The concept of civil society is closely associated with the emergence of modern industrial capitalism. It is generally agreed that civil society is western in origin, and its emergence could be traced back to the political and socio-economic transformations of the 17th and 18th centuries. During these historical junctures, designated as the Eras of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the major intellectual and ideological basis of pre-capitalist formations of the western world gave way to new philosophical perspectives and political and socio-economic underpinnings of societal livelihoods. The pre-capitalist socio-economic and political systems, which were at work prior to the unfolding of the period in question, were unable to perpetuate and sustain themselves due to inherent inadequacies and contradictions that affected their social fabrics. This entailed their subsequent replacement by new social forces and modes of societal livelihoods, thereby laying the basis for the emergence of civil society organisations (CSOs). 

In the course of the aforementioned developments, new perceptions and attendant practices began to unfold by impacting on people’s understanding as regards the nature and role of the state, state-society relations, and citizenship and citizens’ rights and obligations, among others. Hence, the transformational drives that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries served as entry points for the taking shape of civil society organisations. Coined by Adam Ferguson (1782), the term civil society denotes voluntarism as its defining feature involving certain sections of society that act collectively in the public sphere by making claims and demands on the state. Accordingly, developments that led to the coming on the scene of CSOs are believed to have strengthened the urge for restraining the arbitrary and unbridled power of the state through entrenching the rule of law. Based on the aforementioned conceptual constructs, CSOs are understood as citizens’ associations that exist and operate in a given society or political system by striving to articulate, advance and influence public policy without being subjected to undue control of state institutions. Civil society is thus construed as an arena outside the family, the state, and the market where citizens collaborate for advancing common interests by forming associations, which strive to uphold the legitimate interests of their members and provide them with different kinds of services. 

UNDP (2004) defined civil society organisations as private, voluntary, and not-for-profit and autonomous entities that embark on the pursuit of common values and goals of their constituencies through collective action. Though institutional forms of civil society are distinct from those of the state, the family and the market, the boundaries between these are complex, blurred, and negotiated in practical life. CSOs comprise, among others, different entities like registered charities and endowments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community civic associations, women’s and youth groups, faith-based organisations, professional societies, trade unions, social movements, and advocacy actors. CSOs could be further classified in to two broad categories: service-oriented organisations that mostly undertake humanitarian and relief assistance and those that engage in advocacy.

CSOs are distinct from community-based organisations (CBOs) that are largely informal in their organisational and governance arrangements operating through traditional norms and values sanctioned by customary practices. Hence, they have a set of comparative advantages that they enjoy in their organisational terms expressed in flexibility, modern institutional structures, and clearly articulated commitment driving at advancing the legitimate aspirations of their constituencies. The latitude of CSOs’ operations largely depends on the openness and responsiveness of political systems under which they operate with direct bearing on their legality, autonomous existence, scope of mandate, and functional and governance arrangements. CSOs play key roles like inducing broader and meaningful popular participation in governance issues and protecting their members from the excesses of the state and the power elite by serving as buffers against undue predatory instincts of the powerful through ensuring political accountability (Bratton 1994). 

Although some differences could be observed between the views advanced by writers on the subject, there are some common positions expounded by those who subscribe to various schools of thought. Scholars of various persuasions (Hobbes 1950, Locke 1967, Migdal 1988, Montesquieu 1949, and Rousseau 1987) advanced similar propositions that, in one way or another, dealt with the conceptualisation of civil society. These include: the state is an institution created by society for advancing the common good; society and civil society are not conceptually synonymous; and civil society organisations are entities that are established on the basis of goals and interests shared by their constituents by serving as bridges that link them with the state. 

One of the central issues in the debate is whether the concept and practice of civil society is relevant to developing societies including those in Africa. The main argument advanced in this regard is that since civil society took shape on the basis of the objective conditions that were prevalent in the western world, its application to patterns of thought and ways of life prevailing in the developing world, including Africa, is out of place. This assertion is grounded on the assumption that the seemingly civil society groups existing in non-western societies that are bedevilled by several socio-economic and institutional constraints and barriers are only at embryonic stage. Marcussan (1996, 3) argues along this line by stating that the concept of state and civil society that is rooted in the developments that took place in the West cannot be automatically transplanted to the African context that are characterised by totally different historical trajectories that the countries of the continent are experiencing. In the same vein, Bayart (1986) is of the view that civil society does not exist in Africa that lacks homogeneity in the makeup of its society. 

