Science - June 26, 2008

Idealised picture of NGO hampers peace building

In post-war peace building efforts since the nineties, international development organisations have focused their hopes on local NGOs. But the latter are not always capable of fulfilling this role, warns Dr Mathijs van Leeuwen in his doctoral dissertation.

Members of a local women’s group in southern Sudan.
Armed conflicts are complex matters. Reliable information is often lacking and the situation is constantly changing. For international development organisations such as Oxfam or Cordaid, it is often impossible to know exactly what is going on. Nevertheless they want to do something, and as a result, it’s inevitable that they simplify matters, states Van Leeuwen. ‘They draw up a picture of the situation as they think it is, with all kinds of assumptions.’ These assumptions are often based on an idealised picture, formed during international discussions on peace building and not on the local situation.

One important assumption is that local organisations are better at promoting peace between parties than the local government. The government has often been involved in the conflict and has lost its legitimacy as a result. The idea is that local NGOs could take over the role of the government. But, Van Leeuwen says, this is not always the case. Local organisations are not automatically more democratic, and they still need the government as well.

An unconscious assumption that international organisations often make is that women are more peace loving than men, and that therefore women’s organisations are better at peace work. Van Leeuwen came across this when doing research on a peace organisation in southern Sudan. ‘The organisation had achieved a lot in terms of peace building, but not when it came to the mission that the international organisations had in mind: reconciliation between ethnic groups and dealing with violence against women.’

This was because the members of the local women’s groups came from the same ethnic group, making inter-ethnic reconciliation difficult. Violence against women was linked to alcohol use, and many members of the group earned an income from beer brewing. They were not interested in the theme of violence against women. Peace building for these women meant meeting regularly and sharing their experiences. Van Leeuwen: ‘And that is peace building, but it is far removed from the more ambitious objectives of peace organisations and international donors.’

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