Peacebuilding, Linearity, and Civil Society

Kayla Tyler


Peacebuilding is a contested term. So, too, is peace. Ricigliano offers the following definition; “Peace is a state of human existence characterized by sustainable levels of human development and healthy processes of societal change” [1]. Peacebuilding is therefore any activity that promotes or facilitates that state of human existence, and peacebuilders are the contributing actors. Post-conflict reconstruction is a process familiar to peacebuilders from diverse fields.  Peacebuilding is regularly criticized for acting on a particular construction of the world; peacebuilding discourses frame social life as a “technical problem,” and practitioners “devise mechanisms and procedures to make societies fit a preexisting model” [2]. Ricigliano describes this teleological thinking as linear, and sees it as the chief impediment to productive peacebuilding. He suggests a paradigm shift to a systems approach, in which peace writ large is pursued by allowing society—a system—to guide practitioners, enabling them to locate opportunities and nurture constructive change [3]. The purpose of this paper is to apply Ricigliano’s critique of linear peacebuilding to reductive, linear presentations of civil society. After briefly dissecting linear peacebuilding, this paper will consider the systemic alternative presented by Ricigliano, examine discourse on civil society in peacebuilding literature, and utilize a case study of informal civil society networks to promote a flexible definition of the concept before discussing implications for emerging practitioners.


Peacebuilding can be defined as an integrated field, but can also be identified as distinct from development and other sectors. Assorted definitions of peacebuilding describe it as: “activities undertaken…to reassemble the foundations of peace and provide the tools for building…something that is more than just the absence of war” [4]; a “range of measures targeted to reduce…conflict by strengthening national capacities…for conflict management, and to lay the foundation for sustainable peace and development” [5]; and as the production of resilient societies through institution building, sustained international support, and the incorporation of civil society, the private sector, and other actors in national decisions [6]. This paper adopts the definition supplied by Ricigliano [7], so that peacebuilding encompasses all activities that contribute to human security and constructive societal change.  

Peacebuilding actors articulate goals such as ending poverty, promoting justice, and enhancing security, but these aims have been pursued inefficiently. Development, in particular, is a peacebuilding sector whose modest returns have prompted significant condemnation. While the trillions of dollars invested in international aid since the close of World War II has led to the virtual elimination of measles, a fall in infant mortality, and a global increase in life expectancy [8], food availability has fallen in recent years and widespread poverty is persistent [9]. Developmental failures have been attributed to the hubristic dismissal of practical knowledge in favor of high-modernist ideology, or schematic social order [10]. Development practices have been further criticized for pursuing rigid goals instead of seeking solutions to the local problems of the poor; development, some argue, has been strangled by utopian objectives that mask the complexities of the world’s troubles [11].

Critics note that in addition to delivering disappointing outcomes, many peacebuilding initiatives are problematically rooted in Western concepts of liberal peace. The liberal peacebuilding framework promotes democracy, free markets, neoliberal development, and other constructs originating in the West; the paradigm has served as the “conceptual and ideological core of international peacebuilding” for decades [12]. Consequentially, the critique of liberal peace is prolific throughout conflict literature. Scholars have reached a general consensus that liberal peace valorizes Western power and knowledge; liberal peacebuilding is interpreted as a neocolonial pursuit, in which Western visions of statehood are imposed upon post-conflict nations. Though “sociopolitical change is ideally nurtured by a legitimizing force—the people,” people often “do not have the opportunity to articulate their wants and needs. They lack control over their own futures, destinies and lives” [13]. Liberal peace has thus become associated with linear processes that prevent constituents from “being an organic part of their own peace” [14]. One response to liberal, linear peacebuilding has been the promotion of systemic peacebuilding; this concept is explored in the next section.