The foregoing notwithstanding, counter-arguments by way of response to the foregoing dispositions are presented by citing that such factors like the state as an organised polity, socio-economic and political norms and values posing as underpinnings of peoples’ livelihoods, and tangible aspects of state-society relations that form the basis for civil society abundantly exist in the developing world. There is no doubt that civil society groups in the developing countries are not as firmly entrenched as in the west due to limitations caused by a variety of factors like lack of awareness and experience, undue government pressures, and capacity constraints. In spite of these, however, claiming that civil society cannot, both conceptually and in practice, exist in and contribute to societal wellbeing and advancement outside the domain of the west is impolitic and untenable. In this vein, Lewis (2002:574–582) claims that questioning the relevance and practical application of the concept of civil society to Africa by invoking “western exceptionalism” is misplaced and misguided. To say that the idea of civil society is merely a western phenomenon misses the reality on the ground that is anchored in local processes of struggle for broader public space. Mamdani (1996:13–14) stated that the real challenge in this regard is to overcome predispositions anchored in western exceptionalism in the study of civil society.  

Though it may at times appear difficult to define and operationalise the concept of peace building, it could be defined as an act aimed at promoting a secure and stable state of durable normalcy under which basic human needs can be met and violent episodes adversely affecting established ways of life are curbed. This definition implies that peace building strategies must address the underlying causes and manifestations of conflict expressed in militarisation, non-amicable intergroup relations, and proliferation of instruments of war in society. The notion of peace building implies meeting peoples’ legitimate needs for security and order, entrenching reasonable and socially-acceptable standard of living, and upholding human dignity and rights. A UN report issued in 1992 defined peace building as an act targeted at identifying and supporting structures that strengthen and solidify normalcy by curbing prospects of relapsing into conflict (Ghali 1992). Hence, peace building could be referred to as a post-conflict activity underpinned by averting violent episodes and instability. 

Peace building as a concept has evolved overtime reflecting the link between security and development. The earlier discourses on the concept as an aspect of post-conflict initiatives were geared at re-establishing relations between countries that were mostly inter-state in nature. In the years preceding the end of the Cold War, the major actors engaged in peace building were mostly diplomats and mediators from bilateral and multilateral institutions posing as third parties. Accordingly, peace building initiatives targeted leaders of countries or protagonists in armed conflicts. In essence, this implies that there was limited role, if any, to be played by civil society. The increased role of civil society organisations in peacebuilding in conflict-ridden societies emphasised conflict prevention, which led to the emergence of another school of thought orientated to conflict transformation. This approach views conflict-afflicted societies as operating at three levels: at the apex are the top military and political leaderships whereas involved at the middle are actors including intermediate-level functionaries of government and leaders of religious associations and the business community. At the grassroots, where the majority of the populations live and work, the internally-displaced, local leaders, community-based organisations, and local NGOs are placed. The conflict transformation approach thus calls for the need to coordinate peace building efforts at all levels, which stands in contrast to approaches that target national level top leadership of conflicting parties. 

It is worth noting that the ‘multi-track/multi-level’ conflict resolution approach was advanced in the last few decades as the major alternative to the ‘top down’/‘trickle down’ approach. The unique feature of this model is not simply its support for local empowerment but its emphasis on people’s self-development through enhancing the human potential’ and its recognition of the principle of local empowerment that leads to ownership of the human agency (Lederach 2003). In summary, the pyramidal model of peace building involves engaging actors in the three layers, signifying a shift from the traditional approach that focuses on engaging actors at the top level in order to attain short-term objectives.

In understanding the relevance of civil society organisations to peace building, the approaches surrounding Track-One and Track-Two diplomacy are worthy of consideration. These are concerned with actors whereby different players are taken as critical for the attainment, enforcement, and nurturing of peace in a given socio-political setting. The core actors in Track-One diplomacy include governments, international and regional multilateral organisations, and international non-governmental organisations and mediators representing different agencies. CSOs are instrumental in lending support to peace building efforts both at the grassroots and middle levels. Since home-grown CSOs live and operate in close proximity to local and grassroots communities, they enjoy comparative advantages in terms of understanding the context under which conflicts occur more than governments and international organisations do. It is also believed that they have a better understanding of the socio-cultural context that enables them to determine which viable means and feasible mechanisms could be applied for entrenching peacebuilding. Cultivating trust among conflicting parties, undertaking monitoring and advocacy in human rights, developing action programmes to support the livelihood of conflict victims, and creating access to justice and peace education are some of the activities that local CSOs can engage in by virtue of the comparative advantage they enjoy. 

