The dynamics of social movements in fragile and conflict-affected states

This literature review assesses the available academic and policy-oriented literature on social movements in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. It examines who becomes involved in collective action and why, the barriers to mobilisation and, where social movements do emerge, how these are able to sustain mobilisation and broaden their membership base to reflect the interests of the wider community. Evidence from this review suggests the importance of considering the interplay of movement activity and state stability, and of taking into account existing state-society relationships. Donors could focus on creating a supportive environment for social movements.

The term ‘fragility’ can be and is applied to a large number of very different states, and so the countries covered in this review reflect a range of governance situations. Social movements are defined as membership organisations that can draw on a critical mass of supporters who are willing to make public displays of support for the movement’s aims. Social movements display a degree of politicisation and seek to change or defend the status quo. They have generally emerged organically, without financial or other support from external donors.

Depending on the available avenues for participation and levels of state responsiveness to society’s demands, social movement activism can have very different impacts on stability.

  • In more stable, democratic countries, relationships between state and society, and the institutions of the state that are in place, allow for responsiveness to movement demands. In these situations, there will be reasonably wide institutionalised channels for participation through which movements can express demands and through which the state can respond.
  • In some other contexts there is very little breadth in state-society relationships, although there are some channels of participation, for example, operating through the ruling party, social programmes or organised clientelistic mechanisms. Such states are much more fragile than they appear. In these situations, movements that are not initially violent may become so because the state does not respond to their demands, and/or responds to peaceful protest with violence.
  • Some states and state-society arrangements are characterised by the existence of few channels of participation, few rents to share (or little capacity to distribute any rents that may exist) and perhaps also authoritarian rule. Such states and state-society arrangements are even more likely to become unstable in the face of mobilisation.

Social movements have the potential to democratise the state and foster a sense of citizenship amongst movement members. Nevertheless, western aid agencies have not historically paid social movements a great deal of attention. Reasons for this include the unpredictable nature of social movement organising, their often overt politicisation, and their tendency to engage in extra-legal activity. Donor financial support of social movements may raise fears of cooption or loss of autonomy; inadvertently create competition around resources; and trigger certain types of behaviour amongst movements, who begin to respond more to donor demands than members’ interests and needs.

Donors considering providing direct or indirect support to social movements need to assess likely state responses to social mobilisation. Donors need to weigh their concerns for stability alongside their aims to promote positive social and political change. They could consider focusing on creating a supportive environment for movements, by:

  • Working with governments to avoid the criminalisation of all protest
  • Helping to support a more accepting public sphere where different views can be expressed
  • Promoting avenues for state-society engagement early on at times of peace building
  • Supporting the media to investigate and report human rights abuses to maintain mobilisation and draw in support from likeminded movements elsewhere
  • Supporting social movement members and leaders to use new and old media effectively.
  • Encouraging and providing specific support for women’s participation and leadership in social movements
  • Supporting movements to improve communications beyond capital cities, including by translating key messages into languages and formats that are accessible to less well-educated groups
  • Prioritising rights education, and promoting understanding of the judiciary, so that people can recognise injustice and be aware of how to seek redress collectively.

Suggested citation

Earle, L. (2011). Literature Review on the Dynamics of Social Movements in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States (GSDRC  Issues Paper).  Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.