Civil Society and Rule of Law Assistance in Fragile States: Lessons from Libya

06 May 2019   ·   Rebecca Wright

When working with civil society, donors need to be flexible, provide regular psychological and security support and advocate for official channels for civil society participation in the design of rule of law initiatives. “Civil society” is not a homogenous entity. Projects therefore need to factor in time and space for debate within civil society.

There is increasing focus on the central role that members of civil society play in ensuring the success of rule of law programming in fragile states. Members of civil society who are engaged and vigilant help to promote human rights and basic principles of justice through contributions such as monitoring, advocacy and reporting. For this reason, the organisation where I work – Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) – always undertakes rule of law projects alongside a network of civil society partners from across Libya. 

Despite an increased focus on civil society, what is still sometimes overlooked is the fact that “civil society” is not a homogenous entity. Rather, it is an umbrella term composed of individuals with different, often conflicting, political views and various levels of technical experience. Moreover, in fragile states where cycles of conflict persist and repression is widespread, these individuals are frequently scared, traumatized and living at the edge of their emotional and physical capacity.

Rule of Law assistance needs to start during active conflict already 

Unfortunately, the rule of law assistance provided to fragile states too often remains formulaic, with donors encouraging neat outputs to be achieved in relatively short periods of time. In addition, emphasis is placed on establishing security and stabilization before turning to rule of law and human rights – an approach that is all-too-evident in Libya. Working with civil society to promote justice, accountability and rule of law during periods of active conflict is, some donors have suggested (or even directly stated), a waste of time.

Admittedly, this work can be challenging, particularly if it is undertaken in a way that allows space for consultation with members of civil society who are often difficult to contact and under immense strain. But stability will never be achieved unless there is also accountability; rule of law assistance should therefore continue even during periods of conflict. This is a view that is passionately shared by our network of Libyan civil society partners.

To its credit, the German Federal Government has acknowledged that “effective crisis management is not for those who prefer quick and easy fixes”. It understands the need for flexible, long-term approaches shaped by the particular circumstances of every conflict. When creating its new policy on rule of law assistance to fragile states, the German Government may therefore want to consider the following five practical suggestions.

1. Provide regular psychological, security and self-care support to civil society organizations

Anyone who works with civil society in fragile states knows the strain that individuals are under. Every project that includes working with civil society on rule of law initiatives should therefore include specific support for civil society members around self-care and personal and data security. The German Government might even request implementers of projects in fragile states to explain how they intend to address the psychosocial and security challenges faced by civil society partners.

Any support given should be practical and tailored to the specific context involved. Our Libyan partners complain that there is too much high-level, generic advice given to them about data and personal protection. More useful are hands-on sessions, ideally designed at least in part by someone living in the relevant state.

2. Spend time identifying local civil society partners for each project 

In a country such as Libya, where local civil society partners are not always easy to identify and ongoing conflict makes communication difficult, it is tempting for external donors to rely on the same core of local partners. However, in order to encourage a culture of human rights and rule of law that permeates diverse communities across the country, it is essential that consistent, ongoing efforts are made to identify new civil society partners. Time needs to be spent at the outset of every rule of law initiative mapping local contacts and asking individuals from different communities on the ground to identify and vouch for the people who are advocating for justice, particularly within or for marginalized groups (including women, migrants and ethnic minorities). It is worth looking regularly at local online media outlets and social media groups in order to keep track of emerging civil society actors – particularly amongst the younger generations.

3. Be creative and responsive in building civil society networks

The space for civil society in fragile states generally shrinks as instability and conflict increases. In order to provide support and security to civil society actors it is critical that local networks are created and maintained. Generally, it is better to encourage multiple forms of network building including through WhatsApp, Facebook, face-to-face meetings and joint report writing mediated by an external body. Both analogue and digital methods of communication are increasingly important for civil society actors operating in countries with repressive and unstable regimes. Donors providing support to fragile states should therefore ensure that every effort is made to protect and promote analogue and digital freedom of speech. 

4. Urge fragile states receiving support to protect individuals and provide official space for civil society input

Any support provided directly to fragile states should be conditional on the state promoting and protecting the rights of individual citizens working on rule of law initiatives. In addition, the state should be encouraged to create official channels for civil society participation in government rule of law and transitional justice activities. This type of official role for civil society has been advocated by Pablo de Greiff. Allowing for the participation and consultation of the persons directly affected by governmental policies improves the quality of those policies. In addition, it gives a boost to civil society actors who know that their views, and those of their community, are being heard.

5. Factor in time for debate, reflection and reassessment 

Whenever a diverse range of civil society actors work together on a project, there will be political and personal disagreement. In fragile countries undermined by political tensions, it is important to create rule of law projects that allow space for disagreement. This approach can make project planning and implementation less linear and it can take longer to achieve tangible results. However, if civil society actors do not feel they have been able to express their views, and if they do not have the opportunity to reach a consensus and see issues from another community’s perspective, projects are less likely to be effective. It is important that at least one person in a rule of law project team is skilled at negotiation and can guide a fractured debate to some kind of resolution. This is not an easy task but it can reap significant rewards.

Another key element of rule of law projects is ensuring there is an inbuilt period for reflection and, possibly, reassessment of the project design. Some donors regard reassessment and the reworking of a project as failure. Whilst it is important to demonstrate progression in any project, and whilst rigorous and evidence-based reflection is required, a flexible approach from donors will generally result in more successful rule of law interventions.

Be flexible and properly support immensely courageous individuals 

Any rule of law assistance that truly places civil society participation at its heart will need to be flexible and creative. The people designing and delivering the assistance should make every effort to support civil society members as individuals – individuals who are immensely courageous but who could conduct their work more effectively if they felt safer, supported by a network and properly consulted.

Zivilgesellschaft English Partner Kommunikation Rechtsstaatsförderung

Rebecca Wright

Dr. Rebecca Wright is Head of Accountability and Transitional Justice at Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL), a Libyan-London NGO funded, among other donors, by the German Federal Foreign Office.