Civil Society: Actors & Activities

A range of domestic and international actors is broadly involved in civil society. In addition to elaborating on key stakeholders, this section presents an overview of capacity-building activities undertaken to bolter civil society in pre- and post-conflict situations. These include funding assistance, training and facilitating professional abilities, provision of technical support, organization of platforms and consortiums, and inclusion of civil society groups in international forums.

Main actors


Local NGOs

Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are perhaps the central actor in what is often conceptualized as civil society. These organizations are generally engaged in one specific sector of activities (e.g., human rights, development, humanitarian relief, conflict resolution/transformation, education and public information, and support to local associations and community groups). Traditionally, funding is highly concentrated on these NGOs, which mirror the western model. They often serve as intermediaries between outsiders (donors, international agencies, and international NGOs) and other civil society organizations, in particular community-based groups.

Civil society may be composed of a number of other actors, as well. For instance, business associations may be considered a form of civil society. Outsiders increasingly have tried to engage the business sector, particularly in order to place pressure on political actors to move toward peace (as in the cases of South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Sri Lanka).1 Other organizations that may make up civil society are trade unions and professional associations, which play important roles in organizing and representing specific groups, as well as research and academic institutions, which play important roles in training and policy dialogue.

Other domestic actors have functions within civil society, though their relationship to this sector is somewhat debated. For instance, media and journalist associations and religious and faith-based communities and organizations are often considered a part of civil society. The role of these actors in peacebuilding is detailed in other sub-sections.

An important and frequently mentioned feature of civil society is community-based organizations and grassroots organizations and networks, including neighborhood associations and committees, womens and youth local associations, farmer associations, self-help groups, and more traditional forms of organizations at the community or cell level, such as Ubudehe in Rwanda (see case study).

Finally, traditional leaders often play a role in civil society. These grassroots expressions of civil society are involved more as individuals than as organizations, though they are often part of networks. They include traditional healers and mediums, as well as traditional justice leaders.
Go to Psycho-social Recovery: Introduction and Traditional and Informal Justice Mechanisms


Outsider groups are heavily involved in capacitating and working with local civil society. Such institutions may include:

  • "Northern" and international NGOs;
  • Research and policy centers;
  • Inter-governmental organizations and agencies (IOs);
  • Bilateral donors; and
  • Private foundations.
It is important to note that the collaboration of donors and IOs with civil society, in particular at the policy level, mainly concerns northern and international NGOs. These NGOs are most active in consultations and discussions with:

  • The World Bank, in particular for the preparation of its Operational Policy on Development Cooperation and Conflict, also referred to as OP/BP 2.30;2 and
The United Nations (UN), in particular the new UN Peacebuilding Commission and UN Security Council members, which call upon international NGOs to provide them with contacts and to help facilitate meetings with civil society actors at UN headquarters and at the field level as a normal part of their procedure.3
Go to Case Study: Civil Society Engagement in the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission

In addition to playing an active consultative role, northern and international NGOs are the main recipients of grants from IOs, although donors are increasingly trying to give grants to local NGOs. Despite these efforts, most of the aid to local civil society continues to be channeled through international and northern NGOs.  Go to Key Debates and Implementation Challenges

Another development, which mainly started in the 1990s, is the increasing professional engagement of northern and international NGOs with governments and business. An increasing number of NGOs have contracts with states, notwithstanding the potential consequences for their independence. Finally, many NGOs have begun to form strategic alliances with businesses.4

Research and policy centers also play a role as civil society actors. They also produce salient information on civil society's contribution to conflict reduction. For instance, the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) at the Graduate Institute in Geneva is completing a three-year research project aimed at better understanding the role of civil society in peacebuilding.

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Main capacity-building activities

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are active in almost every aspect of peacebuilding, engaging in a vast range of activities and programs.

This section focuses on activities and components of programs that support the capacity development of CSOs. Some activities are developed in the context of democracy and governance programs, in the hope that CSOs can serve as system-changing tools for democracy. Other capacity-building activities involve supporting CSOs that serve as sub-contractors of donors and agencies working in different sectors, such as economic recovery, reintegration of refugees and displaced persons, and human rights.

Capacity building implies the reinforcement of human, institutional, or community performance, skills, knowledge, and attitudes on a sustainable basis.It is both an approach and a set of activities, intimately linked to nationally driven reform processes, which aim to build a network of partners at various levels of society and to be highly participatory by nature.5 One of the key difficulties in the process may be that it is intended to be based on shared commitments and objectives on the part of external and domestic actors. Another challenge is that, almost by definition, capacity building requires a long-term approach and commitment on the part of donors. Donors are often critiqued as lacking long-term funding, particularly when transitioning programs from post-conflict reconstruction to development. Go to Key Debates and Implementation Challenges

Within capacity-building activities, five main types of activities can be distinguished:

  • Funding and assistance with building technical, managerial, financial, and administrative skills;
  • Training in professional capacities (formal training and support of staff exchange programs between NGOs inside and outside the country);
  • Technical support (advisory services and specialized expertise);
  • Support to platforms and consortiums; and
  • Support for the inclusion of CSOs in international forums and exchanges.

