Civil Society: Key Debates & Implementation Challenges

Given the importance of civil society actors and activities in peacebuilding processes, it is not surprising that a number of debates and implementation challenges surround this sector. The realities presented by the legacy of a violent conflict pose obstacles for rebuilding civil society. Questions arise, such as: How far has civil society resisted war? How far is it possible to foster collective action? Does the environment offer minimum conditions for civil society to function? Therefore, policy makers and practitioners must be careful in assessing local civil society micro-dynamics. They may have a tendency to have an idealized vision of civil society, whereas the sector is subject to power struggles and is molded and influenced by the dynamics of its environment. Indeed, in practice, understanding civil society's space in society is difficult. Its relation to the state is particularly key, as it varies between contexts and suggests a need for a more nuanced approach to the potential represented by civil society.

Another important series of discussions concern the extent to and conditions under which civil society actually supports democratization. Related debates and challenges may be rooted both in some theoretical debates regarding the different forms of participation and social capital and in very practical considerations. Finally, there also exists a blurring of the division between international and local groups, which may lead to some issues distinguishing and prioritizing interests and methods between levels civil society actors.

The challenges of (re)building civil society after conflict

Civil society's resistance to war and reaction to the legacy of violence

One hope peacebuilders may have when working with civil society is that it may have proved more resilient to war than state structures. Outsiders will typically try to "identify 'civil society' against a 'failed' state, to play NGOs, intellectuals, women, religious groups or 'elders' against 'warlords,' 'low politics' against 'high politics.'"1 In these circumstances, civil society may seem easier to reconstruct than the state and may appear as an alternative, at least at an intermediary stage.

This is particularly the case at the community level, when civil society actors have the ability to provide access to people and places that outsiders would not normally be able to reach. Because civil society is locally based, its longevity "on the ground" enables it to undertake new roles in the peacebuilding process.2 Among civil society organizations (CSOs), religious groups are often considered the most resistant to war, to the deterioration of the environment that goes with it, and to the repression of socio-political space.3 This is equally true in authoritarian environments, and explains the role religious actors often play in democratic transitions. As Bridget Moix argues, "Faith networks, churches, temples, and mosques are often the first to begin picking up the pieces after violence and will remain as part of the communities long after humanitarian workers and international aid have moved on."4 This, of course, varies greatly according to context, but religious actors are often among the first interlocutors outsiders seek out in a post-war society. Indeed, in cases where the central government is in disarray, religious organizations may be the only institutions with some degree of popular credibility, trust, and moral authority.
Go to the specificity and evolution of the role of religious actors in peacebuilding: A greater resistance to wars and state collapse

Similarly, traditional leaders and mechanisms are often more easily accessible to populations in need and thus may be used as intermediaries for psycho-social support systems. These often take the form of traditional healers and mediums, but include other civil society arrangements, such as women's networks, which are often the most inventive in recreating their own coping strategies.5  This reliance on traditional measures is mirrored in the frequent use of traditional and informal justice mechanisms, which some argue have better resistance to war than official justice structures.

In comparison to these mechanisms, which are mainly community based, heads of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which function more as intermediary organizations, may have been forced into exile during the war, which weakens the capacity of the structures that remain (though, in some cases, diaspora communities remain active from afar).6 Moreover, local NGOs are often more personality-centered and short-lived than community-based groups,7 and therefore may disintegrate quickly without proper leadership. As a large majority of these organizations are capital-based and their representatives may not have been able to travel much in rural areas for security reasons, they may also have lost some of their connections at the community level.

The issue of reliance on community versus intermediary organizations of civil society is not so straightforward, however. As some scholars have noticed, "civil society is neither inherently 'strong' nor 'weak,' but will fall somewhere in between, often being strong in some respects, while weak in others. For instance, a country may contain an active and vital NGO sector, while traditional structures have been broken down."8

Indeed, violence and the circumstances of war generally erode the society and community fabric as much as they erode the state. According to the Conflict Transformation Working Group, "Bonds at the community level may have been broken, relationships betrayed, and attitudes toward communal structures fundamentally altered."9 The frequent dislocation of people from their homes and communities often disrupt normal patterns of social interaction, even if others are created in internally displaced persons and refugee camps. Insecurity and fear, induced by years of war and violence, hinder people from participating, even in local community life. This is often so because people are reluctant to trust new power relations after the conflict and continue to observe these dynamics with caution.10 What is more, violence often persists after conflict, preventing legitimate forms of civil society from taking root in localized contexts.

War may erode the authority and legitimacy of traditional leaders and of communal norms. Some leaders may have been killed during the war while others may have been compromised by their alliances with warlords. They also may suffer a weakening of their authority because of societal evolutions, most notably in urban surroundings and in the way youth view traditional mechanisms. Returning expatriates and refugees are also generally less likely to submit to the authority of their clan elders.

