The Functions of and Opportunities for Civil Society in Peacebuilding in Developing Countries

Francis Tuhaise

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) give seven functions that civil society plays in peacebuilding. These functions are:

  • protection
  • monitoring
  • advocacy and public communication
  • social cohesion
  • intermediation and facilitation
  • service delivery

Though civil society peacebuilding efforts in developing countries have been instrumental in influencing positive change, their  potential remains greatly undocumented and inadequately tapped in developing countries. The continued existence of conflicts, corruption, bad governance, poverty, and all the injustices that cause these vices in developing countries call for more civil society engagement with the local, national and international actors in establishing just relationships. Self-awareness of civil society actors in terms of the existing opportunities for change is instrumental in building more solid and strategic alliances for a positive change. Though some of the opportunities discussed here may be used to undermine peacebuilding efforts, this essay explores and demonstrates how these opportunities enhance the civil society organizations’ peacebuilding functions.

According to Paffenholz (2010), “peacebuilding is essentially the process of achieving peace. Depending on one’s underlying understanding of peace, peacebuilding differs considerably in terms of approaches, scope of activities, and time frames (p.44).” Galtung (1975) defines peacebuilding in terms of three approaches, namely; peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. He further looks at peace in terms of negative peace, which entails the absence of violence through peacekeeping and positive peace entailing the structural transformation through peacemaking and peace building. Lederach (2001) understands civil society as “a web of human relationships made of individual people, their networks, organizations, and in situations around which social and community life is built. It is dynamic, adaptive, at times nebulous, at times well structured, though much of it informal (p.842).” To Lederach, the only thing that is outside the definition of civil society is the national and formal structures of official political governance. Kaldor (2003) gives examples of civil society which includes, but not limited to social movements, NGOs and non-profit organizations, advocacy networks, public policy networks and religious organizations.


Linking the protection function to Galtung’s notion of negative peace, Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) assert that the protection function involves international accompaniment, watchdog activities, the creation of zones of peace, humanitarian aid, and civil society initiatives for human security. Paffenholz and Spurk further contend that the protective function normally involves international NGOs directly or indirectly supporting local or national civil society groups much as local civil society groups may on their own engage in protection functions or support agencies of the state. Paffenholz and Spurk give examples of civil society organizations  involved in protection functions such as the Peace Brigades International, communities in the Philippines and Colombia that negotiated zones of peace, and the churches in Mozambique that got involved in demobilization campaigns to reduce the number of weapons that were a security threat after the UN had completed its demobilization process. In Mozambique still, Schwartz (2010) contends that NGOs like ProPaz as well as traditional and religious leaders contributed to the success of DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and re-integration) programs.

Civil society has unique opportunities to carry out its protective function due to the emergence of global civil society, which is able to support local and national civil society groups, as well as the increased interconnectedness of peoples and nations. The national and international recognition of civil society organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as a key partner in peacebuilding strengthens the civil society protection function across nations. The United Nations (UN) recognizes civil society as inseparable from other actors in global issues. While addressing the world economic forum in 2009 in Davos, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon rightly affirmed that “our times demand a new definition of leadership—global leadership. They demand a new constellation of international cooperation—governments, civil society and the private sector, working together for a collective good.”

Globalization has added a new dimension in civil society protection function. Linda (1993) rightly elaborates that the world as Professor Marshall Mcluhan of the University Toronto called it in the 1960s, has become a global village where there are global networks of people and groups on a larger scale, creating a new global community. Howard (1993) contends that “today we are all members of many global nonplace communities (p.284),” where geography is no longer a barrier to human connections in the global civil society. Globalization has therefore created a world of people and not just of nations making it easier to form transnational civil society or for local and national civil society groups to seek support and collaboration from civil society groups in other countries to develop synergies in their protection function. Held et al (1999) argue that travel and communication have led to the growth of global interconnectedness in the political, social, cultural and economic spheres of life. This interconnectedness becomes a basis for making local and national causes global in nature by attracting unprecedented support from different parts of the world in case of need for reconstruction, responding to a catastrophe, humanitarian aid or initiating initiatives for human security. People are increasingly connected to others in the world, including to people they have never met. An injustice in one community is increasingly becoming an injustice in another community, making it possible for people to contribute in all possible means toward the cause of others. Catastrophes like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the current humanitarian disaster in Japan have attracted individual and group support from different states in the world.

