How can civil society most effectively work for peacebuilding? This paper presents the findings of a comparative research project which analysed the performance of civil society in regards to protection, monitoring, advocacy, socialisation, social cohesion, facilitation, and service delivery in situations of war and armed conflict. It concludes civil society can play an important supportive role, but the effectiveness of its activities varied substantially. Contextual factors may limit or strengthen its ability to contribute to peacebuilding.
Civil society is widely understood to play an important role in reducing violence, and in facilitating the conditions necessary for building a sustainable peace. Despite the ever-growing emphasis on the role of civil society in peacebuilding, little systematic research has been done to empirically support this assumption. Comparative analysis of civil society effectiveness in 13 case studies suggests that:
- Civil society has an important supportive (not necessarily decisive) role in peacebuilding: The central impetus for peacebuilding comes mainly from political actors, and above all, from the conflict parties themselves. Civil society can make a difference when roles are performed in an effective way, at the optimal time.
- A functional approach is valuable in analysing civil society’s role in peacebuilding: This identifies what is needed, prior to an analysis of who has the potential to fulfill those functions.
- Both the relevance of civil society functions and civil society’s peacebuilding potential vary according to the phases of conflict.
- There is an imbalance between implemented civil society activities and their relevance for peacebuilding: Even when a function is highly relevant in a particular phase of conflict, it is not necessarily performed by civil society actors. Functions which are not highly relevant during violent phases of conflict are implemented widely, especially during a window of opportunity for reaching a peace agreement.
- The effectiveness of civil society varies substantially from function to function: When performed, protection, monitoring, advocacy and facilitation were often effective. Efforts aimed at socialisation and social cohesion were less effective.
- Addressing the different conflict lines within societies is a matter of violence prevention: Civil society tends to pay the most attention to the main conflict lines within a given society, but disregarding other cleavages and tensions in societies may lead to future outbreaks of violence.
- Context matters: It strongly influences the space for civil society to act and thus strengthens or limits its overall effectiveness. The main contextual factors to be considered are: the behavior of the state; the level of violence; the role of the media; the behaviour and composition of civil society itself (including diaspora organisations); and the influence of external political actors and donors.
It is crucial to pay attention to the relevant functions for peacebuilding during the respective phase of conflict, to strengthen their effectiveness, and also to address important contextual factors. Policymakers should:
- Focus attention and support towards the most relevant functions:
- During war and armed conflict, there should be more initiatives developed that aim at providing protection, i.e. direct protection, monitoring of human rights violations, advocacy for and facilitation of protection initiatives. Aid projects in war zones should also systematically integrate this goal.
- During a window of opportunity for peace negotiations, both mass mobilisation and targeted advocacy campaigns are important; facilitation is also quite relevant during this period, whereas socialisation and social cohesion less useful.
- After large-scale violence has ended, monitoring, social cohesion and socialisation are needed. Facilitation continues to be relevant. Creating entry points for social cohesion through aid programmes is particularly relevant.
- Strengthen the effectiveness of relevant functions: The effectiveness of each function differs significantly according to phases and context.
- Pay attention to the context: Context can severely limit the effectiveness of civil society. It is important to counterbalance this by reducing violence, addressing the behaviour of the state, working with the media, paying attention to the composition of civil society, and providing sensitive funding.