The Depoliticization of Civil Society in Fragile States

Lessons from Sierra Leone

My PhD thesis (2010-2014) on: Peacebuilding and the Depoliticization of Civil Society addressed a striking aid paradox: Notwithstanding the growing attention to and financial support for local civil society organizations (CSOs) in conflict-affected sub-Saharan African states, political influence, agency and advocacy stemming from the civil sphere is in decline.

As the Sierra Leonean case perfectly exemplifies, increased funding towards local CSOs has not led to the empowering of individuals, enhanced democratic ownership or pro-active participation stemming from the civil sphere. Instead, Sierra Leone‘s civil society landscape appears to be neutralized, depoliticized if not instrumentalized to provide social services the state is either too weak or unwilling to deliver. By drawing on an extensive amount of empirical data gathered over the time-span of four years, the thesis advances three main arguments why processes of depoliticization can occur. First, it supports the commonly agreed consensus in scholarship that postwar civil societies have become instrumentalized to serve a broader liberal peacebuilding and development agenda in several ways. Second, a deeper inquiry into the history of state formation and political culture of Sierra Leone reveals that Western idea(l)s of participatory approaches and democracy are repeatedly challenged by a persisting urban-rural divide, socially entrenched forms of neopatrimonialism, elite-loyalism and tribalism. Sierra Leonean civil society finds itself currently in the midst of renegotiating those various intersections of a primordial and modern everyday life. Third, the project showcases how abject poverty, human development and above all the lack of education affect activism and agency from below. In giving voice to local CSOs, CBOs (Community Based Organizations), grassroots associations, youth and street clubs, communities, scholars, government officials and numerous ordinary Sierra Leoneans; my research presents new avenues for increasing the agency of people who are most affected by poverty, conflict, and political and economic instability.


In an attempt to support peacebuilding and development in sub-Saharan African countries from the bottom up, funding for local CSOs, and consequently their involvement in peacebuilding and development, has grown significantly over the past three decades. This trend has been supported by a consensus among scholars and practitioners that a strong, vibrant and active civil society is one of the key components for democratization in low-income, often fragile [1] states.[2] In the course of this ‘local turn’[3] in peacebuilding and development assistance, since the early 1990s there has been a significant increase in funding for local CSOs. The figures speak for themselves. In 1985–86 funding provided to CSOs amounted to US$ 3.1 billion per year[4], but in 2013 OECD Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) members allocated a total of US$19.3 billion in Official Development Assistance (ODA) to or through CSOs.[5] Within the span of three decades, civil society actors have become bigger, more numerous, and more sophisticated, and they now receive the largest slice of foreign aid and other forms of development assistance.[6] Civil society simply emerged as ‘one of those things — like development, education or the environment — that no reasonable person can be against. The only question to be asked of civil society today seems to be: How do we get more of it?’[7]

At the same time, however, results on the ground are rather stagnant and civil liberties are shrinking around the globe. For example, CIVICUS reported serious threats to civic freedom in at least 96 countries in 2014.[8] According to Freedom House, for the past nine years countries with declines in civil liberties have out-numbered those with gains.[9] Sub-Saharan Africa serves as a case in point, with only 18 per cent (8 countries) ranked as free, 41 per cent (20 countries) as partly free and 41 per cent (21 countries) ranked as not free, thus affecting 88 per cent of the population in the region.[10] Similarly, the number of conflicts in the region also remained constant in 2015, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s political conflicts.[11] Thus, instead of experiencing enhanced proactive and peaceful participation stemming from the civil sphere, many sub-Saharan African civil society landscapes appear to be largely depoliticized — a phenomenon introduced in the thesis as a process that removes civil society actors gradually from any form of political influence and agency. Simply put, ordinary people who are most affected by the peacebuilding and development process in their own country lack the agency and voice to express their wants and needs — not to mention to challenge the political and economic climate in which they are embedded.

Sierra Leone perfectly illustrates this aid paradox. Since the end of the country’s civil war (1991–2002), there has been a rapid increase in funding for peacebuilding and development efforts promoting the (re)creation of an active and vibrant civil society.[12] In particular, during the later stages of the war and shortly after the conflict, Sierra Leone experienced a mushrooming of local CSOs, CBOs (Community-Based Organizations), civic associations and home-grown youth clubs. All of these developments were accompanied by donor rhetoric about and action towards strengthening fragile states from the bottom up through grassroots involvement. Surprisingly, the increasing attention to and financial support for the Sierra Leonean civil sphere did not yield the desired results. On the contrary, interviews I conducted with CSOs, CBOs, local grassroots associations, youth groups and academics in urban and rural areas predominantly described Sierra Leone’s civil society as fragmented, lacking in power, influenced by the government, tribalized, dormant or weak. Over the course of my four-year study of the country and two extensive field research stays, it also became evident that the majority of Sierra Leone’s civil sphere lacked political influence, space and voice. Even if local CSOs benefit from funding schemes targeting advocacy work, their activities tend to train the local population (e.g. human rights education), as opposed to assist them in challenging local politics, behaviour and traditions that stand in stark contradiction to universal human rights. The fight against the Ebola crisis serves as a dreadful example of this phenomenon, with state services in the region least equipped to deal with it.[13] Instead of advocating for better public health care, civil society actors had to perform the duties the government was incapable of. These observations are further evidenced by Freedom House (2016), which recently downgraded Sierra Leone’s status from “free” (2012, 2013) to “partly free” (2014, 2015 and 2016) due to persistent problems with corruption, lack of transparency and lessening freedom of speech. In short, after more than ten years of peacebuilding, on-going development efforts and a steady increase of funds for local CSOs, Sierra Leone’s civil sphere appears to have no active political influence and voice.