The weakening of state sovereignty as articulated in Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter and the development of international norms of, responsibility to protect, humanitarian intervention and international humanitarian law provide the civil society a supportive environment to execute their protection function in face of crises, state collapse or repression. The articulation of other international concepts like human security which as Gareth and Sahnoun (2002) explain goes beyond the security of the state to include “the protection of individuals against threats to life, livelihood, or dignity that can come from within or without (p. 101),” provides a strong basis for civil society protection function.

Advocacy and Public Communication

Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) elaborate that the advocacy and public communication function entails “civil society promoting relevant social and political themes on the public agenda (p.68).” Paffenholz and Spurk enumerate activities in this function as:

·       agenda-setting
·       lobbying for civil society involvement in peace negotiations
·       creating public pressure
·       international advocacy efforts for specific conflict issues

The technological and media revolution today serve to reinforce the civil society advocacy and public communication function. Linda (1993) observes that communication technologies have provided an unprecedented opportunity for people to interact for social, political, economic and intellectual purposes. Civil society organizations can now find it easier to mobilize, sensitize, and attract people within a short time and in a less expensive way. Anheier et al (2001) opine that “increases in Internet usage and both mobile phones and land lines has greatly facilitated the construction of networks and has allowed greater access for groups outside the main centres of international power (p.6).” Trans-national as well as national peacebuilding activities can now easily be carried out using new forms of technology and media. It is easier nowadays to pass on advocacy messages and mobilize a big number of people using social media like Facebook and Twitter. Other communication systems like e-mails, mobile phones and teleconferencing have made communication easier. The global media networks like CNN, Aljazeera, BBC and transnational print media in the form of e-pads and e-text books, online journals and books, newspapers both physical and online across states, provide a rich resource for civil society activities. The civil society can use these media and technological revolutions even where states are repressive and intolerant of divergent views. The new forms of interactive media can be used to generate instant discussions, seek feedback and different views and perspectives, build consensus on contentious issues, set a public discussion agenda and also to support public campaigns. In the ongoing political revolutions in the Middle East led by different social movements, social media has been very instrumental in mobilizing local, national and international support to resist unjust political, social and economic systems.
The availability of numerous successful cases where civil society has executed its advocacy and communication function provide a reference point to other civil society groups to appreciate and learn different strategies and tactics and avoid common mistakes. The successful cases also act as an inspiration to the current civil society organizations involved in advocacy and public communication activities. According to Kaldor (2003), international NGOs already established in the nineteenth century like the Anti-Slavery Society (1839) and the International Red Cross (1864) and numerous international NGOs played a crucial role in campaigning against and ending slavery as well as setting alternative forums at intergovernmental conferences. Kaldor gives examples where civil society groups had parallel forums to articulate alternative views such as in the 1972 Stockholm Conference on environment and development and numerous conferences on women in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995).

Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) show that from 1994 to 1996 and in 2001 peace talks in Guatemala and Afghanistan respectively, civil society groups had parallel forums to articulate their own views and support the track I diplomacy. While in Nepal, a country-wide mass movement led to the ouster of the King in 2006. Cases of successful civil society involvement in peace negotiations are visible. In Uganda, Catholic, Anglican, Muslim and Orthodox leaders in the Acholi sub-region formed an interfaith organization in 1997 and has since then got involved in numerous peacebuilding activities including participating in peace talks between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Intermediation and Facilitation

Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) explain that this function takes place “between or among groups (not only between state and citizens) and at different levels of society (p.73).” Paffenholz and Spurk enumerate activities under this function as formal or informal facilitation initiatives between armed groups, between armed groups and communities, and among armed groups, communities, and development agencies.  Paffenholz and Spurk give examples of the Catholic Church-sponsored community, Sant’Egidio, which mediated the Mozambique peace negotiation in Rome from 1990 to 1992; the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, which facilitated negotiations between the parties in Indonesia; and civil society groups in Nepal, which have negotiated the release of citizens from custody by armed groups.

