Agents for Change: Civil Society Roles in Preventing War & Building Peace

Catherine Barnes


What roles and functions can civil society play in preventing war and building peace? This paper provides an in-depth review of these roles and functions. It also provides an overview of the key challenges facing the wider field of civil society working for peace.

This paper is based on the experiences and discussions undertaken through the first three years of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). It builds on the outcomes of regional conferences and action agendas, the global conference ‘From Reaction to Prevention: Civil Society Forging Partnerships to Prevent Violent Conflict and Build Peace’ that took place at the United Nations headquarters in New York in July 2005 and the Global Action Agenda. Furthermore it also advances on the publication People Building- Successful stories of civil society that was published in July 2005. Lastly, it benefits from the insights and practical experiences of the regional initiators of the Global Partnership.

Key findings:

  • Why civil society should be involved in working with conflict: The changing nature of war compels civil society to act. The use of unconventional tactics by warring parties has dramatically increased the costs of conflict for ordinary people. Non-combatant civilians are the main targets of violence and civilian deaths are the vast majority of all casualties. These have compelled civil society actors to use their energy and creativity to find alternatives to violence, to end wars, and prevent them from starting or reoccurring. Civil society therefore acts as a force for people-centered security and contributes depth and durability to peacebuilding.
  • Agents for change: key functions of civil society peacebuilding: Civil society responds to conflict in numerous ways. While often part of the forces supporting war, it is also one of the powerful forces promoting peace. Eight main functions of civil society peacebuilding identified are: waging conflict constructively; conflict embraced as a way of working; shifting conflict attitudes: the power to re-frame and change perceptions; envisioning a better future: power to identify, to analyse and to propose; mobilizing constituencies for peace: generating support and applying pressure; promoting security: power to reduce violence and promote stability; making peace: helping to reach agreement; ‘pragmatic peace’: community-level peacemaking; and transforming the causes and consequences of conflict.
  • Partnerships for peace: The primary responsibility for conflict prevention rests with national governments and other local actors. Greater ownership is likely to result in a more legitimate process and sustainable outcomes. The primary role of outsiders is to create spaces and support inclusive processes that enable those directly involved to make decisions about the specific arrangements for addressing the causes of conflict. Outsiders should help to build on the capacities that exist and avoid actions that displace and undermine homegrown initiatives or that promote short-term objectives at the expense of long-term prevention. Partnerships for peace may be the antidote to systems and networks sustaining war. To achieve this potential, we need to acknowledge the legitimacy of CSOs in peace and security matters and to strengthen official recognition of their roles in the conflict prevention partnership.


Barnes, C. (2006). Agents for Change: Civil Society Roles in Preventing War & Building Peace. Issue Paper No. 2. The Hague: Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict