Civil society is a term used in varied ways in different countries or contexts. Mary Kaldor in her 2003 lecture defined civil society as a “platform inhabited by activists, NGOs and neoliberals, as well as national and religious groups, where they argue about, campaign for (or against), negotiate about, or lobby for the arrangement that shape global developments.” This definition includes virtually all organizations distinct from government and business. The notion of civil society has changed over time since the Aristotelian age when they were characterized by social contract to the time of Hegel, Marx and Engels when civil societies were considered as a theatre of history and they were linked up with the idea of state perhaps till the 70s and 80s when they cut this link. Towards the beginning of 90s, civil societies transcended state boundaries and linked with other like-minded organizations in the world. The existence of International law and legislation made this connection possible. Since then, they have been involved in a lot of initiatives including activism and humanitarian aid among others.
Whether civil societies have successfully engaged in peacebuilding is debatable and furthermore it depends on a person’s idea of peace and how he defines civil society. If peacebuilding is, as extrapolated by Appleby and Laderach, a process of building constructive human relationship and if by civil societies we mean the list of organizations highlighted above by Kaldor, then the results is both positive and negative. Whereas it is important to acknowledge the constructive work some organizations have and are doing in various communities, it is also important to note the damaging consequences of some of these organizations. Cecelia Lynch has asserted in her paper on Neoliberal Ethics, the Humanitarian International, and Practices of Peacebuilding that humanitarianism weakens political accountability. Why will states strive to protect their people if humanitarian organizations can do the job? This attitude has opened avenues for corruption especially in developing countries.
Part of peacebuilding efforts is to help in the reconstruction of societies emerging from conflicts. This role might include strengthening institutions of governance, upholding the rule of law and promoting democracy. It is therefore ironical that civil societies are being criticized for their hierarchical beauracratic structures that often undermine the peacebuilding efforts. Lynch has pointed out how globalized donor relationship has shaped the humanitarian international’s increasing hierarchical and sophiscated use of market-based tools. Local NGOs and other community organizations that often rely on funding from the Humanitarian Internationals have had to tailor their narratives and fit their projects within the requirements of the Humanitarian Internationals as opposed to the real needs of a society.
Even those organizations that usually focused their activities on the short-term e.g. humanitarian relief, are now engaging in long-term activities. This has led to worlds some writers have referred as Peaceland (Severine), Humanitarian International (Lynch), and Aidland among others. In a way this are worlds inhabited by peacebuilders and the people who need peace. Often, the relationship among these actors is not constructive. With this kind of reality, how can any person hope that civil societies are contributing to sustainable peace in societies where they work?
Despite the above challenges, I do believe civil societies have a major role to play in building sustainable peace. But they will have to change their strategies. As Severine writes, everyday practices that may seem mundane to peacebuilders do affect the peace process. It is time to go back to the basics, when civil societies ruled, as Kaldor notes, based on the consent of individuals. This can be achieved when civil societies start listening to local people instead of imposing projects or trying to decide on what is good for the people.