Peacebuilding through community-based NGOs: paradoxes and possibilities
December 13 2012: Local organisations are increasingly seen as key stakeholders in peacebuilding, but their role is a contested one, not least because of the complexities of different conflict situations around the world. One of the latest attempts to probe deeper into the peacebuilding potential of civil society is Peacebuilding Through Community-based NGOs – Paradoxes and Possibilities by Max Stephenson Jr. and Laura Zanotti of Virginia Tech. Laura and Max spoke with Insight on Conflict to share their findings. We here share a transcription of some of what they told us, and you can also listen to an audio file of the full interview.
As any subscriber to our monthly newsletter will know, there is a wealth of new research coming out on the role of civil society in peacebuilding. Often research will either be focused narrowly on a particular case study, or else cover a broad thematic area. ‘Peacebuilding through community-based NGOs’ is a fine example of a book able to bring together the strengths of both approaches. It includes three case studies that are clearly grounded in in-depth research, yet it also manages to illuminate key challenges for peacebuilders more broadly.
The book’s strength comes from the authors’ combination of sympathy with the needs of peacebuilding groups alongside a determination to critically analyse their real-life impacts; as they say in the introduction “assessments of the role of NGOs as peacebuilders must be based on more than principled claims”. Even where their findings leads them to question the tactics of the groups they study, the book remains suffused with respect for the work of the peacebuilders in question.
Listen to the full interview
The Haitian conundrum: to support NGOs, or to support the state?
The first of the book’s case studies looks at the role of Partners in Health in Haiti. What does this example tell us about the role of NGOs in relation to the state?
Laura: Peacebuilding is very much connected with state-building. And in Haiti the UN mission has very much been to build the Haitian state. However – in looking at the outcomes of the UN intervention and the international strategies in Haiti, we detect a conundrum: on the one hand, the international community wants to pacify the Haitian society and promote its development by building the state institutions. On the other hand, they are consistently withdrawing funds from the state and giving them to NGOs. This creates a paradoxical situation that erodes the capacity of the state… For instance, while NGOs are the biggest economic operators in Haiti they do not pay taxes. Yet at the same time the international community agenda for state building, which includes building the police, the judiciary and the penal system, cannot be done without funding available for the central government.
Max: A lot of international organisations and bilateral funders have moved to a view of many developing nations that they’re simply a priori too corrupt, or it’s too difficult to address the many government related concerns, so the government must be avoided and that’s the case in Haiti… rather than support the government, the international community has selected NGOs instead. The international community has created this scenario whilst avowing that it would like to see the government strengthened. So it’s a paradoxical, Catch-22 scenario.
And so has Partners in Health found a way to out of this paradox?
Laura: Partners in Health is deliberately and explicitly trying not to act in ways that are side-stepping the government, but to cooperate with the government… They bring in knowledge, they teach and they share that knowledge with local people. They consult with the government and they work with the Ministry of Health, and in fact they helped with building the capacity of the Ministry of Health. Their strategy explicitly includes listening to the government’s stated needs and of the citizens both PIH and the government seek to serve.
Max: Given the capacity of [Partners for Health] to raise funds from private sources, it is able to gain a degree of latitude and discretion that many NGOs do not possess. It therefore can say ‘we have the time, the patience and the resources to continue to work with you (the government) as we move forward, and we’ll do that together’. But that’s a prolonged process, and it requires adaptive change on the part of the organisation, and social learning on the part of the communities being served.
But what lessons are there for NGOs working in places where they see the government as part of the problem, or for NGOs who see themselves in opposition to the government?
Max: Our work in Serbia suggests that the government can be problematic. I suppose this sounds quixotic, but I’m not sure that you have an option – both in law and in practice –for NGOs just to ignore the government. You’re going to have to deal with them, to the extent you can, in order to be able to do your business.
To the extent that you are able to mobilize constituencies or stakeholders on the ground who can make claims on those governments for themselves, you may in the longer pull be able to create constituencies of support and of action that can change some of the claims that in which governments themselves are involved. But that’s a longer-term process that requires social learning.
Laura: This can be theorised as a problem of governance… Two questions seem to be relevant here: can we assume that the government is really representative of its people? Also, can we assume that non-governmental actors are doing better than the government in representing claims that would be otherwise silenced? .I don’t think this question has a straightforward, universal, answer. Whether the answer is yes or no depends on the situation.
What do we do when an autocratic government silences NGOs– should we still try and work with that government? Well, maybe in that case not. But again, it’s a case-by case judgment; we live in a murky world, where layers of governance overlap.
Women in Black Serbia: a case of unintended consequences?
The second case study looks at Women in Black Serbia. What did your research find in terms of their impact?
Laura: First of all, I have to say that we were very enthusiastic about Women in Black, because they are a feminist organisation, they are supporting women, they have done a lot of work to help victims of war to heal, and they have cooperated a lot with theatre groups, so they use a number of instruments to reach out to victims of war.