Go to Psycho-social Recovery: Trauma, Mental Health and Psycho-social Well-being - Actors and Activities: Using local cultural resources and traditional healing methods

Difficulty in fostering collective action

In some post-conflict societies, the legacy of war and violence can lead to coping mechanisms that are "anchored not in deep community-based mechanisms, but rather in the essential individual struggle for survival."11 This observation, made by Peter Uvin based on experiences in Burundi, echoes in part his diagnosis of civil society in Rwanda.12 The difficulty of fostering collective action, given extreme poverty and high levels of distrust within society and between society and state, is quite common in pre- and post-conflict environments, which themselves constitute a great obstacle to the (re)building of a vital civil society.

This is perhaps one of the most significant challenges faced by those attempting to foster the growth of civil society. Scholar Daniel Posner observes that in such efforts, three central means are used to encourage collective action. The first is social capital, which requires "high levels of trust and norms of reciprocity,"13 and may be unlikely to exist in most conflict-prone societies. The second is referred to as "selective incentive" and requires that "at least a critical mass of group members derive a benefit from participation that is independent of the public good that the group is designed to generate."14 Yet, this process is particularly delicate where violence is a continued possibility and where other benefits, such as remuneration, are inconsistent and difficult to rely upon. The third mechanism is reliance on the state (or, where state lacks capacity, outside actors) to act punitively, serving "to enforce participation among those who would prefer to free-ride."15 The problems with this method are many. For instance, where states use such methods, they may be a means of stifling civil society. Where outsiders are the enforcers, the method creates a relationship of dependency and hierarchy between locals and international actors.
Go to Challenges: Actual contribution to democratization : The limits of the application of the notion of social capital

Go to Rwanda: Civil society development after conflict and Civil society-state relations: A typology

All this leads to a quandary over the real possibility of building civil society. The more fragile the state, the more difficult the relationship becomes. Where there is little trust, stability for incentive structures, or capacity for regulation, actors are faced with limited means of fostering collective action. Where donors may be able to foster the seeds of civil society, critics remain skeptical and on this basis express reticence over eager support for this sector. In this view, the notion "that civil society groups might play useful roles as tools for rebuilding failed states, confuses correlation with causation. A vibrant civil society must be viewed as an indicator of a well-functioning state and society, not as a source."16 To that end, stakeholders are wary of viewing one arena, such as civil society, as a possible solution without fostering a range of other institutions, in particular at the level of the state.

The technical limitations of civil society in post-conflict environments

Another series of difficulties encountered by civil society organizations in post-conflict environments is of a more technical nature. Most CSOs may lack organizational and technical skills and resources to perform their role, sustain themselves, or even manage projects according to donors' expectations. These weaknesses of local civil society prompt donors to provide training and material resources in an effort to strengthen its capacity, in particular in the NGO sector.17 These challenges are generally reinforced by the poor quality of physical infrastructure in each country, as well as the weakness of state structures and institutions with which civil society has to interact, at least minimally, in order to function.

The need to correctly assess local civil society micro-dynamics

Engaging with civil society in peacebuilding requires an understanding that "working with civil society groups in peacetime is quite different than during or following armed conflict."18 A great challenge for outsiders is to identify existing resources and actors that can provide a basis upon which to rebuild.19 Although conflict disrupts civil society, there will always be vital elements of civil society that can be mobilized. However, their capacity and functions in a given context may vary greatly according to micro-contexts, meaning at the level of each region, and sometimes each community, as situations may vary greatly from one area to the next. As such, "an accurate and dynamic analysis of each part of the social fabric"20 is required.

Particularly for psycho-social recovery, as well as for traditional/informal justice programs, one key challenge is who decides what the local "cultural resources" and norms are that should be presented to outsiders. It is useful for external actors to be particularly aware of this source of tension and to be vigilant in their assessments of civil society representatives. They should put in place informed identification processes and mechanisms that allow for discussion at the community level. Without breaking down the structures present during conflict, as well as the support of outside perspectives, "local communities may remain trapped in the power of war-based structures of thought, with little to move them to another perspective."21
Go to Using local cultural resources and traditional healing methods

Current efforts to pre-assess and monitor the socio-political contexts and consequences of peacebuilding programs are minimal.22 Some donors and agencies recently have put in place civil society assessment tools, but much needs to be done for them truly to grasp and take into account the multiple (and fluid) dynamics of civil society in countries affected by conflict. Reliance on civil society interlocutors can be beneficial, but it also may reignite conflict dynamics and perpetuate elite networks of power.23

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Idealized versus "uncivil" notions of civil society

Often, donors and international actors are critiqued for romanticizing civil society, for perceiving intermediaries and more "traditional" structures as inherently positive and altruistic forces in peacebuilding contexts. There is significant risk in this idealized version of civil society, as CSOs are subject to power struggles and are molded and influenced by the dynamics of their environment.