Systemic Peacebuilding

Linear peacebuilding fails to recognize that human societies are complex, adaptive systems; individual responses to and the outcome of any given change cannot be predicted. Control over the system and the peacebuilding process is therefore an illusion. In contrast to linear peacebuilding, a systemic approach understands that the “existing power of a system” can be harnessed to “magnify the impact of funds” dedicated to peacebuilding [15]. Ricigliano argues that peacebuilders need a collective approach, whereby the impact of peacebuilding could exceed the sum of individual projects [16]. The operational assumption that isolated, micro-level changes would “add up” has not resulted in lasting peace [17]. Ricigliano thus characterizes the linear approach to peacebuilding as follows:

 “Traditional planning models identify a disliked symptom or problem to be fixed, design a solution, set up contracting procedures that specify the problem and the remedial action, and set out accountability mechanisms to ensure that the contractor implements the program as designed and achieves success as measured by predetermined benchmarks” [18].

Ricigliano offers his SAT model—titled after structural, attitudinal, and transactional societal domains—as a viable alternative to linear, solution-based peacebuilding. Essentially, he argues that systemic change (or peace writ large) is the collective result of effective adjustments to the three identified domains in society. Peacebuilders thus must concentrate their efforts on nurturing the societal system to produce: (1) distributive structures and institutions; (2) cooperative values, norms, beliefs, and relations; and (3) constructive processes for conflict management and problem solving [19]. This third component—the transactional domain—is identified as a catalyst for action at the structural and attitudinal levels. A crucial component of Ricigliano’s framework is his endorsement of local assessment:

“Planning must start with an assessment of the system that exists in the particular region, country, or village in question. Based on that holistic picture, planning needs to start from the assumption that because systems change best when they change themselves, the best peacebuilders can do (both from within and outside a particular social context) is to nurture change from within the system that best serves the values of those in the system” [20].

By listening to the system and identifying its existing energy sources, peacebuilders can plan in partnership with the system rather than in opposition to it. Ricigliano offers practitioners and students an approach to peacebuilding that rejects linear, fixed models, but certain components of his framework warrant further review.

Ricigliano divides peacebuilding into the three domains for which his framework is named. Transactional peacebuilding such as negotiation and other relational processes is identified as a catalyst for peacebuilding dedicated to adjusting individual and group perceptions (the attitudinal domain) and transforming key institutions and systems (the structural domain). Though Ricigliano repeatedly emphasizes the importance of being guided by the existing system rather than imposing “solutions” upon it, he lists the “fundamental structures” of societies, characterizing each as serving the function of satisfying basic human needs [21]. Along with governance, security, economy, rule of law, social services, and natural resources, Ricigliano lists media and civil society organizations as fundamental to the satisfaction of human needs. The structures he includes in the SAT framework are a resounding echo of the liberal peace paradigm, and may even undermine his espoused rejection of liberal peacebuilding. Of principle concern to the author, however, is his characterization of civil society as “organizations,” particularly as institutions that “allow people to understand their environment and organize with others in light of it” [22]. Ricigliano is largely silent on the role of civil society in peacebuilding, but this trace example offers a reflection of existing assumptions of what, exactly, constitutes civil society. The next section will elaborate upon discourse on civil society and highlight the linear characterization promoted by peacebuilding literature.

Civil Society

Civil society is considered a necessary ingredient for democratic governance: a guiding concept for contemporary peacebuilding [23]. Governance is a term used to describe the “manner in which the affairs of a state, civil society, and its structures are managed,” encompassing social matters such as political authority, security, welfare, and the environment [24]. Democratic governance offers a framework for peacebuilding action in post-conflict states; the concept “refers to the regulation of social matters…according to the principles of democracy, including respect for human rights and the rule of law, justice and equity, equality and political position and legitimacy and accountability” [25]. The prescriptive nature of democratic governance thus encourages state conformity to prevailing standards in the international system, specifically liberal market democracy [26]. Democratic governance is a hallmark concept within linear peacebuilding, operating on the assumption that a specific governance structure can produce peaceful conditions in a post-conflict state. As an ingredient of democratic governance, civil society is itself tarnished by linearity.

