Created on Monday, 24 November 2014 05:47

24 November 2014 – (Mohamed el-Shabik – 23/11/14) – Summary: The controversial issue regarding the roles of civil society when these diverge from their areas of expertise.


When the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the main peace broker in the South Sudan conflict sought an inclusive approach to the ongoing fight in the country, they did not realize that by doing so they offered the warring parties a point of agreement. The militants have agreed to reject the inclusion of stakeholders, arguing that multiple actors would only prolong and possibly derail the mediation progress.
This rare consensus among the antagonists has sparked a debate about the role of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in global governance and whether or not CSOs, being an expression of the social and cultural complexity, as one of the development components are necessarily a prerequisite for development and democracy.
After the end of the Cold War, the UN, World Bank and other international organizations advocated more citizen participation in global governance issues. This contrasts the orthodox view regarding development that has defined economic growth and stability as pre-conditions for democracy and global governance.
Global governance in this context is a form of ‘governing without sovereign authorities’ (Finkelstein 1995). In a more concise way it is defined as a ‘contested process where the space for political action by states and non-state actors is greatly extended’ (Cardoso, undated).
By introducing civil society as a stakeholder in the South Sudan peace talks, the international community was hoping to address the global governance issues of justice, reconciliation, accountability, constitutional process and democracy in a participatory manner. The ultimate objective was a comprehensive approach to achieve peace and that this would transform South Sudan’s governance to promote fair and inclusive political and socio-economic long-term processes.
Justification for the inclusion of CSOs focused on their cultural diversity and the possible benefits of their knowledge of a wide variety of perspectives and methodologies. Additionally, because of their capabilities to react quickly, protest and make their voices heard, CSOs were regarded as being the custodian of human rights for those ordinary citizens who remain voiceless and also, as a watchdog for transparency and accountability.
Nonetheless, whilst acknowledging the importance of civil society participation and its potential contribution to development, the empirical evidence from South Sudan suggests that the primary inclusion of civil society is virtuous but premature at this time. It has uncovered why civil society engagement remains contested and why its role needs to be addressed with both caution and optimism.
After lengthy negotiations, the inclusion of CSOs has brought negotiations to a stalemate and proved only to distract attention.
Disagreement between the CSOs over who should represent them has arisen amid reciprocal accusations between the warring parties that the CSOs are fronts that serve different agendas. This has led to the rebel movement changing its initial position and joining the government in calling for direct talks, which exclude other stakeholders.
These events in South Sudan bring to surface the much deeper concern about murky aspects of CSOs and explain why some scholars such as (Scholte, 2001) argue about the democratic deficits of CSOs.
First, there is a perpetual dilemma about exactly what these CSOs are, who they represent and who can decide on the substance of their constituencies.
Secondly, CSOs are by definition highly politicized organizations and the fact that some of them take funds from and render services to the government will also raise doubts about their legitimacy and impartiality. The South Sudan instance exposes the blurring line dividing official activities from volunteering work.
Thirdly, despite the role of CSOs remaining contestable, their power to decide is unpersuasive. During the South Sudan peace talks it became clear that CSOs lack an understanding of their real power. The
strength of CSOs lies in their ability to argue, to propose and to be exemplary, but they do not have the power to make decisions. In some occasions, when CSOs have tried to impose themselves as equals at the negotiation table, the result was a palpably counter-productive backlash from the militants.
Fourth, the fact that South Sudan is the newest state in the world and in a post-conflict setting, casts doubts about the country’s ability to cope with multilateralism. As a nascent country, South Sudan lacks the proper governance structures and experienced cadres necessary to meet the demands of civil society. The paradox here is that whereas CSOs are supposed to drive and direct this process, however, in an ill-equipped country they become part of the problem.
Fifth, whereas CSOs were advocating better governance and democracy, individuals with their own agendas and lacking internal democratic practices allegedly dominate those same CSOs; this contradicts their democratic contentions.
Sixth and lastly, the effective civil society that has emerged in South Sudan after independence is Western dominated. Most of the functional organizations are funded by the West and have more affinities with their counterparts in Western organizations than with their host society; this is regardless of whether they are a faith-based organization, a think-tank or a development organization. This cast doubts about the real representation and intentions of the CSOs.
The latter point uncovers the multifaceted relationship with international stakeholders, who as outsiders often struggle to understand local problems. By taking a sweeping overall view of the conflict, international stakeholders often prefer to interact directly with the CSOs rather than with the warring parties. This is based on the misleading assumption that if the state and opposition are corrupt and dysfunctional, then civic society must by definition command the moral high ground.
A conservative glance at the cost of bringing CSOs to the negotiating table suggests that at some stage, CSOs are better excluded from direct peace negotiations. Pressure needs to be applied on contenders for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian access.
The second phase of negotiations should focus on agreements for a permanent ceasefire, on the form of governance and on a transitional government. In this process the role of civil society would come into its own and pay dividends through being peace observers and watchdogs. The CSOs debate continues –
There was a time when a prominent political scientist such as Adrian Leftwich (1994) suggested that a weak civil society is a feature of a strong state. This article doesn’t accept such an extreme analysis, but rather acknowledges the vital contributions of civil society to global democratic governance.
The day when an emergence of a new political system that will ensure participation of equal citizenships and pluralism, as well as promote human rights has not yet arrived, thus democracy remains the inescapable political regime that retains these values and as such remains nonpareil.
However, democracy is also incremental, consensual and gradually strengthened in communities through participatory and inclusivity approaches, thus it can only be achieved and sustained through an active and progressive civil society.
With the concomitant rise of social media, civic society has a crucial role to play in exerting political pressure for social change. CSOs cannot end conflict but they are well positioned through their social and cultural diversity to influence, denounce, argue, protest and mobilize for social goodwill and peace, for instance in the South Sudan occasion.
This is not to say civil society is to be confined to the social or even humanitarian aid service delivery field. It is pertinent that civil society pave the way for democratic change, mobilizes the grass roots in society, provides a platform for democratic debate, monitors the implementation of agreements and acts as the watchdog to better all global governance segments.
The South Sudan example has shown the gap between the normative concept of civil society and the empirical reality. It has flagged the case when civil society plays a contentious role, and the need for it
to be handled with caution to prevent it from playing a paradoxical role that may hinder democratic development. As peace talks in both Sudans grapple to come up with lasting peace, civic society in both countries should start context specific argument and debate on their potential role to achieve, sustain, and strengthen their long-awaited democracy.