Donors and Local Civil Society Interaction in Peacebuilding in Post-War Sierra Leone




Kanyako, Vando

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Today civil society organizations are actively engaged in every conceivable sector of the conflict management and development realm. From pre-conflict, conflict, to post-conflict phases of societal disintegration and rebuilding, non-governmental civic groups deliver essential services, lobby the power system, advocate on behalf of the marginalized and monitor human rights abuses. Because they come in all capabilities and persuasions and operate at every layer of the social system, their impact are often far reaching. Such groups and their ever expanding peace consolidation activities have played an indispensable role in our understanding of the patterns and dynamics of conflict as well as peacebuilding. To understand the influence and limitations of such groups one has to understand both their funding sources as well as the local context in which they operate. Using the case of Sierra Leone, an aid-dependent West African country recovering from an 11-year debilitating civil war (1991-2002), this works presents the results of a research that examined the impact of donor policies on 50 local conflict resolution civil society groups in post-war Sierra Leone. Specifically the dissertation looks at how externally funded local conflict resolution and peacebuilding organizations charged with creating a dynamic civic process, adapt their programs and strategies to fit the often unfavorable local climate. As donors curtail funding and the government of Sierra Leone closes the space for civic group activities, groups have demonstrated a wide array of ingenuity in demonstrating relevance. In a bid to remain relevant to the peacebuilding process, they have had to form vertical and horizontal alliances with the government, donors and other civil society groups. But while such arrangement has benefitted some, it has excluded other key actors that are neither part of government nor wholly part of civil society. The dissertation argues that if Sierra Leone’s peace is to endure then urgent steps should be taken to engage the ‘space’ occupied by groups that perform different actions with the same objective: building a durable peace in post-war Sierra Leone. Research assumptions/ Starting hypotheses This is a study of civil society and donors and the political economy of post-conflict peacebuilding in Sierra Leone. It looks at how local civic groups engage one another and with external donors as they acquire and disburse goods and services in a bid to prevent a reoccurrence of war in a rapidly changing post-war environment shaped by events both within and without their control. By 2002, when the civil war ended, more than 80 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) amounting to some $300 million was provided by international aid of one kind or another. This funding, provided by various multilateral partners, bilateral partners and UN Agencies was aimed at shoring up the peace process with civil society acting as a major conduit. Of this some US$ 94.1 million was channeled through CSOs/NGOs, accounting for some 26 percent of total support to Sierra Leone. Such funding largesse has been critical to creating a dynamic civic activism and to shaping public opinion from the bottom up as such groups engage at both micro and macro levels of society. It has also been instrumental in contributing to the exponential rise in the number of CSOs. There are currently more than 350 officially registered NGOs in Sierra Leone. If current trends are anything to go by the number would have increased exponentially by the time this research is over. This dissertation makes some initial assumptions based on my experience and observation between donor funding and civil society engagement in post-conflict peacebuilding. I began with three key hypotheses about the relationship between donors and civil society funding in postconflict societies: H1: Donor policies: Donors generally favor groups engaged in less contentious issues than those engaged in controversial issues. Civil society groups that are engaged in issues considered contentious (conflict resolution, human rights, anticorruption etc.) are subjected to much higher scrutiny and have a much harder time soliciting funding from donors than groups engaged in non-contentious issues hence the uneven growth of groups in some sectors over others. H2: Independence: Civil society groups that diversify their sources of funding have better control over the quality and direction of their programs and goals than groups that are dependent on a single key source of funding. H3: Governement concerns impact relations between actors: Government’s fear of a dual public sector determines its relationship with donors and local civil society in ways detrimental to the peacebuilding process. H1: Supporting evidence for upholding H1 was inconclusive. Research finds that even though the hard issues groups have a hard time generating income, it is not necessarily due to the nature of their work. Other variables such as location, donor, relationship with community all determine their fundraising capabilities. H2: data analysis for H2 was not upheld. Civil society groups that diversify their sources of funding end up taking up more unanticipated commitments and heavier reporting burden which has a corresponding impact on the nature and quality of their work. H3: There is enough evidence in the data to uphold H3. Government is concerned about the growing power of civil society as a competing dual-public sector. Key findings A. Local civil society groups engaged in contentious (‘hot-button’) issues face far more scrutiny and constraints to their work than groups in non-contentious issues Local CSOs engaged in ‘hot button’ political and advocacy issues involving human rights, anti corruption, and democratic reforms, face far more scrutiny from the authorities and constraints to their work than their peers working on less contentious issues. As the Government of Sierra Leone has grown in confidence and gained more sources of income of its own (mainly from mining rights and taxation) it has attempted to claw back some of the powers it lost during the war with a series of laws supposedly aimed to regulate the civil society and donor sector. In doing so however the government has focused lots of its energy on organizations that are critical and that work in sensitive sectors. As the space or ‘public sphere’ expanded so did the number of groups engaged in a wide range of activities from advocacy, monitoring, conflict analysis and resolution, to investigating and reporting human rights abuses. It is these groups that have been at the receiving end of government regulations. B. Civil Society Organizations are not simply a means to convey emergency