No formal definition has been assigned to civil society, enabling the concept to “be all things to all people” [27]. Despite this interpretive flexibility, civil society is regularly framed as occurring in institutions and other formalized spaces. Spurk offers the following definition:

“Civil society is a sphere of voluntary action that is distinct from the state, political, private, and economic spheres. It consists of a large and diverse set of voluntary organizations…that are autonomously organized, and interact in the public sphere. Thus, civil society is independent from the state and the political sphere, but it is oriented toward and interacts closely with them” [28].

By utilizing the word “organizations,” this definition positions civil society within formal spaces and promotes a specific vision of civil society. If linear thinking is defined as “the export and establishment of certain institutional frameworks” [29], then identifying civil society strictly within formal organizations is linear, reductive, and problematic. In all likelihood, Spurk intended to offer a nuanced definition of civil society; he integrated language associated with systemic, nonlinear thinking, such as "sphere," "autonomously," and "diverse" [30]. He does, however, still position civil society within organizations, and in that way continues a tradition of linear discourse on civil society.

Scholars regularly tether civil society to formal spaces. In a recent examination of the role of civil society in the democratization of Ukraine, Way defined civil society as the “network of voluntary and autonomous organizations and institutions that exist outside the state, market, and family” [31]. Brahm described the fate of civil society as linked to transitional justice, identifying civil society organizations as the teleological objective for civil society development [32]. In their study of the relationship between political bureaucracy and disruptive protests, Cornell and Grimes used organizational presence and influence to measure the strength of civil society [33]. Scholars regularly substitute ‘civil society organizations’ for the more inclusive term, civil society, or present non-governmental organizations as synonymous with civil society.

Civil society literature presents a mosaic. Although many observers confine their understanding of civil society to the activities of non-governmental organizations and formal institutions, such a position is, thankfully, countered by more inclusive voices. The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict—a civil society network dedicated to conflict prevention and peacebuilding—incorporates civil society organizations, networks, associations, and other actors in its work [34]. While the defining members of GPPAC are civil society organizations, the network recognizes other actors, associations, and groups as both relevant and legitimate contributors to both civil society and peacebuilding. The London School of Economics offers the following nondiscriminatory definition of civil society:

“Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development nongovernmental organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups” [35].

The above definition embraces nuance, and recognizes that civil society is a malleable space. Spurk spoke of intersecting spheres, but framed civil society as formal and distinct from public and private arenas [36]. This construction undervalues civil society actors operating in nonlinear fashion, such as members of informal civil society networks. The next section will consider the impact of informal civil society networks in China and Vietnam, signifying the need for peacebuilding discourses to abandon preconceived notions of civil society as an institutionalized and distinct public arena.

Informal Civil Society

Civil society is formless; local agents provide its shape. This trait is uncomfortable for scholars and peacebuilding agents who identify civil society solely within formal institutions [37]. Activists, NGO leaders, journalists, and academics have brought about significant social change in China and Vietnam [38], but both countries are painted as having “weak civil society” due to the “predominance of the party and state in social and political affairs” [39]. The unfamiliar shape of civil society in both countries can be difficult to digest through the linear lens; civil society in China and Vietnam features blurred boundaries between sectors, and is frequently decentralized and unregistered [40]. Linear portraits of civil society in China and Vietnam fail to recognize civil society actors and activities in both countries because they operate on a conception of civil society as existing within “independent organizations” that are both formal and fully autonomous from the state [41]. Once these constructs are laid aside and informal networks are recognized as legitimate, a more complex picture of civil society begins to emerge.

Civil Society Networks in China and Vietnam contributes to this more complex picture [42]. The product of two decades of research and lived experience in both countries, the book reflects the inadequacy of linear constructions of civil society as formal, confined, and predetermined. Four informal civil society networks—two from each country—provide the basis of the author’s analysis, which is grounded with an understanding of civil society as “a process of collective action that occurs and develops when organizations and individuals join together to influence power and promote positive, non-violent social change” [43]. Readers will note that this definition, much like that of the London School of Economics [44], does not restrict civil society to specific infrastructural forms. Civil society is here liberated to assume its own shape. The remainder of this section will examine two of the four civil society networks studied by Wells-Dang [45]: an unnamed virtual network of environmental activists based in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the China Rivers Network.

Reunification Park is the largest public area in Vietnam’s crowded capital, Hanoi. Completed in 1961, the park is an isolated fragment of remaining green space in the city. In the summer of 2007, a civil society network came together to advocate for the park’s preservation in response to a looming development project, to include a car park, shopping area, theater, and nightclub. Bolstered by the involvement of a Canadian NGO—Health Bridge—and the Vietnam Urban Planning Association, the informal network stirred enough public outrage to terminate the redevelopment plan. In 2009, the network prevented the building of a resort hotel on Reunification Park space; both campaigns succeeded without the network adopting a formal name, legal identity, or even internal membership. Participants in the network include leaders and members of professional associations, journalists, and advocacy organizations; the network is diverse in its participants’ proximity to government authorities and other officials. Some participants identify as network members, while others do not. This loose, informal structure was not a hindrance to the network’s impact; connected virtually through online platforms, network participants engaged in embedded advocacy to leverage influence over government decision makers either directly or through public opinion. The 2009 hotel development project was canceled by the order of the Primer Minister. The network serves as living proof that citizens have the “political space to influence policy” in Vietnam [46]; the virtual, unnamed network of activists is thus a valid breed of civil society.

The China Rivers Network began with a combination of petitions, lobbying, and media pressure against the planned construction of 13 dams on the Nu River. The network was brought together by their shared opposition to the project, and in the years since has repeatedly asserted the rights of citizens to “participate in the policy-making process” [47]. Leading members—each employed by environmental NGOs—formalized the association as the China Rivers Network in 2004, but the group later returned to an informal structure, finding this most conducive to their advocacy goals. Since ceasing formal operations, the rivers network no longer uses its name, instead utilizing the influence of participating members in coordinated strategies for environmental activism. Members leverage their multiple identities to engage the existing political system, advocating through media, lobbying, or community organizing all while maintaining an ambiguous relationship with government officials. Plans for a 2009 dam were suspended after the network put forth an anonymous petition, signed by individual environmentalists and scientists [48]. Network members are now expanding their scope, considering the impact of Chinese dams throughout Southeast Asia. The rivers network has largely benefited from an informal structure, and is credited with achieving incremental political change in China, as the country moves toward a “more open decision-making process on dam construction” [49]. Much like the virtual network in Hanoi, the rivers network is a testament to the importance of embracing malleable frameworks for civil society.


Systemic peacebuilding engages existing energies of a system rather than imposing linear solutions upon post-conflict societies [50]. If practitioners are willing to embrace this paradigm, then they must also be willing to abandon preconceived notions of civil society as formal, institutionalized, and planned. If peacebuilders operate on such assumptions, they will be ill equipped to recognize civil society’s energies in their organic forms, or perhaps unwilling to supply the funding that informal networks require for growth. This paper has reviewed linear peacebuilding, considered a systemic approach as an alternative, critically examined contemporary discourse on civil society, and identified informal civil society networks as operational proof that civil society is, in fact, formless, negotiable, and locally determined. To be cognizant of lingering assumptions about civil society is a difficult task; a champion of local assessment and learning, Ricigliano fell victim to the construction of civil society as organized in formal spaces [51]. A participant of the Hanoi virtual network described their cooperative as a “seed” that could “inspire and inform other activism” [52]. Civil society networks are ever-evolving systems, whose output and impact cannot be predicted. This is also true of peacebuilding literature and scholarship. Perhaps this seed—or one like it—can inspire another incremental change away from linear discourse with regards to civil society.


[1] Robert Ricigliano, Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding, (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), 15. <>.

[2] Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 52.


[3] Ricigliano, 61.

[4] Ricigliano, op. cit.

[5] United Nations, “UN Peacebuilding: An Orientation,” (2010).