The professionalization of peace studies and research work in conflict issues provide a supportive environment for civil society organizations to carry out their intermediation and facilitation function. In his narrative about the evolution of peace studies as a profession, Ryan (2003) elaborates that peace research had a global attention as early as the 1940s, with the establishment of the French Institut Français de Polemologie in Paris in 1945 and the Lancaster Peace Research Centre, which later became the Richardson Institute at the University of Lancaster in 1959. Ryan contends that though various peace efforts were undertaken after World War I and II, the early 1990’s witnessed growing interest in peace research to complement the work being done by professional bodies like the International Peace Research Association founded in 1964 in London, the Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development founded in 1970 by Bouldings and other research institutes like Institute of Peace, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Peace Research, Institute Oslo, Tampere Peace Research Institute, Berghof Institute, as well as numerous credible peace journals and Universities offering peace studies. As Wallensteen (2001) pointed out, “there are peace research institutes inside universities as well as outside. The organizational forms vary considerably. There are full-fledged educational programs (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) as well as concentrations and special advanced programs. The number of institutions ranges in the hundreds, as do the various training programs. From a small beginning, peace research has become a large and established enterprise (p.4).”

The Universities therefore serve to provide avenues of theoretical frameworks that can greatly reinforce the intermediation and facilitation function by civil society organizations. The Universities also provide an opportunity for training professionals who can bring a new dimension of profession intermediation and facilitation. Universities provide a pool of peace professionals who can offer training and advice to civil society groups. Universities have conducted research on peace work and different peace activities and professionals have put together a lot of literature on peace work. The existence of writings on peacebuilding by multiple professionals like Johan Galtung, Peter Wallensteen, John Paul Lederach, Mary Kaldor, Robert Johansen, and many others provide a rich basis for further debate on peace issues and theories that civil society organizations can use in their intermediation and facilitation function.

Service delivery

Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) argue that though it remains unclear whether service delivery supports or undermines peacebuilding, civil society groups  play a crucial role in service delivery at different levels. Civil society organizations provide aid and services in the areas of health, education and other development interventions that can support peacebuilding activities before, during, and after conflicts.

The increasing international and national trust in civil society organizations and appreciating their role in service delivery in developing countries is a stepping stone for the enhancement of this function. The World Bank (World Bank, 2005a) appreciates the civil society as one of its key partners in working with governments to end poverty and promote sustainable development. The World Bank  has intensified its involvement of civil society at national and regional levels in various ways.. For instance “a review of loans approved in fiscal year 2004 found that 194 projects, or 74 percent of the 262 projects approved by the Bank’s Board, had some form of civil society participation (p.xiii).” Between 2002-2004, the World Bank worked with civil society groups in 100 developing countries in Africa, Europe and Asia to empower them and involve them in  its operations, consultations, and funding. Marcussen (1996) explains that “in 1991 World Bank-assisted projects in Africa were implemented by associated local NGOs, equaling 55 per cent of all loans and credits accorded Africa in that year, compared to only seven projects each in the years 1973 to 1987.” Marcussen argues that donors have the trust in NGOs as having the capacity to implement projects in a more efficient and cost-effective manner that surpasses that of governments and markets. The World Bank and other aid agencies[RS1] as Marcussen writes, look at NGOs as having a comparative advantage over governments in the capacity to be innovative, experimental, adaptive, flexible, reach the poor in hard to reach areas, and to promote local participation in their service delivery function.

Social cohesion

According to Paffenholz and Spurk (2010), this function “is to help groups learn how to live together in peaceful coexistence (p. 72)” since conflicts normally involve the destruction of relationships and trust between  parties in the conflict. The civil society organizations have an advantage in supporting this function due to the trust the public tend to have in them mainly due to their impartiality and neutrality in conflict. Though some civil society groups may not be or may not be perceived as impartial or neutral in conflict situations, they still enjoy the trust and confidence of many conflicting parties. Civil society groups like religious organizations have a great potential to perform the social cohesion function. Heynes (2009) for instance argues that though religion has been in some cases a source of conflict, it remains a key player in peacebuilding work due to many people (especially in developing countries) finding their identity in their religious groups. Heynes further opines that many religious leaders can use their good offices to bring conflicting parties together as demonstrated in Mozambique, Nigeria, and Cambodia. Lederach (2001)   investigates Moravian and Baptist church leaders who worked with the national reconciliation process between the east coast resistance leaders and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the mid 1980’s to positively contribute to toward peacebuilding. Religious leaders carry messages that have a universal appeal, making it easier to positively contribute toward the rebuilding of relationships.