Against this backdrop, the thesis highlights on the one hand why processes of depoliticization can occur in peacebuilding and development processes. In doing so, it explains how externally introduced liberal values and norms are socially and politically entrenched and reproduced over the long haul. On the other hand, the research presents lessons that can be drawn from the Sierra Leonean experience and elaborates on novel approaches towards strengthening civil spheres in fragile states.

[1] The concept of ‘fragile state’ is a highly contested term and not firmly defined academically or across development agencies. Clearly, labeling a specific country as fragile could reflect a political bias. While there is no commonly accepted global list of fragile states, there is at least a consensus on some clear-cut circumstances affecting five dimensions, namely: violence (peaceful societies); access to justice for all; effective, accountable and inclusive institutions, economic foundations; and the capacity to adapt to social, economic and environmental shocks and disasters (OECD, States of Fragility 2015 (Paris, 2015), p.13). Based on these criteria Sierra Leone is still amongst the 50 most fragile states listed by the OECD. Also, the Peace Fund currently ranks the country on place 34, scoring under the category ‘Alert’ (see:, accessed 26 June 2016).

[2] Influential literature includes for example: Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton University Press, 1993), Diamond, Larry J., “Rethinking Civil Society. Toward Democratic Consolidation” Journal of Democracy, 5:3 (1994): 4-17

[3] See for instance: Roger Mac Ginty and Oliver P Richmond, “The Local Turn in Peace Building: A Critical Agenda for Peace,” Third World Quarterly 34, no. 5 (June 2013): 763–83

[4] Tobias Debiel and Monica Sticht, Towards a New Profile? Development, Humaniatarian and Conflict-Resolution NGOs in the Age of Globalization (Duisburg, 2005),

[5] These are the latest figures available from: OECD, Aid for CSOs: Statistics Based on DAC Members’ Reporting to the Creditor Reporting System Database. (Paris, 2013), for CSOs Final for WEB.pdf., p. 4

[6] Nicola Banks, David Hulme, and Michael Edwards, “NGOs, States, and Donors Revisited: Still Too Close for Comfort?,” World Development 66 (February 2015): 707–18, p. 707

[7] James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Duke University Press, 2006). p. 91

[8] CIVICUS, State of Civil Society (Johannesburg, 2015),

[9] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2015 (Washington, 2015),, p. 4

[10] Ibid.

[11] HIIK, Conflict Barometer 2015 (Heidelberg, 2015),

[12] While funding for CSOs was scarce before the civil war (1991-2002) it increased to 26 percent of ODA (Official Development Assistance) and non-ODA aid in 2006.

[13] Lisa Denney, “Ebola Cannot Easily Be Cured but West Africa Crisis May Have Been Preventable,” The Guardian, July 8, 2014,, accessed 26 June 2016

Publications from my PhD

  • Datzberger, Simone (2016): “Civil Society as a Postcolonial Project. Challenging Normative Notions of Civil Society in post-conflict Sub-Saharan Africa”, in: Dhawan, Nikita; Fink, Elisabeth, Leinius, Johanna; Mageza-Barthel, Rirhandu (eds.): Negotiating Normativity: Postcolonial Appropriations, Contestations and Transformations, Springer US, pp. 79 – 93 – access here
  • Datzberger, Simone (2015): “Peacebuilding and the Depoliticisation of Civil Society: Sierra Leone [2002-2013]” Third World Quarterly, Issue 36 (8), pp. 1592-1609 – access here
  • Datzberger, Simone (2015): “Civil Society a Western induced idea(l)? Exploring alternative approaches in sub-Saharan African fragile states.” in: Austrian Journal of Development Studies, Issue: 31 (1) /2015, pp. 13-29 – access here
  • Datzberger, Simone (2012): “Lumpen Youth, Civil War, and Conflict Resolution. Civil Society Before and After the War in Sierra Leone.” in: Journal of Sierra Leonean Studies, Issue 2. (2), 2012, pp. 22-43 – access here