Analysts note that non-governmental entities may very well be "uncivil" in nature. As Roberto Belloni posits, "In the post-settlement context, deep divisions within society are reflected in the ideals and values promoted by civil society groups. Civil society can be viewed as an arena of struggle and contestation including both elements of civility and incivility. . . . A public sphere with weak or no protection opens the way for the rule of the stronger to replace the rule of law and for patrimonial and patriarchical relations to replace the benefits of citizenship."24 In such circumstances, some elements of civil society may participate in the exploitation of those local populations they are thought to be helping. This possibility is generally reinforced by the fact that "during conflict and immediately after, civil society tends to be organized along conflict lines, thus fostering clientelism, reinforcing societal cleavages and hindering democratization."25 The relationship between civil society and the state, the family, and the market also may be altered as a result of armed conflict. For instance, during war, CSOs often have no choice but to function with the "gray" economic sector (sometimes at the border of criminal activities), and at times offer bribes to continue basic operational capacities.26  Go to Private Sector and Peacebuilding

The risk of unaccountable and fraudulent CSOs is considered by some observers to be intrinsic to post-war recovery zones. According to the World Bank, "Absent or unsanctioned legal frameworks do not provide the necessary checks and balances or accountability mechanisms. Alongside the many CSOs doing good work in difficult environments, a few organizations take advantage of the governance vacuum to the detriment of populations and scrupulous CSOs."27 Within any country, segments of civil society will assume "uncivil" roles and seek to advance their own interests first and foremost, particularly in conflict situations where there is both greater need and greater opportunity. As the World Bank points out, "This may include former warlords or so-called 'strong men' who see civil society primarily as a means to further cement their hold on power."28 In situations where civil society is divided along conflict lines, "the configuration of political forces may explain the limited space for organizing interests autonomous of the parties to the conflict."29

Nevertheless, even civil society groups that may have assumed an uncivil role during the conflict may prove invaluable in the post-conflict process. Regardless of "uncivil" activities during conflict, they continue to play an important role in the local socio-political fabric. This is true of some religious actors, for example. It is therefore important to bear in mind that roles may change from the conflict to post-conflict situation and that civil society adapts to context. Therefore, efforts to engage in post-conflict scenarios require taking a closer look at local dynamics and actors.30

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Civil society and its relation to the state

Civil society as an alternative to a discredited and dysfunctional state

An understanding of the relationship of civil society to the state constitutes a particular challenge for outsiders, as, in a post-conflict environment, civil society may be perceived by international actors, and particularly donors, as an alternative to a dysfunctional or even "failed" state.31 In many situations, this perception is rooted in a profound distrust on the part of local communities of the state. Such communities may have long functioned through essentially stateless structures, which at times even served to protect them from the abuses of and expropriation by the state.32 On the part of outsiders, the so-called "bottom-up" approach, which uses civil society actors, has arisen in part "because of frustrations experienced in dealing with state institutions, which often employ individuals with no interest in reform. The idea is that such civil society groups will pressure the institutions to change and develop while younger individuals in these groups gain valuable experience, perhaps eventually joining the institutions and providing the impetus for reform."33 Hence, civil society is seen both as an alternative to the much more costly and burdensome task of rebuilding the state apparatus (particularly where there is a lack of political will) and as a check on government activity and inefficiency and an investment in a future generation of state officials.

Civil society as part of local political dynamics

Outsiders may tend to overlook the reality that members of civil society may have political functions, as leaders within such organizations may move between government and non-government spheres. Intermediary organizations, such as NGOs, in particular, "are often intimately connected with their home governments in relationships that are ambivalent and dynamic, sometimes cooperative, sometimes contentious, sometimes both simultaneously."34 As much as civil society actors may assume political roles, "the state can intentionally co-opt civil society actors with the intent of pacifying them; or, by including them in the policy making arena as a way of legitimizing the state."35 This strong involvement in local political struggles in part explains why organizations engaged in advocating human rights, democracy, and "good governance" in particular are generally viewed with suspicion and distrust by the governments and state agents with whom they enter into direct confrontation.36 Such conflicting relationships may explain the difficulty of fully engaging local civil society in policy discussions.
Go to Case Studies: Civil Society Engagement in the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission

More generally, the reality that civil society exists in a political realm explains why it is important to develop a dynamic and interactive understanding of the nature of state-civil society relations in concrete historical and cultural contexts. It may also be useful to conceptualize this relationship according to the forms of civil society organizations, as suggested by scholar Richard Crook.