However, when we stayed with them for a week in Belgrade, we realised what we hadn’t seen from far away; that they embrace a somewhat absolutist set of claims. First of all, they position themselves as being very critical of the Serbian state, and the military-patriarchal structure that drove the war. This is all right, but in doing so, they have privileged some of the victims of war. They didn’t undertake a strong enough effort to reach out to individuals who are not victims of the Serbian state. Whoever has followed the conflict closely knows that there were victims on every side. Women in Black has also contributed to fossilizing the political discourse into war identities. Indeed their strategy for promoting reconciliation focuses on finding war victims and securing justice for them.. This aim is perfectly fine at an emotional level – but does it help people to re-think war-time political identities? That was our big question.
Max: What began to concern us – and I think this is a razor’s edge that I think exists in many peacebuilding situations – is peacebuilders want to be advocates, but on the other hand, they need to be active listeners-because you do not change epistemic claims and assumptions without being able to understand the thinking of ‘the other’. And that might be a hated ‘other’, that might be an ‘other’ that you find despicable in many ways – and maybe we would agree. But that seemed to us to be almost beside the point. The organisation, in order to be effective, and not in fact to reinforce existing misunderstandings that are pernicious in the long haul for developing any kind of peace, or dialogue for peace, needs in fact, to take a more nuanced stance.
And that’s a hard one; we understand and are sympathetic to the aspirations of the organisation. And we also understand that dogmatic claims can be mobilizing amongst stakeholders, and for funding. On the other hand, on the ground, such rhetoric fared poorly, in the context that they were addressing. So they tended to reinforce existing animosities and epistemic understandings that in fact weren’t inuring to peace, but instead were building additional walls.
And what of the role of the international supporters in this situation?
Laura: International organisations embrace principles and operate according to guidelines based on abstract claims of justice. David Kennedy has described this very well in his interesting work about human rights. What is the language of human rights, what kind of consequences does this have? Can we compromise on the principles? Of course not. But those principles must be considered in the context in which they are applied. What does this principle do in this situation? Does it just harden war identities? Are we fossilizing victimhood as a way of being? Are we freezing the image of some group of people as the “bad guys” because you belonged to a certain ethnic group during the war?
We could see that in Serbia the sort of absolute rhetoric Women in Black was offering was just exacerbating an already divided political arena. And it makes WIB’s opponents stronger because their movement could be dismissed as sustained by outsiders.
Northern Ireland: not imposing a vision
The book argues that the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland was successful at supporting grassroots groups because they haven’t had a single over-arching vision of what a peaceful society in Northern Ireland should look like. Why was that important?
Max: It’s not saying to those organisations: ‘we already know what you should pursue in your neighbourhood’, [but instead] ‘we are here to assist you, in your realising the vision for yourselves’. The end game may not be evident even to those at the grassroots, in terms of how best to pursue the possibility for dialogue and some measure of reconciliation…
It’s very striking in their work that it’s a deeply respectful way, even of those individuals and groups that have been most demonised, most discriminated against, most controversial. We need to have all of those groups involved, if we’re to make some steps to overcoming and reconciling the differences amongst us.. that a lot of these changes are not a matter of ‘two meetings and we fix this’, but rather processes of social change that take a long time. And so the Foundation is in it for the longer pull, and sees what it’s doing as – and the extent to which it has a role, and it knows it’s not the only player by any means – planting seed corn for possibilities for social change, over which grassroots organisations and populations themselves should have independent wherewithal in terms of the ultimate direction.
Dealing with complexity
You wanted your book to avoid sweeping generalisations about the role of peacebuilders. But did they find any lessons for peacebuilders, or for those who support them?
Laura: In a few words, being able to deal with complexity, and being open to dealing with complexity. And to secure if possible – and it’s not always possible – your own financial autonomy.
Also to see yourself as a political operator, not a universal judge. And again, David Kennedy said it very well about human rights work; we need to see ourselves as political actors, not as people who are out of the frame. And that helps you understand what you are doing, and what the consequences are.
Max: As a very practical operating matter for NGOs, the challenge at the institutional level is to create cultures within your organisation that are mindful of the need for the sort of openness that Laura alludes to, which is a difficult thing to do. The ambiguity in the environment, and living in that place, is difficult for an organisation, but instilling that as an aspiration is key. [Also] the desire continuously to learn from those we would serve. And being prudential about the steps you need to take to secure adaptive change that can conduce to longer-term social learning is necessary. Unfortunately, all of these things are complicated.
Leaders need to be reflective about how they are situating their organisations in their environments, especially their accountability environments. And be very mindful of the knowledge that those with whom they work can bring, and listen attentively. This can bring both additional learning for their own organisations and a more accurate view of the situations they confront and also help the communities in which they work achieve a modicum of social learning.
And do these ways of working apply just as much to international organisations or donors of peacebuilding organisations, as they do to the peacebuilders themselves?
Max: I’m pretty much convinced on that point. And I think there’s a movement, at least in the United States amongst major philanthropies, which is more self-aware of the importance of the kinds of accountability claims they are making and their implications for managing the organisations they are assisting.