help or development assistance. Even in developed societies they are a crucial part of the operation of democracy, calling attention to problems, shifting agendas, supporting political parties and election processes, as well as delivering charitable assistance, undertaking research and education, supporting the arts. Thus Donors need to ensure that winding down support for CSO's after a conflict does not force them out of existence; rather winding down should be done slowly enough that CSO's have time to diversify their income and become institutionalized through memberships or activities that allow them to become selfsustaining. C. Local CSO’s exponential rise and influence has not had a corresponding effect in the sectors critical to peace consolidation and good governance In the broadest sense this dissertation finds that, while local civil society influence is prominent in some sectors, it is sadly lacking in some of the most critical. In spite of paucity in funding and growing government regulations, local civil society actors in postconflict Sierra Leone have multiplied exponentially. In spite of this notable contribution however, evidence from this research shows that even though local civil society groups have now taken on a character of its own, their impact are still limited in influencing government policies on issues of good governance, anti-corruption and stemming human rights abuses (the very issues that created the war). Civil society division, lack of proper training, government crackdown, shortage of funding, and the absence of the requisite donor pressure all contribute to limit civil society influence in the aforementioned sectors, which are so critical to post-conflict peacebuilding. D. Agency of local civil society groups depends on local context For local civil society the local context matters. Whether working in the development sector (education, agriculture, health, and service delivery) or peacebuilding and good governance sector (democracy, anti-corruption, human rights advocacy) local civil society shape and are in turn shaped by the evolving socio-political systems, economy, history and varying geography of the local context. As by-products of their social settings these groups interact with micro processes with the aim of maximizing their welfare, changing attitudes, behavior and social perceptions between groups and facilitating social exchanges mainly at the grassroots, but sometimes at the national levels. Thus the strategies and relationships (both vertical and horizontal) that they develop provide a barometer with which to measure a post-conflict country’s general well being. The findings inform us on the agency of local CSOs. Often these groups are depicted as reactive rather than proactive agents of change. Evidence shows civil society has taken on a character of its own. They have learnt to adapt well due to the nature of the challenges they face. In a bid to remain relevant some groups refine their core missions through reorganizing and streamlining their systems and structures. Some develop a niche and form stronger partnerships with others. Civil society organizations do make conscious choices as they interact with one another and with their environment. Thus as these community groups adapt to their post-conflict environment they change the nature and behavior of other groups around them. This constant metamorphosis enables actors and agencies to position themselves to address new demands and tackle sometimes unforeseen challenges from the base upwards. E. Donor ‘bias’ tilts the local balance of power in favor of more professional groups Donors tend to be biased toward larger, urban, professionally-staffed CSOs, thus grassroots organizations get less support than the size of their constituency might warrant. Such a practice contravenes one of their (donors) key goals, which is to effect social change that enhances the ‘peripheries’ of power. Because of this practice a small number of influential local development and peacebuilding organizations now drive the donor-funding process. These are often elite urban-based groups with urbane leadership, and its structure and modus operandi (bank account, board etc) are decipherable to the donor. As such it is not surprising that formal groups get the most support compared to informal groups. By failing to fully engage informal or non-traditional groups, donors have inadvertently created a tiered system that disadvantages the most marginalized in the community. This reinforces societal marginalization of the most vulnerable. Like US government organizations, who are mandated by law to reserve a portion of their outside contracts for 'small businesses' to encourage start-ups and innovation rather than rely on a few large contractors, donor organizations should consider setting aside a portion of their support specifically for grass-roots, rural, indigenous CSO's to encourage their formation and strengthen local civil society. This will create a vibrant civil society so essential to reviving social institutions in fragile societies. Indeed transformation involves interaction between micro-processes such as in the family and local communities, on the one hand and macro processes in the public institutions of governance, on the other. F. Donors are hesitant to employ the full range of leverages against government While donors are rightly concerned to rebuild and strengthen government institutions following conflict, donors should strongly speak out against governments restricting CSO activities. While it is right that governments take over many roles that CSO's fulfill in an immediate post-conflict setting, such as delivery of humanitarian aid, education, peacekeeping, justice, health care, infrastructure, there are other roles for which CSO's must remain active indefinitely, including monitoring of government actions, expression of public concerns to government, self-help for communities and needs under-served by government, and media/business/professional organizations to facilitate spread of best practices and business formation. Donors should make it clear that as governments strengthen, the roles of CSO's will change, but the need for CSO's remains undiminished, indeed, grows stronger with growth and increased complexity of the economy and society. Thus the balance between aid to governments and aid to the civil society sector needs to remain balanced so that both can flourish. The growing power and influence of government coupled with a desire by donors to accommodate their concerns shapes civil society-donor relations. Donors thus have leverage that they can use to get government to become more open and acceptance of civil society groups as partners in development rather than as a threat.



Civil society, Post-conflict peacebuilding, Donor funding, Sierra leone civil war, Fragile societies, Political economy