Of Conflicts and NGOs
As the gulf is widening between liberal ideals of French and
American revolutions and neo-liberal market fundamentalists today, the concept of civil society with its Hegelian, Marxian, Gramscian and other variations is a world apart from the similar buzzword of Bretton Woods Institutions, particularly since the fag end of the Cold War. The coinage has been reduced to a World Bank euphemism primarily for the Western-American donor-driven and influenced NGOs.
The controversies over role of these NGOs, in conflict zones were revisited by a recent cross-continental research project.
Researchers on Cyprus found that the 'elite and nationalist government and the UN-supported [also EU-sponsored] high-level peace processes become mutually self-sustaining: the peace process allows local elites to maintain their power'. Also, the funded NGOs who work within that very framework cater more to the 'international audience' than bothering to 'connect publicly to large parts of the population on either side' of the ethno-religious divide between Greek and Turkish settlers.
In contrast, there is an inter-community peace movement that stresses on the shared traditions and hybridity. But the Western peacemakers and donors do not promote latter endeavors. Subsequent discussions in Delhi revealed that the pattern was not Cyprus-specific.
In theory, the World Bank definition is more broad-based. According to it (source: web.worldbank.org), "the term civil society is to refer to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philantliropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide range of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations".
Further, the WB site says: "CSOs have also become important actors for delivery of social services and implementation of other development programs, as a complement to government action, especially in regions where government presence is weak such as in post-conflict situations."
However, the researchers on three European conflicts as well as other experts described the CSOs mostly as EU and other internationally funded NGOs. They drew parallel among the roles played by these NGOs critically. Referring to Cyprus, Roger Mac Ginty of Manchester University observed that the 'large and well-established civil society' in the divided island is 'orthodox, lazy and fat'. "It is not creative but tamed and co-opted by the establishment while being often donor-driven," he said.
In contrast, he mentioned the occupiers at the UN-control led buffer zone in Cyprus, who were inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. They urged for the 'alternatives' to the donor-driven civil society. Speaking on BiH, Elena Stavrevska of Central European University (Budapest) echoed Mac Ginty. "The NGOs are often alienated from the affected population and represent the international donors' interests", she said.
As women have suffered violence and post-violence trauma across the ethnic divide in the Balkans, international donors in the BiH specifically target them. "Lots of funds are coming for NGO projects for women empowerment," she added. But does it promote dialogue among, affected women across the communities and stress on rebuilding inter-ethnic/faith bridges, which people had found in Israel-occupied West Bank between Jew and Palestinian mothers?
In Georgia too, Nona Mikhelidze of Institute of International Affairs (Rome), found that the 'EU funded moves for pro-European civil society initiatives'. According to her, "civil society is divided between pro and anti-government factions. Even those were in government earlier now joined civil society opposing the new regime." The last observation resonates in this part of the globe where a sustainable non-partisan but politically plural civil society, organically connected to grassroots is still a chimera.
In almost all divided lands, peoples across the ethno-religious divide as well as disputed territories go for clandestine border trades. "Illicit trade... is the economic coping mechanism for the people in the conflict-ridden areas... people to people communication, it helps to know the other side... they are the small avenues of conflict transformation," Mac Ginty said citing experiences in divided Cyprus and Ireland. Elena Stavrevska too cited trade among communities in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina across the ethno-religious divides.
But many a time, big global/regional politics, local state and non-state actors obstruct border trades as experiences both in South Asia as well theatres of conflicts in Europe have shown. Janel B Galvanek of Berghof Foundation in Berlin pointed to the tensions over border business. "The unofficial trade has its role in conflict resolution.. But there was tension when northern products [from Turkish side were boycotted in Cyprus [in the Greek zone]", she said. Navnita Behera from Delhi University who had worked on Kashmir said that the cross-border trade is a 'local initiative' across the Line of Control between Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir. "It came from peoples' hearts."
But some others felt that border economies are not always helping for conflict resolution. Peter Burgess from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo said that the ghost economy outside the formalities of law was sometimes used by those interests who wanted to fester the conflicts in Cyprus. Rajesh Tandon of PRIA wanted more studies in the 'unstructured economy or ghost economy' and its role 'in stabilizing the ethnic relations' and in the overall 'matrix of peace.'
The sterility and unsustainability of the EU interventions in conflict zones have triggered questions about the ideological and structural straitjacket that anchor its model of conflict resolution, which claims to be universally valid and suitable for all states and societies.
Comparing Indian and European experiences, Sumona Bhattacharya of PRIA said the EU liberal model focused on stabilization/resolution of conflict. But in India, it is the "daily management of conflict and here people feel no development possible without conflicts. Mac Ginty commented that 'India is facing the problems of state-building while the EU is facing the problem of institution building".
The concept note for the seminar observed: " We see emerging from it [the project] is the way in which critiques of neo-liberalism, of governance and its conceptual relationship with governmentality, a focus on decentralized institutions and local forms of peace agency, the escalatory tendencies of borders and the urgency of development and self-determination pressures across both case sets [Indian and European] are very similar."
Vol. 47, No. 5, Aug 10 - 16, 2014