Funding assistance

Donors are generally reluctant to provide core funding for the functioning of CSOs, and their grants are often rather small. Donors are concerned about creating too much dependence among CSOs on outside funding sources, the mushrooming of organizations only interested in tapping into sources of funding, risks of mismanagement and corruption, and the limited capacity of CSOs to absorb resources quickly.6 As a consequence, most CSOs are very much project-dependent, with grants lasting only a few years. The size of a project team may vary greatly depending on the availability and renewal of project grants. This reduces CSOs' capacity to be engaged in other activities, such as coordination and networking with other CSOs, policy discussions, and advocacy work.

Some donors and agencies, which mainly finance CSOs as sub-contractors, may provide specific funds to cover staff expenses and allow more flexibility with overhead, but these measures have limitations.7 Multi-donor trust funds or "small grants facilities" also exist, for instance at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) field level. These are either incorporated into technical cooperation programs or implemented through NGOs or CSOs that act as intermediaries. They are specifically dedicated to supporting civil society capacity building. These grants are generally very limited, however. Support is often provided in the form of institutional assets, such as computers and vehicles, usually in direct association with the execution of a specific project.

Training in professional capacities

Formal training and support of staff exchange programs between NGOs inside and outside a country are common. Their aim is a longer-term civil society building. These programs are rarely integrated into a long-term vision, however, and local CSOs often complain that they do not fit their priorities. The frequently high turnover of personnel in CSOs is problematic in that regard.

Technical support

Advisory services and specialized expertise are mainly provided by international NGOs. In peacebuilding, these organizations already have a strong link with the UN system, and different international agencies tend to play a leading role in the work.8 Technical support generally focuses on specific areas of expertise, though more general support may be provided in terms of improvement of the institutional framework for civil society (including laws and regulations, administrative structures, and political modalities) and general advice regarding the development of a CSO (regarding, for example, priority setting, timing, and partnership).

Support for platforms and consortiums

Support to CSO coordination mechanisms (consortiums and platforms, as well as coordination meetings, of all kinds) has become one of the favorite activities of donors trying to make sense of a sector that is extremely diverse and at times difficult to grasp. Network building, list compiling, and database development are also attempts by the donor community to add coherence to this arena and to facilitate exchange.9 However, donor support for umbrella structures, coalitions, and inter-network cooperation is often insufficient. It is important to note, however, that such mechanisms may actually weaken the diversity of civil society and absorb so much of the time of CSOs leadership that it no longer has sufficient time to do its own work.10

Support for the inclusion of civil society in international forums

International networking is an important dimension of support for local CSOs. Thousands of CSOs regularly participate in international conferences organized by the UN system or others. Some CSOs speak at special sessions and committees of the UN General Assembly, address Security Council members on various occasions, are involved in preparatory committees, and serve on the governing boards of some programs and initiatives.11 Engagement with civil society is now a major aspect of most international organizations', agencies', and donors' affairs. Southern CSOs remain underrepresented in international forums, including when their own country is under scrutiny. Therefore, travel grants for representatives have become an important component of support for CSOs in post-conflict contexts.

1. Fitzduff, Civil Society and Peacebuilding, 13.
2. Ian Bannon, The Role of the World Bank in Conflict and Development: An Evolving Agenda (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2004).
3. CTWG, "Building Peace from the Ground Up," 7.
4. Fitzduff, Civil Society and Peacebuilding, 4.
5. For a view of how some key international agencies view that capacity-building exercise, see, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), Issues Paper for the Session on Partnerships and Civil Society: Roles and Capabilities in Conflict Prevention and Peace building (New York: United Nations, 2004); United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), A Practical Guide to Capacity-Building (Geneva: United Nations, 1999); Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), Issues Brief on Civil Society and Conflict (Paris: OECD DAC, 2005).
6. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints, 14.
7. See, for instance, UNHCR, A Practical Guide, 37. See also, United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG), UN System and Civil Society: An Inventory and Analysis of Practices (New York: United Nations, May 2003).
8. CTWG, "Building Peace," 6.
9. UN-DESA, Issues Paper.
10. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 499-500.
11. See, for instance, UNSG, UN System and Civil Society; World Bank Social Development Department, Civil Society and Peacebuilding.

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