Civil Society First

This approach, which figures prominently in the literature on peace research and development policy, puts civil society at the center of state-building efforts. In contrast to the three previous strategies, this approach emphasizes the need for bottom-up processes (Harvey 1998; Debiel and Sticht 2005; Van Tongeren et al. 2005). It acts on the assumption that the state and its institutions must develop at the grassroots level and must be sustained by society as a whole. This approach is thus primarily about the development of a political culture and political norms that are supported by a broad majority. Yet this is exactly what is often lacking in weak states. Usually the gap between the ruling elites, the state apparatus, and fragmented societal actors looms large. Adherents of the Civil Society First concept, therefore, believe it to be of prime importance to strengthen social cohesion, to improve opportunities for political participation, to support disadvantaged and margin?alized groups, as well as to promote the development of a (critical) public. They admonish governments to respect basic civil liberties and human rights such as freedom of the press and free speech rights, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. Moreover, they implement projects in the field of women’s and children’s rights, education, culture, and social work. Their objective is the mobilization of civil society forces (empowerment).

In comparison to the other strategies, this approach places a stronger emphasis on enhancing the state’s input legitimacy; it views the state primarily as a forum for participatory bargaining processes and discourses shaped by different segments of the society. In the case of postconflict countries the promotion of civil society by external actors typically includes the delivery of basic humanitarian services, psychological support (such as providing trauma therapy to victims of war), the repatriation of refugees and displaced persons, the reintegration of child soldiers, methods of nonviolent conflict management as well as national reconciliation (victim-offender mediation, for instance). In practice, this usually entails supporting human rights groups, women’s associations and peace activists, churches, journalists, political parties, unions, and local communities (Fischer 2006). More often than not the creation of such NGOs is induced by external actors; some NGOs are local spin-offs of international NGOs or activist networks that have specialized in particular issue areas. Hence, in contrast to the other strategies presented in this chapter, advocates of the Civil Society First approach give more importance to the promotion of complementary or alternative structures sustained by nonstate actors, even as temporary solutions until effective state structures are (back) in place to deliver services to large parts of the population.

Proponents of Civil Society First assume that state building is often doomed to failure because of insufficient civil society mobilization. However, this perspective ignores that most fragile states grapple with the weakness of public institutions vis-a-vis private and societal actors. Frequently in these cases, state authority is undermined by nonstate actors who increasingly assume its tasks and functions. Supporting NGOs and other civil society actors in a situation of obvious state weakness risks strengthening just those parallel structures, thereby impeding the development of legitimate statehood. In addition, there are several fundamental difficulties with the implicit normative premises associated with the term civil society. One problem is the identification of actors that constitute “civil society” in any given case. Is the “West” trying to impose its own standards on non-Western societies? This approach thus has an inherent tendency to go beyond a transformation of statehood and aims at a comprehensive restructuring of society. This will inevitably increase external interference into local structures and will require a greater investment of resources as well as raise serious questions of legitimacy. For example, evidence abounds that NGOs—in particular, those that are externally funded—can only to a very limited extent be regarded as authentic civil society actors. More often than not local populations perceive NGOs as “foreign elements” whose services are generally accepted but who are not regarded as legitimate representatives of local communities but as “alien” forces. Equally problematic is the orientation of most NGOs toward particularistic interests instead of the common good and their prevalent subordination to the objectives of external donors. Other issues are the imperative of fundraising, which dominates many activities, and the financial attractiveness of the salaries NGOs offer. They are usually higher than salaries offered by the state, which leads to a corresponding brain drain of local employees out of the public sector. Finally, there often exists a barrier to civil society engagement because of the bureaucratic and intransparent structures within NGOs. These effects are particularly striking in the case of postconflict societies in which NGOs virtually mushroom—see Bosnia after 1996, Kosovo after 1999 or Afghanistan after 2002.7

In summary, one may conclude that Liberalization First and Civil Society First adopt a holistic perspective, which dictates a comprehensive (maximalist) agenda. Both approaches, therefore, intrude deeply into existing state and societal structures. Accordingly, it does not come as surprise that the danger of unintended consequences and negative side-effects is extremely high. The other strategies, by contrast, can be reduced to a rather modest if not minimalist agenda and are more focused and less intrusive. Security First and Institutionalization First can, thus, be assumed to be more susceptible to “second-best solutions” and suboptimal results, respectively, while the other two strategies, due to their normative maximalist agendas, will be less amenable to compromise solutions. On the contrary, experience has shown that Liberalization First and Civil Society First tend to successively broaden their agenda in the face of emerging problems, thereby adjusting to the actual complexity of political and socioeconomic processes step by step. As a result, despite their explicit objective—namely, achieving market liberalization and democratization or strengthening civil society—priorities in the state-building process shift or become blurred. The more modest variants of Security First or Institutionalization First may reduce the likelihood of a clash regarding state-building goals. Moreover, the sequencing of measures these approaches propose seems less complicated and more apt to be implemented, not least because of the relatively narrow confines of these measures. On the flipside, however, these approaches risk to fall short of what may be necessary to consolidate statehood by focusing exclusively on the state’s core functions. These rest on rather shaky foundations if the economic and social environment continues to be highly unstable. Moreover, their top-down orientation favors elite interests but does not foster societal change. As a matter of fact, the risk of “mission creep” inheres in these two strategies. The more demanding the approaches to security sector reform or to strengthening the rule of law, the greater the likelihood that broader issues such as democratization and strengthening civil society will become salient. Hence, despite their initial intention, in practice, missions with a rather modest mandate (e.g., the so-called light footprint approach for Afghanistan in 2002) were quickly extended in scope, due to the realization that the security situation, the stability of political institutions, the quality of public administration and rule of law, as well as economic development all depend on each other.

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