The political neutrality and impartiality of civil society groups like churches, international relief agencies and local NGOs makes them more acceptable than political belligerents during and after conflict situations. Such trust provides a rich potential for civil society to play a key role in mediation, championing reconciliation, truth commissions as the case is in South Africa headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and getting involved in other confidence building initiatives after conflict.


Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) opine that the monitoring function in the context of peacebuilding is related to protection and the advocacy/public communication functions. Paffenholz and Spurk enumerate activities under the monitoring function as the creation of political early-warning systems and reporting on human rights abuses by local, regional and international organizations. Giving examples in Africa, Paffenholz and Spurk show how regional organizations like Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) partner with local civil society groups to do the monitoring in the Horn of Africa and how the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) and a regional peace network in West Africa have reached a memorandum of understanding to engage in early warning.

Opportunities for civil society involvement in the monitoring function include the increasing realization by states of the indispensable role of local, regional, and international civil society groups in the management of public affairs. Such a realization is contributing to the emergence of different civil society groups and, bringing these civil society groups closer to the states and thus, making their monitoring function easier.

Michelle (2009) explains that with the emergence of failed states today, international and national cooperation is a basic requirement in rebuilding these failed states. In countries for instance like Somali, Sudan (Darfur), Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, local and international civil society groups like religious organizations and NGOs continue to play a key role in rebuilding the state through service provision to the citizens, almost to the extent of replacing the functions of the state in the areas worst affected by conflict. The intractable conflicts further necessitate local, regional and international civil society groups to work together to create synergies and address the complex situations. The WB (b) (2005) enumerates positive state activities in Angola, Togo and Guinea Bissau in supporting civil society activities to take root. In Angola the opening of multiparty democracy and democratic space in 1991 resulted in multiple civil society organizations being formed. In Guinea Bissau, restrictions on civil society were lessened in 1986 and the 1991 constitutional changes created more political and social space favorable for the formation and functioning of civil society organizations. In Togo, the 1991 constitutional changes supported the emergence of civil society groups and provided a better legislative framework for the civil society to function. Some countries like Nepal have created a peace ministry, which provides a visible public entity for civil society groups to engage in their monitoring functions.

 In-group socialization

In the context of peacebuilding, Paffenholz and Spurk (2010) define in-group socialization as “inculcating a culture of peace, especially within divided societies. The objective is to promote attitude changes within society by developing peaceful conflict resolution and reconciliation (p. 70).”  For example, Interpeace, a Geneva-based international NGO supports each of the groups of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Paffenholz and Spurk argue that this function takes place within groups and not between or among conflicting groups. The activities under this function include peace education, in venues such as the radio, TV soap operas, street theatre, peace campaigns, schoolbooks, poetry festivals, and traditional training in conflict resolution and negotiation.

There are increasing opportunities for formal and informal peace education programs offered by universities and institutions which civil society groups can work with in their in-groups socialization function. The work of scholars such as Galtung and Lederach provide a basis for civil society organizations to engage in developing both short-term and long-term projects to inculcate  cultures of peace within different groups. The availability, readiness and credibility of socialization institutions in developing countries (such as families, religion, the elders, secular and cultural institutions, schools, women’s groups, and media)  provide a rich platform and entry point for civil society groups to enhance dialogue, negotiations, reconciliation and building a culture of peace.


The opportunities for civil society groups to perform their peacebuilding functions remain enormous. However, it is imperative for civil society groups to realize that these opportunities have the capacity to become obstacles to peacebuilding as well. Exploiting the potential of the identified opportunities in performing their peacebuilding function will largely depend on the civil society groups’ readiness and capacity to coordinate their efforts, support comprehensive and sustainable peacebuilding efforts, respect and work with all actors at all levels to avoid imposing solutions, remain flexible in their functions and be ready to let their mistakes and successes inform their current and future work.


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