairman of the UN Development Group, comprising the heads of all UN funds and agencies working on development issues.