Civil Society-State Relations: A Typology

Three main kinds of civil society-state relations may be identified based on the character of the CSOs involved.

Elite groups (nearly always organized as NGOs) with a policy orientation, meaning that they seek to influence legislation or general policy outcomes. These groups form part of what might be called the policy elite or the policy community of the state"a community that includes the foreign donors as well as national politicians and officials. Their success depends very much on the balance of internal elite factions and regime politics. Once entrenched, they can produce anti-democratic outcomes, re-electing the concerns of minorities or wealthy vested interests.

Locally organized, grassroots, community-based groups, such as neighborhood committees, credit unions, and womens self-help groups. These attempts by poor and disadvantaged groups in society to develop collective representation of their interests"and hence to act in the public realm"evince little interest in abstract policy issues or better governance. They interact with state agencies in very specific, localized ways in order to protect themselves and their livelihoods and to improve their social/economic position. Their tactics are informal, usually non-confrontational, and rely on bargaining and self-empowerment in relations with officials. The groups illustrate vividly the conception of civil society as an integral part of the public realm of the state, as in the unequal partnerships developed between the police and urban squatters security groups. Their relationship in some ways is that of an exchange, in this case of protection, or withholding of abusive or oppressive behavior by state officials, in return for services or coproduction of welfare. The state retains its power to close down or destroy in this relationship, and seeks always to maintain the groups dependence.

Socially embedded forms of collective action, such as ethnic and business associations, trade unions, churches, and farmers unions. These groups often interact with political parties or form the basis of national political campaigns (e.g., on issues of democratization, constitutional reform, or economic rights). They are the best example of political society in action. Given their political bargaining power and resources, they possess the greatest potential for determining democratic governance outcomes; however, they may have less interest in democracy than in maintaining or creating systems of access to power and economic patronage. Even in the most open and democratic regimes, they can entrench the power of powerful economic classes or social elites.

Source: Crook, Richard. Strengthening Democratic Governance in Conflict Torn Societies: Civil Organisations, Democratic Effectiveness and Political Conflict. Brighton: Institute for Development Studies, 2001.

Civil society actors discredited along with the state

An important aspect of civil society's relationship to the state is that in contexts where both political elites and state structures are discredited, there is a high chance that the elites generally at the head of intermediary civil society organizations have the same reputation. They are likely to be distrusted by the general population.37

Civil society further debilitating state structure

A key critique increasingly made of civil society-building programs is the risk of further undermining state structures. According to Michael Lund, Peter Uvin, and Sarah Cohen, "Efforts to fund NGOs and their professional staff have been faulted for often unduly circumventing governments and diverting resources and energy away from strengthening the organs of governments."38 Particularly in the global South, governments have criticized the ballooning of aid to civil society in recent decades, perceiving it as a threat to government-led development. Support for NGOs has often been perceived as part of a liberal economic agenda that tends to privatize the structures of the state.39 NGO actors have increasingly assumed responsibility for many of the states functions within health and education, for instance. Some scholars have noticed that "while these NGOs are certainly a vital component of civil society, they do not challenge the state from below, being instead horizontal contemporaries of wider institutions of transnational governmentality."40 Along the same line, others have suggested that "NGOs increasingly look both like quasi-governmental institutions, because of the way they substitute state functions, and at the same time like a market, because of the way they compete with one another."41
Go to Public Finance and Economic Governance

It is important to note that this debate is increasingly echoed by international institutions themselves, even though the practices have evolved more slowly. A report from the World Bank, in particular, stresses that "parallel structures to government institutions are harmful in the long term. . . . First, donor funded or donor-created nongovernmental structures exclude government from organizational development and approaches introduced by development investments. Second, lack of government presence contributes to the dismissive attitude of citizens toward the state, even when these are elected bodies. Third, concerns relating to sustainability, scale, accountability and the need for multi-sectoral approaches are best addressed in partnership between CSOs and governments. While CSOs may be the principal development actors in the short and even medium term, there is clearly a role to be played by government institutions. A critical challenge for countries recovering from conflict is thus to ensure that the state is capitalizing on the experience of CSOs, while gradually building its own institutions and capacity that can co-exist with a vibrant civil society."42

As a consequence, discussions on civil society now focus more on the allocation and sequencing of external support, that is, for example, "how much and how long to rely on CSO service provision, and when to shift focus to strengthening state capacity."43 Indeed, in the long term, an excessive focus on civil society is largely seen as an unsustainable solution, so capacity building for civil society must be coupled with strengthening of governance structures.

