Building Civil Society in Post-Conflict Environments: From the Micro to the Macro
Sarah Cohen, Program Analyst, NGO Sector Strengthening Program, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, U.S. Agency for International Development.
Peter Uvin, Henry J. Leir Professor and Chair of International Humanitarian Studies and Director of the Institute for Human Security, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Moderator: Michael Lund, Consulting Program Manager, Woodrow Wilson Center Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity; Senior Associate for Conflict and Peace building, Management Systems International, Inc.
Michael Lund observed that spreading terrorist incidents have made dramatically apparent the ways in which remote, impoverished, lawless countries once viewed as having no strategic importance are now a point of origin for direct threats to other populations. The extensive disorder in many parts of the developing world has generated awareness of the need for coherent cross-government and multilateral strategies to deal with the underlying causes of failed and failing states as well as their violent manifestations. As development assistance is incorporated into larger nation-building efforts in post-conflict environments, the role of civil society promotion must be evaluated. The international aid community must determine the comparative advantage of civil society organizations (CSO) and non-governmental organizations (NGO) in contributing to the restoration of failed states and determine the best ways to implement civil-society projects.
Peter Uvin recognized that building and strengthening civil society is a crucial element of the democracy agenda; however, understanding how civil society develops is essential to effective implementation of international interventions. Uvin observed that international civil society projects are often small, highly political, and lack non-transparent selection. Consequently, the result is more often the funding of popular or 'good' Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) rather than the building of a genuine civil society.
Building a genuine civil society requires a "transition from a set of highly personalized relationships in which individuals and organizations seek access to ad hoc benefits as clients, to much more institutionalized relationships governed by predictable, transparent rules, in which individuals and groups are able to demand access to rights as citizens, engage in collective action, build trust, and gain confidence in their capacities and those of others," Uvin explained.
Recognizing that the promotion of grassroots organizations in emergency or development situations is complicated by social divisions, weak representation, and high levels of poverty and distrust, Uvin argued that civil society strategies should be adapted to local circumstances and should focus as much on the state as on existing civil society organizations so as to provide effective incentives for collective action over the longer term.
Using the examples of Burundi and Rwanda, Uvin promoted predictable, pooled, and locally accountable donor support over the longer term that "allows people to acquire the experience to plan for, manage, and monitor resources" and promotes public expenditure management. Essentially, Uvin envisioned the role of international donors as "guaranteeing a process and a space in which people can learn and bargain, rather than creating the actual, final institutions."
Sarah Cohen observed that civil society promotion in post-conflict environments depends largely upon the relationships that develop between the different societal actors. Cohen identified four types of relationships between citizens, NGOs, and the State that affect the growth of civil society in these environments.
Cohen explained that countries experiencing protracted conflict such as Angola, Ethiopia, or Nepal are often characterized by weak decentralization and mistrust between local government structures and national institutions that exhibit tenuous relationships between societal actors. Southern Sudan, however, is characterized by a hopeful relationship between actors where citizens have unrealistic expectations of the newly formed state leadership.
Nascent relationships, by contrast, develop in countries where formerly authoritarian governments are engaged in restructuring and decentralization. Here citizens tend to have very little interaction with governance, advocacy, or the recognition of a functioning state. However, evolving relationships between societal actors are evidenced in countries such as Tajikistan and Sierra Leone where actors have to negotiate space between the state and other powerful entities such as warlords or alternative power structures.
The changing relationships between citizens, NGOs, and the State pose interesting challenges for the international community invested in nation-building. Cohen observed that the complex nature of reforming institutions and building effective civil society in such diverse environments requires more consistent, coherent, and better coordinated programs that would be best implemented through country- wide, harmonized strategies that are able to coherently address the multiplicity of needs in countries emerging from conflict.
Cohen noted that this change is in fact already happening and development aid is being incorporated as a tool of broader nation-building strategies in an attempt to affect the type of compound change necessary to restore fragile states to functioning democracies. She termed this trend 'diplomatic development.' The challenge will be integrating national and local level institutional needs and creating effective linkages between the short-term service delivery functions and the longer-term functions of strengthening public institutions in post-conflict assistance so as to strengthen the capacity of the state and minimize the existence of parallel aid flows through NGOs.
It was acknowledged that it will take time for a fully developed coherent approach to be implemented. Both speakers noted that the current aid structure, which distinguishes between support of the national government and of NGOs, is not ineffective, but could be improved by greater transparency and collaboration. It was noted that in situations of active conflict, state weakness has in some cases contributed to the growth of a lively civil society, and in others, has resulted in heightened competition and violence between different societal groups. Consequently, the speakers emphasized, it is difficult to define a 'correct' way to approach civil society development; the end goal cannot be quantified, but must be measured by the degree of ownership exhibited within each unique country context.