Can civil society organisations play a role in building citizenship and confronting violent actors and acts of violence? This Institute of Development Studies Working Paper argues that they can, and explores civil society participation in Colombia and Gutamela. Building citizenship in chronic violence contexts requires simultaneous attention to citizenship and to violence, and it is also important to clarify the relationship between power and violence.
This paper straddles two terrains. The first is the empirical terrain of participation by civil society organisations (CSOs) in chronic violence contexts. The second is the theoretical terrain which might help unpack the limitations of that participation. Violence is often interchanged with power when power is seen as a way that A can affect B in a manner contrary to B’s interests, i.e. dominating power. To reduce the transmission of violence, new understandings of power in social as well as political relationships are needed. Power as capacity for action, for example, or as a potentiality which everyone can realise in themselves, is the opposite of violence.
The case studies illustrate the many ways in which CSOs directly and indirectly challenge violence in all the spaces and levels of socialisations:
- In Sincelejo, Colombia, violence has gradually overwhelmed the space for public social action, and civil society participation is too weak to contest armed actors. Nevertheless, the church and a handful of small NGOs keep alive the participatory space. They preserve some minimal rights by disseminating information about violence which would otherwise be suppressed.
- In one of the most violent regions of Colombia, Antioquia, the CSO Conciudadanía has helped to consolidate women as social protagonists. Women gradually came together in networks of citizen formation, gender tables (mesas) and circles of convivencia. From this they began communicating with armed actors and taking direct action, such as demonstrating against child abuse.
- Madre Selva (MS), a CSO in Guatemala, aims to generate a capacity for collective action despite high levels of violence and ethnicised dominating power. It was the first organisation to make an ecological issue into a political issue, and won a case against a proposal to explore oil in the middle of the Lake Izabal nature reserve.
By connecting people, restoring plurality, and opening invisibly sealed boundaries, CSOs reactivate the potentiality of power. However:
- None of this is sufficient for addressing violence. A state formation process must take place which is able to offer an effective legal framework against violent acts. CSOs can also help in that process by making issues of security, human rights, and the rule of law issues which citizens are involved in addressing.
- Civil society participation may challenge dominating power and reduce the risk that it will descend into violence, and it may do so by enhancing power as a potentiality. However, without an awareness of non-dominating forms of power there is a risk that dominating power will be reproduced, thus perpetuating a source of future violence.
- There was much less evidence of an awareness of non-dominating power emerging amongst the CSOs in this study. If non-violence and non-dominating power gradually become the social norm, this might enhance citizenship and participation in ways that tackle other forms of violence, such as structural violence.