Analysts, practitioners, and donors generally agree that no one sector can claim to be the only important institution in fostering a peacebuilding context. Civil society is seen as a complement to, not replacement of, the activities of national governments. Furthermore, as Thania Paffenholz and Christoph Spurk argue, "civil society needs a functioning state to operate effectively. . . . In the case of a weak state, civil society support may need to focus on the enabling environment, including support to state structures and law enforcement as well as specific support to civil society functions."44

Issues with CSO versus Government Service Delivery

The absence of government institutions in basic social service delivery is problematic for five principal reasons. First, reliance on a limited number of CSOs that are engaged for a confined time-span may hinder sustainability. Maintenance of infrastructure and continuity in the provision of recurrent costs requires a permanent presence, which CSOs often cannot commit to and provide. Second, scaling up activities to a national level requires institutions that are present throughout the country. Most CSOs are not. Third, efficient delivery of social services requires a multi-sectoral approach with coordination between different sectors relying on each other. Fourth, public accountability of development institutions, public or private, requires some kind of feedback mechanism, such as elections. Fifth, delivery of basic services is an important basis for government legitimacy. It may therefore strengthen political stability and peace if the government visibly engages in the effective delivery of services. Conversely, absence of government institutions in delivery of social services and basic infrastructure may contribute to instability.

Source: World Bank Social Development Department. Engaging Civil Society Organizations in Conflict-Affected and Fragile States: Three African Country Case Studies. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2005.

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Actual contribution to democratization

The following series of discussions concern the extent to and conditions under which civil society actually supports democracy. The argument centers on a few interrelated points:

  • Not all forms of participation and social capital are useful for peacebuilding, and some may in fact intensify conflict;
  • Support to CSOs does not necessarily strengthen pluralism and diversity;
  • Excessive and exclusive support to civil society risks debilitating other actors of democracy; and
  • CSOs are not always representative, legitimate, and accountable.

The limits of the application of the notion of social capital

A first, rather theoretical, debate refers to Robert Putnam's notion of social capital, which has informed a large part of the discussions and practices on support to civil society.
Go to Definitions and Conceptual Issues: Historical roots to the notion of civil society

Putnam argues that social capital, understood as engagement/participation in a number of civic associations, leads to democracy. Building on this premise, civil society, civic culture/engagement, and social capital widely have been considered important for strengthening democracy and enabling conflict resolution. Putnam's original study observes that "civic community" paves the way for good governance, which he equates with democracy.45 Parts of the earliest discussions around this approach are now considered by many to be naïve, "all but suggesting that any expansion of civic engagement was good for democracy. Anyone who has explored the rapid expansion of political involvement in such countries as the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda knows that any simplistic link between participation and democracy--let alone conflict resolution--is absurd."46

In fact, Putnam does not argue that all social involvement helps democracy.47 Indeed, he distinguishes between "bonding" or "vertical" social capital (within similar communities, which may promote isolationism) and "bridging" or "horizontal" social capital (groupings across communities that may have been divided). According to that distinction, only bridging or horizontal social capital unambiguously supports democratization and, even more, conflict transformation. By contrast, as Charles Hauss suggests, "If Putnam and scholars who have examined extremist nationalists are correct, bonding social capital can serve to reinforce our preexisting beliefs including our prejudices."48

Reinforcing this distinction, some scholars have suggested that "when civil society organizations are not civic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious, their contribution to democracy and peace might be spurious. Intra-group cooperation based on a sense of belonging and kinship may be directed towards anti-social ends. Bonding social capital can become the vehicle of ethnic and parochial interests undermining social cohesion, fragmenting society and pitting one group against another."49 As a result, there would be a distinction between "good or positive and bad or negative social capital."50 In this view, not all forms of participation and social capital are useful for peacebuilding, and some may intensify conflict. Thus, some would contend that support to civil society should be strategically placed on those organizations that cross deep and politically salient divides and that are carefully assessed to engage in "civil" activities.

