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Role Of Civil Society In Conflict Resolution

By C. D. Bhatta

THE significant impact exerted by the 'people power' phenomenon in the latest political developments in Nepal opens up several issues such as the nature, role and power of civil society. That is, if the amorphous mass that contributed to bringing about the political changes was really the civil society.

Political interests
Theoretically speaking, the April showdown of 'people power' cannot be equated with the civil society because these types of amorphous movements come and go. And in most cases, they are driven to meet the interest of the political society - whether for the cause of democracy or autocracy - whereas civil societies are firmly rooted, sustained in a given society and of a permanent nature.

Whatever the trajectories of understanding the civil society in the Nepali context, the power of the amorphous mass has played a crucial role in regime change. Having said this, the biggest challenge, however, is how best to transform the amorphous notion of people power into civil society which could play a significant role both to address the immediate crisis, i.e., conflict resolution and long term issues, i.e., strengthening the democratization process.

Civil society, in the Nepali context, has been identified as the new avatar for conflict resolution right from the first peace talks. Since then, many civil society organizations (CSOs) have joined the fray by engaging in the much-talked conflict resolution activities. Moreover, the real downpour of foreign money, which remains unaccounted for, in conflict has also worked as a motivational force. Many foreign NGOs have opened up shop in Nepal. The spontaneous eruption of (I)NGOs and CSOs in the name of conflict resolution and peace-building saw rapid industrialisation of the Third Sector. As a result, every NGO/CSO and in some cases individuals as well, irrespective of their knowledge in this field, have projected themselves as conflict resolution expert(s).

By and large, conflict has been projecticised, which has given rise to the maxim 'maobadi ko nam ma khaobadi ko rajniti'. Hence the Third Sector's engagement was and is not voluntary in nature. It was somewhat, by contrast, motivated to tap the monetary benefit that was being generated by the Maoist insurgency. This could be the reason, among others, why professional civil society organizations in Nepal have no consensual voice in terms of conflict resolution and peace-building.

There could be two reasons behind this approach. First, if the conflict is really resolved, the whole industrialization of the Third Sector will dry up, and many (I)NGOs and CSOs will go bust. Second, this will endanger the Nepali middle class and elite particularly those who are on the 'NGO business' and dependent not on the Nepali state but on the NGOs for their livelihood. This could produce twin impact in the conflict resolution process.

First, the professional civil society organizations, including the middle class and elite, might be reluctant to play a constructive role in conflict resolution per se for the obvious reasons. Second, the amorphous power might come out again in the street every time there is dissatisfaction or disagreement. In the long run, this will legitimise street politics, assisting perpetual political instability to take permanent shape in the nation.

Another factor to be noted is that the money that comes in the name of conflict resolution via NGOs will have its own objective to fulfill and a message to deliver. And if the result is not in line with donor's interests, this could further complicate the situation. There are evidences where (I)NGOs have helped to prolong the conflict. Thus, there is very little we can expect from donor- driven civil society and their NGOs in terms of conflict mediation or peace-building in the long run. Hence, what is needed is the transformation (grounding of) of amorphous power into the society for this to develop into civil society.

Nevertheless, despite all these predicaments, civil society has emerged as one of the most powerful means in the Nepali political discourse, and great deals of expectations are pinned on it. In this regard, UNESCAP's Gender and Development Chief Dr. Tone Bleie during a recent seminar organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) on the role of civil society in conflict mediation and peace-building mentioned that Nepal is in a volatile state of no-war and no?peace. And any sort of transition towards post-conflict reconstruction depends on the adherence to already negotiated agreements and responsiveness to allow an expanded role for the civil society in the peace process. This, he said, would help to recognise the right of the people of Nepal to stake out their own future.

There is no denying that the civil society has a crucial role to play, and it can do so, as civil societies, normatively speaking, have no vested interest whatsoever. Civil society can help to sideline the differences and find out common denominators for conflicting parties to work on. The role of civil society in conflict resolution is even more meaningful in countries like Nepal where politicians (both protagonists and antagonists) have unlimited loaded interests with reasonably high chances of derailing the peace process.

Paradoxically, the most worrying factor in the Nepali context lies in the way the civil society is understood and interpreted by the society at large. Attempts are being made to bring the civil society into the parliament not as a 'watchdog' but as an equal partner in power sharing with the political parties without understanding its repercussions. Funny enough is that some sections of the Nepali civil society are waiting for this opportunity. If this happens, that will be uncivil for the whole civic movement with nothing left out to differentiate between civil society and political society.

How then can one expect civil society to play a constructive role in conflict resolution in this context? The causality of this might push Nepal from the state of no-war and no-peace as Dr. Bleie said to perpetual war. The dilemma with the civic movement, therefore, is not single but many, which are unfolding slowly but steadily. Hence, what can be argued is that the Nepali civil society needs to be civilised in the first instance, let alone mobilising it for peace-building.

Note: This article is published in The Rising Nepal (27 July 2006)

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