The aforementioned notwithstanding, however, several local CSOs usually practice some kind of “self-censorship” in order to avoid confrontation with governments and instead prefer to timidly air their concerns during deliberations at informal gatherings, including seminars and workshops. In so far as civil society is a partial reflection of society at large, ‘uncivil society’ could inevitably thrive at times. Conflict-torn societies are often highly polarised, which to a given degree can also affect civil society organisations that may differ in their response to conflict situations. This is very much so since some are likely to be sectarian by ignoring human rights violations and supporting parochial interests by acting in complicity with perpetrators of violence. This negative phenomenon takes place either through active involvement or exercising some kind of indifference. Furthermore, competition over scarce resources between CSOs leads to engaging in donor-driven initiatives rather than those pertaining to local needs with upward accountability to their benefactors rather than to their constituencies.

Civil society peace building initiatives can also be susceptible to ineffectiveness since CSOs cannot impose peace agreements or guarantee their enforcement through providing the necessary resources that could facilitate adherence to accords and terms and conditions of settlement. Although the contribution of civil society organisations to peace building is highly desirable and important, it cannot be taken as a substitute for the role of the state. It is, therefore, imperative that both (governments and CSOs) must complement and reinforce each other rather than engaging into undue competition. Civil society peace building activities, such as those aimed at building local economies and improving livelihoods can be merely sedative unless efforts are geared towards addressing the structural causes that lead to conflict episodes. Especially in Africa, the role of civil society organisations in conflict situations cannot be perceived in isolation from or understood outside the broader context of the democratisation process. According to Huntington (1984:203), civil society provides the urge for citizens’ control of the use of public power, which by extension implies control of the state by society. 

In light of the foregoing, this book titled, The Role of Civil Society in Conflict Management and Peace Building in Eastern and Southern Africa sheds light on the role of civil society in buttressing peace building in Africa. It is aimed at shedding light on the contributions of CSOs for entrenching peace in seven African countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe) based on nine case studies undertaken by different authors.

The chapter on Zimbabwe reiterates the processes involved in the course of CSOs’ engagement in different conflict transformation initiatives amidst government mistrust and scepticism of their intentions and roles. The case study highlights that the civil society sector in Zimbabwe has engaged in peace advocacy through promoting dialogue and awareness creation and conducting trainings on the ramifications of peace to stakeholders. In this bid, CSOs were able to partner with the government and UNDP by taking advantage of the legal opening enshrined in the country’s constitution that provided space for their intervention. It is stated that there is a critical need for the existence of increased political will as result of which CSOs could scale-up their contributions and best practices in this regard. The chapter concludes by recommending the establishment of government-CSO joint forums that could be instrumental in periodically conducting principled dialogue on issues of mutual concern as means for building reciprocal trust that is indispensable for forging partnership and close cooperation. 

The drastic changes in the role of women in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide caused by their experience of encountering the unpleasant realities of the mishap is explicated in the Rwandan chapter. Subsequent developments in the post-genocide phase led to women’s participation in peace and reconciliation through the agency of their CSOs. In spite of the backdrop of the debilitating effects of the divisive effects of identity politics that culminated in the tragic occurrence of 1994, Rwandan women succeeded in forming CSOs that cut across the ethnic divide by forging unity with a view to entrenching national reconciliation and reconstruction. A number of factors contributed to the proliferation of multi-ethnic women’s associations by putting aside differences anchored in primordial attributes like ethnicity and other identity markers. The harsh legacy of hardship that adversely impacted societal livelihood systems forcing women to shoulder the onus of catering for the needs of those in dire situations, drawing lessons from their lived experience as regards the negative effects of fragmentation of community groups, and the policy of the post-genocide political dispensation aimed at empowering women, among others, nurtured women’s collective action and forging of a sense of common belonging. 

The Lesotho study on the role of civil society underlines the imperative of democratising the overall national political economy as a precondition providing space that facilitates unhindered existence and engagement of the voluntary sector in peace building. The chapter reiterates that conflict that occasionally unfolds in Lesotho is not as such deep-rooted and structural in nature as is the case in several other countries of the continent. According to the author of the Lesotho chapter, conflict that occurs in the country is mainly precipitated by issues surrounding the distribution of economic and political resources rather than identity-based claims and demands that are not easily amenable to resolution. This notwithstanding, however, several civil society actors in Lesotho are strongly linked to political parties, which renders their role in conflict resolution somewhat ineffective, intricate and complex. Hence, CSOs’ effectiveness in peacebuilding is largely determined by what is at stake for those involved, thereby making efforts either more effective or futile, as the case may be. The Lesotho chapter singled out a case in point signified by the conflict that accompanied the post-2007 elections in which civil society actors played a crucial role under the leadership of the Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL) in bringing about  peace by exerting positive pressure to bear on the conflicting parties that are induced to arrive at pacific settlement. 