Two main caveats have emerged to this argument that are specific to different post-war contexts. First, in many cases, "bonding" social capital may be useful in providing coping mechanisms and mechanisms of regulation and compliance (for instance, for disarmament or reintegration programs), and in contributing to the intensification of social ties in societies torn apart by violence. The building of "bridges" between communities and groups remains extremely important, but it may be complemented by the reconstruction of a sense of trust between individuals.51

Furthermore, under some circumstances, the development of relationships across communities ("bridging" social capital) does not necessarily contribute to the generalized trust born out of collaboration and compromise, shared norms, and expectations. As Peter Uvin suggests, "Rather, it is based on such an extent of generalized, institutionalized, and internalized distrust (as well as insecurity and absence of rule of law) that one needs to build up the maximum amount possible, in order to survive."52 In the case of Burundi, Uvin argues, "In a situation of insecurity and unpredictability and in the absence of community-based mechanisms of reintegration and reconciliation, Burundians protect themselves by nurturing relations, by compromising, by maintaining a poker face under all conditions. . . . This is a practice both of great integration and division, of stability and radical change."53 In such situations, support to civil society, including at the community level, may have little impact on the construction of a vivid democracy and peace.
Go to The challenges of (re)building civil society after conflict: Difficulty in fostering collective action

Critics of Putnam's original work even question whether the theory of social capital is sufficient to indicate that building civic associations will lead to improved governance and democracy. These arguments are based upon some significant methodological critiques of Putnam's work, which note the inherent historical selectivity and endogeneity of his argument.54

Support to CSOs does not necessarily strengthen pluralism and diversity

Scholars have stressed that the massive flow of funding to a narrowly defined "civil society" of professionalized NGOs does not often strengthen pluralism.55 Mary Kaldor argues, "There is an inherent danger in forcing non-Western societies into assuming an organizational form that is recognizable from a Western viewpoint. One prominent example of this is the normative assumption that local networks will and should resemble an NGO organizational form--the "NGO-ification" of traditional societal structures. In African nations, for instance, there has been a tendency among policy makers to conceive of civil society primarily as a set of bilaterally or multilaterally funded development NGOs with broad transnational networks."56 As some authors have noted, "People struggling against authoritarian regimes demanded civil society, what they got were NGOs."57 Mahmood Mamdani, an African political scientist, stressed in a meeting, "NGOs are killing civil society."58

One of the consequences of this approach is that "a singular focus on NGOs can come at the expense of the identification of local networks that, in the long run, may possess the local knowledge and competence needed to create sustainable initiatives."59 In doing so, "most outsiders tend to reduce the main characteristics and richness of any civil society: its diversity."60 They also tend to favor quite an "elitist" approach, forgetting that elites "may constitute one side--and not necessarily the most important--of a much larger story."61

From that perspective, according to the World Bank, "It is important for donors to understand the nature and dynamics of relations between intermediary and ultimate beneficiary organizations, to clarify and facilitate support relations, and to understand how such support impacts civil society. Donor interventions frequently label any form of funding to national (or even international) NGOs as support to civil society, without adequate analysis of the impact of such support."62 As for many other aspects of peacebuilding processes, "the issue is generally less to choose from 'the top' and 'the bottom'--if one can in fact distinguish them--but to understand what happens in between."63

The risk of debilitating other actors of democracy

In the literature on democracy, concerns have been raised about the fact that resources are increasingly channeled to programs that develop civil society to the exclusion of political parties and political institutions, such as parliaments. Ivan Doherty argues, "Many private and public donors feel that it is more virtuous to be a member of a civic organization than a party and that participating in party activity must wait until there is a certain level of societal development. There is a grave danger in such an approach. Strengthening civic organizations, which represent the demand side of the political equation, without providing commensurate assistance to the political organizations that must aggregate the interest of those very groups, is ultimately damaging the democratic equilibrium. The neglect of political parties, and parliaments, can undermine the very democratic process that development assistance seeks to enhance."64

In sum, avoiding the issue of partisan politics in the rush to strengthen civil society runs the risk of undermining representative politics and failing to exploit the real avenues of political influence open to civil society. According to this analysis, civil society is not and can never be a substitute for political parties or for responsible, progressive political leadership. Doherty suggests, "It should never be a case of civil society instead of political parties, but rather civil society as a necessary complement to parties."65

The limits of civil society as representative, legitimate, and accountable

Because they are often focused on capital-based, elite organizations, and sometimes to the detriment of elected political actors, programs that support civil society are questioned on the basis that they deal with actors who may not be representative and legitimate. They also may lack accountability to local populations, as they are dependent on external funding and accountable only to international donors.

