Civil society and the liberal peace: Top down interventions from below?

by | Dec 14, 2016 | Staff blogs | 0 comments

by Dr Birte Vogel.

This blog post is based on Dr Vogel’s article published in Intervention and Statebuilding.

Over the past decades, peacebuilding has changed. The participation of non-state has steadily increased. This development has been promoted by, at best, mixed results of traditional peacekeeping interventions. Based on a long-term academic critique that cultural insensitivity, a disregard of traditions, norms, customs and a general blindness for the local context are responsible for the failure of international attempts to foster peace, the international donor community commenced to support the inclusion of local civil society into their peacebuilding activities. These local actors are often believed to have the relevant knowledge, networks and cultural understanding to address topics that are vital to the success of peace agreements or the reconciliation of their communities, and their engagement therefore is often seen as a panacea to address the previous interventions’ shortcomings – in particular the accusation that statebuilding and peacebuilding missions are neo-colonial enterprises. But is this turn towards ‘the local’ as inclusive as international actors like to claim?

From a critical perspective, international engagement with local actors has come under scrutiny, with many positing that internationals imagine them as the implementer of (Western) agendas rather than agents in their own right. I argue that international donors tend to support their orthodox top-down approaches with the help of local civil society ‘form below’ rather than encouraging the formation of local alternatives. In my recently completed research project, I investigated the impact of international support on civil society’s possibilities to advocate for alternatives to the internationally led peace process in more detail.

It finds that civil society support is frequently confused with the representation or inclusion of local voices. Evidence shows that international support steers civil society discourses and fosters the adoption of global agendas; thus making civil society part of a transnational governance processes rather than a counter-voice to it. The system prioritises those actors willing to operate within the boundaries of liberal peace interventions over those that are not. This, at the same time, creates an imbalance between local actors in favour of those concurring with internationally proposed solutions over other voices by equipping them with financial resources and access to political decision makers. Thus, the selected voices repeatedly do not challenge but confirm peacebuilding strategies in place, as they are deliberately selected to do so.

How is civil society captured?

I want to sketch out a rudimentary typology of methods for civil society capture (CSC) deployed by international donors. Based on a systematic review of several case studies and the current literature, I sketch out five main categories used for civil society capture as summarised in the table below: financial support; stipulation for partnerships; tacit conditions; opportunity and exclusion. Those methods are obviously context-dependent, but the typology displays general tactics and patterns that – in different combinations – can be used to shape or build civil societies and their discourses. This goes beyond the peacebuilding context and is equally relevant for humanitarianism or development studies.

Almost all of these methods can be used in two ways: either for positive discrimination (e.g. through the provision of funding) to support certain actors with favourable agendas, or the exclusion of actors that represent internationally undesirable positions (e.g. denial of funding requests).

Methods of local civil society capture

Methods of local civil society capture

Financial support

  • pre-defining areas or subjects for funding
  • setting restrictions on who is able to apply
  • defining project outputs
  • calling for projects supporting certain versions of peace

Stipulation for partnerships

  • complying with counter-terrorism regulation
  • accountability mechanisms
  • institutional structures

Tacit condition

  • agreement to international human rights norms
  • depolitisation
  • language skills
  • bureaucratic skills


  • offering protection from state oppression
  • conferring legitimacy as a partner for peace
  • invitation to speak at consultations
  • offering a safe space to meet
  • relaying on trusted networks


  • ignorance of unconventional groups
  • superficial engagement with positions
  • dismissal of positions

One of the most effective and regularly discussed methods throughout the literature to steer the direction of peace-oriented civil society agendas is the provision of direct financial support that is needed by most non-state actors to sustain their work. By pre-defining project topics that will be funded, civil society groups are likely to incorporate these themes into their agendas to maximise their chances of receiving their share of the available funding. Syrian NGOs recently displayed their frustration with having to adapt their programmes to donor interests on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #that’s_what_the_donor_wants.

What are the implications?

The relationship between local peacebuilding efforts and international support to it is more ambiguous than international donors would like to portray. On the one hand, international support can be vital to civil society’s effort to secure some space in the peacebuilding debate, in particular when national elites attempt to drive them out of the peace process. On the other hand, local discourses have often become subject to the boundaries of the institutional settings they are encouraged by rather than fundamentally changing the power structure of peace interventions. This leads to frustrations on both sides: local actors feel that donors interfere with the direction of their work while donors perceive the inclusion of civil society as ‘ineffective’ in taking the lead in the conflict resolution process. The later results from the two contradicting expectation international donors have towards peace-oriented civil society. First, as indicated in a range of policy documents the intention for providing support to local civil society in the hope of achieving more local legitimacy for peace interventions and including local level perspectives to ensure ‘local ownership’ and ‘sustainability’. Second, civil society is ought to serve as a tool for protection of the Westphalian state system in its current form and the advancement of liberal state structures imagined by outsiders.

While the international engagement with civil society seems to be contradictory from a peacebuilding perspective, it does indeed support international objectives from a governance perspective. The current support to local civil society and the introduced methods of CSC are granting international donors direct intervention into local structures rather than trough the setting of legal and institutional frameworks – or indeed, it opens the possibility to intervene through both doors and tell a consistent story. This raises the fundamental question of whose peace is being supported when international donors have found a way – at least partly – to govern local peace agency.

This is not to suggest that civil society is not a capable agent to find solutions to domestic problems. In Cyprus, where I conducted a larger study on this topic, civil society has been the fiercest counter-voice to an elitist peace process that has failed for decades. To deem civil society spaces redundant would thus be a mistake. Instead, it is vital to attempt to understand local civil societies’ alternative modes of operation, challenge the existing power imbalances and rethink civil society conceptually in order to open the possibilities for local voices to relocate from the periphery to the centre of their societies and peace discourses. This would mean, at the very least, a need to reconsider what ‘successful funding’ means. Only when local actors are a central part of a genuinely inclusive peacebuilding discourse, one can start to explore the extent to which civil society is a successful builder of peace.


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