Why does the public sphere warrant greater attention in post-conflict assistance? How can this be achieved? Citing examples from Timor-Leste, Liberia and Burundi, this chapter argues that effectively addressing the ‘invisible’ consequences of conflict requires civil society, the media and the state to connect and engage constructively. The analytical framework that best captures these connective processes is that of the public sphere – a platform for national dialogue.
Current post-conflict assistance policy and practice fail to pay sufficient attention to challenges emanating from high public expectations, lack of public trust, societal fragmentation and exclusion in post-conflict situations. These challenges are less visible than the obvious destruction of public infrastructure and private assets. Post-conflict environments also face particular public sphere challenges that are related to the prevalence of fear, rumours and uncertainty caused by disempowerment and loss of livelihoods.
Establishing the government as a reliable source of information, able to listen and to address public concerns, builds public trust and ensures public support for reconstruction. Developing a national dialogue around key issues helps post-conflict governments to counter peace-spoiler strategies.
Post-conflict interventions and reconstruction efforts create an opportunity to address the root causes of the violent past. Through the equal participation of all citizens, they can also help to create an inclusive and accountable social and political system and set the foundation for sustainable governance structures that withstand the forces of fragmentation.
Participatory processes, accountable and transparent institutions and constructive citizen-state relations require a national dialogue platform that only a functioning public sphere provides. State institutions, civil society and media are the main elements contributing to the dynamics of this platform. National dialogue processes are systemic. Therefore, a full understanding of the dynamics shaping citizen-state relations requires a comprehensive focus on media, state and civil society – rather than on each in isolation.
Incorporating the public sphere framework into post-conflict assistance is an important step towards building sustainable peace and democratic governance. Donors need to apply this framework in early post-conflict assessments, to model inclusive, transparent ways of working, and to:
- Think systematically: Ensure cross-sector planning and donor coordination to create synergies and to capture public sphere dynamics.
- Work with civil society, the media and the government to ensure a common understanding of, and respect for, their roles and promote programmes to increase interaction.
- Promote ‘listening’ capacity: When building state institutions, pay particular attention to the creation of entry points for public participation and to listening capacity in both central and local structures.
- Make sure that media development and communication capacity within government go hand-in-hand.
- Promote inclusive national civil society networks and internal, downward accountability within the networks.
- Support civic education programmes that promote public understanding about the right to information.
- Develop legislative frameworks and cultivate political will and resources.
- Provide evidence and advice on the economic and social cost of exclusive language policies.