Moreover, in policy discussions, international negotiations, and meetings, consultation is often limited to a small number of individuals. The weight of these actors is sometimes questioned when they play a key role in decisions, as they are not elected or mandated by anyone to represent a stake (and consequently interests) in international negotiations.66 It may be that some of the local political actors also present in these discussions have not been elected or have been in elections that were not entirely democratic, but, in many post-conflict contexts, they have been elected in elections supervised by the international community. In that respect, some scholars have noticed that elections are far more unusual in NGOs than in states.67

The frequent counterargument is to contrast participatory democracy and representative democracy, civil society being an important actor in a participatory process. But, as many have noted, vulnerable groups are often excluded in such processes. The fact is that "many of these new national urban NGOs have a weak membership base, lack country-wide and balanced political or ethnic representation, and are often linked to the political establishment through kin relationships."68

To answer that dilemma, some have recommended, particularly in the context of the work of the United Nations (UN) Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), that, "as a pre-requisite to being designated as formal 'representatives,' civil society organisations should demonstrate that they have a strategy for broad-based grassroots consultations; an overall communications plan that will allow for continuous two-way feedback on all aspects of the PBC's work; and a proposal for generating the resources needed to achieve these strategies. Both the UN and the government should be active partners and play an oversight role in ensuring this strategy exists and is resourced and implemented, as agreed. This investment would have positive impacts beyond engagement with the PBC to include other areas where effective civil society consultation is appropriate and beneficial (e.g. consultations on the draft constitution)."69
Go to Case Studies: Civil Society Engagement in the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission

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Competing interests of international versus local agencies

Relationship between international NGOs and local CSOs

The distinction between international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and national (local) civil society organizations (CSOs) is an important and debated issue. Some argue that international NGOs generally play a supportive role for local civil society and foster a sense of local ownership.70 Others stress the importance of distinguishing between the two categories, as the reality may be that instead of supporting local civil societies, outsiders "actually collaborate with other outsiders--in other words, with themselves."71

The temptation is understandable, as "there is much more proximity between northern or international NGOs (which are often the same, as there are very few actual transnational NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), than between the northern and southern NGOs. The first two categories share the same codes and to a large extent the same historical culture, with IGO officers falling prey to the natural tendency of collaborating with like people, with whom it is 'easier to collaborate.'"72 Often, international NGOs flood post-conflict environments, occupying an important space in the capital city, which makes it easier for international actors to consult them on any policy issue. This may have a detrimental effect on local economies by inflating salaries, store prices, and housing rents, which impedes local organizations from functioning properly.73

International and national CSOs also often compete for funding. As international attention and funding decrease, international NGOs leave without always paying attention to ensuring the transfer of their activities to local NGOs. This would require, in particular, capacity-building efforts in which not all NGOs are engaged. It is important to note, however, that some international agencies have increasingly made efforts to push international NGOs in that direction. For instance, the "UNHCR Strategy for Enhancing National NGO Partner Effectiveness" of September 1998 introduced a new clause into project agreements with international NGO implementing partners to the effect that the NGO agrees, during the first six months of an agreement, that it will attempt to identify a national/local/indigenous NGO with which it can work and with which it will plan a handover strategy, including provision of capacity-building support.74

There is now a general consensus among donors that national actors should take the lead in peacebuilding, and that outside intervention should be limited to support. However, most donors continue to channel support to international NGOs or through international NGOs to national, mainly urban, elite-based NGOs.75 Support to civil society peacebuilding through NGO intermediaries has strengths and weaknesses. As the World Bank points out, "Interactions with intermediaries are relatively easy to handle logistically and easier to monitor. . . . At the same time, intermediaries are easily driven by donor agendas at the expense of effective empowerment and local ownership, while I-NGOs can crowd out domestic actors."76

Local methods of peacebuilding versus international program priorities

Dependency on international funding and frequently criticized donor-driven reporting not only reinforce local CSOs' lack of local accountability but also influence the orientation of the peacebuilding agenda and programs. As noted in a document by the World Bank, "The logic of fundraising tends to downplay local knowledge and capacity, emphasizing instead local weaknesses and needs, which can sideline and disempower local advocacy efforts and capacity."77 Some analysts have noted that recipient NGOs may even "tailor their programs and ideas to suit those of the donors rather than addressing real needs, thereby turning civil society organizations into 'creatures' of the donors."78

Investments in CSOs also tend to be short term and project-based, providing neither sufficient incentives nor the possibility for specialization nor long-term engagements with communities. Some donors and international agencies have argued that "longer-term engagement with CSOs could improve their planning skills and their relationships with beneficiary communities. . . . Longer-term financing arrangements between donors and CSOs, or between international and national CSOs, with mutual and clearly defined obligations, could benefit all parties."79 Practices still need to evolve to actually reflect this concern, however.

1. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 496.
2. CTWG, "Building Peace," 6.
3. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints, 7.
4. Bridget Moix, Faith and Conflict (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy in Focus, October 4, 2007).
5. Roberta Culbertson and Béatrice Pouligny, "Re-imagining Peace After Mass Crime: A Dialogical Exchange Between Insider and Outsider Knowledge," in After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities, ed. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman, and Albrecht Schnabel (New York: United Nations University Press, 2007), 281-84.
6. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 11.
7. Lund, Uvin, and Cohen, What Really Works, 4.
8. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints,6.
9. CTWG, "Building Peace," 6.
10. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 11.
11. Uvin, Life after Violence, 166-67.
12. Sue Unsworth and Peter Uvin, "A New Look at Civil Society Support in Rwanda?" Draft paper for the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University (October 7, 2002).
13. Daniel N. Posner, "Civil Society and Reconstruction of Failed States," in When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 242.
14. Ibid., 243.
15. Ibid., 245.
16. Ibid., 252.
17. CTWG, "Building Peace," 6; Lund, Uvin, and Cohen, What Really Works, 4.
18. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints, 6.
19. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 502.
20. Ibid., 507.
21. Culbertson and Pouligny, "Re-imagining Peace After Mass Crime," 281-84.
22. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 507.
23. For instance, the Participation and Civic Engagement Group and the CPR Unit at the World Bank have put in place a Civil Society Assessment Tool (CSAT). The CSAT comprises two separate but related assessments. One is a bottom-up review of peoples experiences with civil society, using a beneficiary assessment (conversational interviews, focus groups, and participant observation in a representative number of communities). The second is a top-down review involving interviews with civil society leaders, political actors, media, and public personalities to assess the scope, structure, potential, and linkages among civil society, government, and communities. See, Bannon, The Role of the World Bank, 44-45.
24. Belloni, "Civil Society in War-to-Democracy Transitions," 7.
25. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints,12.
26. Ibid., 7.
27. World Bank Social Development Department, Engaging Civil Society, 16.
28. Ibid.
29. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 500. See also, Mashumba and Clarke, Peacebuilding Role of Civil Society.
30. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints, 7.
31. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 500.
32. See, Jarat Chopra and Tanja Hohe, "Participatory Intervention," Global Governance 10, no. 3 (2004): 292; Béatrice Pouligny. Peace Operations Seen from Below, 101-03.
33. Tolbert and Solomon, "United Nations Reform," 54.
34. Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below, 72.
35. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints, 5.
36. Mashumba and Clarke, Peacebuilding Role of Civil Society, 14.
37. Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below, 75, 500.
38. Lund, Uvin, and Cohen, What Really Works.
39. Bjorn Beckman and Anders Sjögren. "Civil Society and Authoritarianism: Debates and Issue: An Introduction," in Civil Society and Authoritarianism in the Third World, ed. Björn Beckman, Eva Hansson, Anders Sjögren (Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2001).
40. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints,13.
41. Kaldor, "The Idea of Global Civil Society," 584.
42. World Bank Social Development Department, Engaging Civil Society, 18.
43. World Bank Social Development Department, Civil Society and Peacebuilding, 3.
44. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 35.
45. Tarrow, "Making Social Science Work."
46. Hauss, "Civil Society."
47. Putnam, "Bowling Alone," 65-78.
48. Hauss, "Civil Society."
49. Belloni, "Civil Society in War-to-Democracy Transitions," 10.
50. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 8.
51. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 498-99.
52. Uvin, Life after Violence, 167.
53. Ibid., 167.
54. Tarrow, "Making Social Science Work."
55. Carothers and Ottaway, Funding Virtue.
56. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints,13.
57. Kaldor, "The Idea of Global Civil Society," 584.
58. Quoted in ibid., 589. See also, Mamdani, The Politics of Peasant Ethnic Communities.
59. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints,13.
60. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 499.
61. Ibid., 507.
62. World Bank Social Development Department, Civil Society and Peacebuilding, 5
63. Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below, 81.
64. Ivan Doherty, "Democracy out of Balance: Civil Society Can't Replace Political Parties," Policy Review 106 (April-May 2001): 25-26.
65. Ibid., 33.
66. See, on this point, Robert A. Dahl, "A Democratic Dilemma: System Effectiveness versus Citizen Participation," Political Science Quarterly 109, no. 1 (1994): 32.
67. Thomas G. Weiss and Leon Gordenker, eds. NGOs, the United Nations and Global Governance (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996), 219.
68. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 25.
69. ActionAid, CAFOD, and CARE, Consolidating Peace, 17.
70. CTWG, "Building Peace from the Ground Up," 23.
71. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 501. See also, Renske Heemskerk, "The UN Peacebuilding Commission and Civil Society Engagement," Disarmament Forum 2 (May 2007): 17-26.
72. Pouligny, Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, 501.
73. Ibid.
74. UNHCR, A Practical Guide to Capacity-Building, 26.
75. World Bank Social Development Department, Civil Society and Peacebuilding, 25; Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 25.
76. Ibid., 11
77. Ibid., 25.
78. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints, 12-13.
79. World Bank Social Development Department, Engaging Civil Society, 22.

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