[6] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report,” (2012).


[7] Ricigliano, op. cit.

[8] William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 241-242.


[9] Escobar, 213.

[10] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 5-6.


[11] Easterly, 367.

[12] Joakim Öjendal and Sivhouch Ou, “The ‘Local Turn’ Saving Liberal Peacebuilding? Unpacking Virtual Peace in Cambodia,” Third World Quarterly. 36, 5, (May 2015), p. 929.


[13] Simone Datzberger, “Peacebuilding and the De-politicization of Civil Society: Sierra Leone 2002-2013,” Third World Quarterly. 36, 8, (August 2015), p. 1993.


[14] Öjendal and Ou, 930.

[15] Ricigliano, 140-146.

[16] Ricigliano, 7.

[17] Ricigliano, 69.

[18] Ricigliano, 58-59.

[19] Ricigliano, 35-39.

[20] Ricigliano, 63.

[21] Ricigliano, 42-59.

[22] Ricigliano, 43.

[23] Carolyn Stephenson, “Nongovermental Organizations (NGOs),” Beyond Intractability. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, eds. (Boulder: University of Colorado, 2005).


[24] Rama Mani and Jana Krause, “Democratic Governance,” in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: A Lexicon. Pp. 105-122. Vincent Chetail, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 107.

< >.

[25] Mani and Krause, 105.

[26] Roland Paris, “International Peacebuilding and the Mission Civilsatrice,” Review of International Studies. 28, 4, (2002), p. 638. <>.

[27] Marlies Glasius, David Lewis, and Hakan Seekinelgin, eds. Exploring Civil Society: Political and Cultural Contexts, (New York: Routledge, 2004), 3.


[28] Cristoph Spurk, “Understanding Civil Society,” in Civil Society and Peacebuilding: A Critical Assessment. Pp. 3-27. Thania Paffenholz, ed. (Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2010), 8-9. <>.

[29] David Chandler, “Peacebuilding and the Politics of Non-Linearity: Rethinking ‘Hidden’ Agency and ‘Resistance’,” Peacebuilding. 1, 1, (2013), p. 17.


[30] Spurk, op. cit.

[31] Lucan Way, “The Maidan and Beyond: Civil Society and Democratization,” Journal of Democracy. 25, 3, (July 2014), p. 36. < >.

[32] Eric Brahm, “Transitional Justice, Civil Society, and the Development of the Rule of Law in Post-Conflict Societies,” in The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law. 9, 4, (August 2007). < >.

[33] Agnes Cornell and Marcia Grimes, “Institutions as Incentives for Civic Action: Bureaucratic Structures, Civil Society, and Disruptive Protests,” in The Journal of Politics.77, 3, (July 2015). < >.

[34] Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, “What is GPPAC?”  


[35] London School of Economics, “Definition of Civil Society,” Centre for Civil Society. <http://www.centroedelstein. org. br/PDF/Report/ccs_london.htm>.

[36] Spurk, op. cit.

[37] For an example of this perspective, see World Bank, “Defining Civil Society,”  The World Bank. <>.

[38] Andrew Wells-Dang, Civil Society Networks in China and Vietnam: Informal Pathbreakers in Health and the Environment, (New York: Palgrave Macmillon, 2012), 2.


[39] Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce, Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration, (Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2001), 123. <>.

[40] Quisha Ma, Non-Governmental Organizations in Contemporary China: Paving the Way to Civil Society?, (New York, Routledge, 2006), 108-135.


[41] Wells-Dang, 4.

[42] Wells-Dang, op. cit.

[43] Wells-Dang, 24.

[44] London School of Economics, op. cit.

[45] Wells-Dang, op. cit.

[46] Wells-Dang, 106-134.

[47] Wells-Dang, 168.

[48] Wells-Dang, 141-159.

[49] Wells-Dang, 168.

[50] Ricigliano, op. cit.

[51] Ricigliano, 43.

[52] Wells-Dang, 128.