The role of civil society organisations in peacemaking and peacebuilding in Sudan is presented by taking state of affairs associated with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 as point of entry. The chapter on Sudan describes the process as signified by a situation where CSOs were excluded and the playing field was entirely left to the two major protagonists (the government and SPLM/A) in the civil war. As a result, CSOs’ intervention in peacebuilding in the post-CPA period was rendered marginal at best. Taking the examples of CSOs operating in the war-affected Darfur Region and two that are based in the capital, Khartoum, the chapter examined the role that CSOs play in peacebuilding, their modes of operation, and the challenges they face in the course of efforts aimed at peacebuilding. The chapter concludes that in the face of constraints characterised by state repression and denial of space, poor economic performance, and the ravages of active conflict in some parts of the country, Sudanese CSOs are far from making meaningful contribution to peacebuilding. In light of this, the author suggested that there is a need to have a proper understanding of the potentials and limitations of CSOs.

The Kenyan chapter deals with CSOs’ peacebuilding initiatives in Mount Elgon Region where violent armed conflict triggered by unresolved land issues rocked the area between 2006 and 2008. Locally-based insurgent activities prompted the government to launch large-scale military operations as a result of which loss of life, destruction of property and public infrastructure, and different forms of gross human rights violations were experienced. The study findings reiterated that both during and after the conflict, a number of civil society organisations actively worked towards bringing about pacific settlement and social healing by resorting to a wide variety of measures like monitoring human rights situations, advocating the need for accountability of the protagonists in the conflict for their actions, providing basic and essential services and humanitarian assistance to those in need, engaging in mediation between warring community groups to peacefully settle their differences, providing protection for civilians against abuse by the armed militia and government forces, among others. Following the subsiding of the conflict, CSOs persevered with some of the activities that commenced during the conflict phase while at the same time embarking on socialisation, awareness creation on the need for entrenching a culture of peace as means of forging social cohesion, and integrating ex-fighters into their communities so that they can lead normal life. Nevertheless, capacity constraints and lack of credibility that characterised the standing of several local CSOs and community-based organisations militated against their efficacy, which led to a situation where external actors became the dominant players in peacebuilding. 

Findings from the Ethiopian and Ugandan studies on the role of CSOs in peacebuilding are presented in the last four chapters of this book where two cases from each country appeared. Whereas both studies in Ethiopia were conducted in the Oromiya Region, in the latter case Northern Uganda was selected as the location of the two case studies. 

One of the studies in Ethiopia documented whether or not NGOs can be effective in dealing with protracted conflicts applauded their successful accomplishment in Borana zone as regards peacebuilding and improvement of local livelihoods. The findings attributed this to CSOs’ incorporation of approaches that are sensitive to the local context in expediting their programmes in the research location. The authors argue that a plethora of capacity limitations adversely affecting the potency of the government’s judicial and administrative structures militated against addressing the issue of lack of peace in the study area. They assert that negative trends resulting thereof could have been offset on a wider scale had it not been for the restrictive legislative provisions that disallowed several Ethiopian non-state actors from partaking in issues associated with conflict resolution and related matters. The study concluded that despite their commendable achievements as attested by the findings, one should take caution against the view that NGOs can be in a position to effectively deal with all kinds of problems that unfold in society. By employing the political ecology theoretical approach, the second case study on Ethiopia reiterated the role of traditional institutions and conflict resolution mechanisms in the study locations where pastoralism is the dominant livelihood system. The findings attested that traditional institutions and mechanisms are better equipped in resolving conflicts in pastoral societies rather than the top-down approach often employed by the government in terms of ensuring equitable sharing of resources needed for maintaining established livelihoods that could advance peace and stability. 


The two case studies from Uganda shed light on the roles and efforts of two CSOs, namely an umbrella coalition of 86 international and local non-state actors and a faith-based local initiative. By embarking on various peacebuilding interventions, the two CSOs strove to bring about stability and normalcy to the troubled Northern Region infested by the protracted insurgent activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Though variations in their strategies and approaches and capacities and accomplishments in terms of realising stated goals and objectives were exhibited, the study findings attest that the involvements of the CSOs in peacebuilding have eased the plights of the affected communities in the study area. The findings indicated that the challenges faced amidst a situation of protracted conflict, such initiatives often remain less successful where prospects for normalcy largely become elusive. Nevertheless, the efforts of the two CSOs are believed to have made life in the study area less painful and curtailed agonising that could have been envisaged had things been otherwise.

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