Uncivic Legacies: NGOs & Democracy Promotion in Post-Conflict Africa Winner, Best Dissertation Award, Western Political Science Association, 2020
Uncivic Legacies: NGOs and Democracy Promotion in Post-Conflict Africa addresses a question of global significance: how do societies build democracy after war? This book explores the intricate dynamics between war, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the promotion of democracy in post-conflict settings. Tasked with the difficult mission of rebuilding society and fostering democratic values after civil war, NGOs in Africa receive substantial support from international donors. However, this book sheds light on a critical oversight in both policy and academic realms: there is considerable variation in the challenges that NGOs and their leaders encounter in realizing their objectives of instilling democracy and peace in the aftermath of violent conflict.
In Uncivic Legacies, I contend that the democratic potential of post-war NGOs is significantly influenced by variation in two pivotal factors: the wartime experiences of their leaders and their relationship to the politically charged climate prevailing in the post-conflict landscape. My argument unfolds in three stages.
First, I explain how variation in exposure to contested governance during civil war shapes NGO leader behavior towards their constituents and others in society. In response to uncertainty induced by contested governance, NGO leaders become more egocentric and discriminatory as a survival strategy. This has several implications: while these behaviors may have helped NGO leaders survive and maintain their organizations during the war, it ultimately affects where and how they provide their services in the post-war context. Citizens may (rightly) perceive these NGOs as corrupt or non-inclusive in their behavior, shaping whether they will participate in their democracy promotion activities.
Secondly, I posit that the political legacy after war shapes the relationship NGOs have with the state and their potential constituents. NGOs and their reputations are not immune from the political polarization exacerbated by war. Even when they ostensibly attempt to appear neutral, they are often expected to “pick a side” resulting in politicization of these organizations and their leaders. When these organizations are perceived as partisan, they face challenges to democracy promotion when they are not seen as supporting the right actors in a given context.
Finally, taken together, the challenges that NGOs face due to their wartime experience and the political context afterwards shape when and whether citizens will engage with NGO-led democracy promotion. I underscore the fact that citizens want leaders who will include them in their networks — networks that can provide access to scarce resources and opportunities. Citizens thus reject and punish egocentric leaders, and rarely appreciate discriminatory leaders. I then argue that NGO leader behavior and citizen reactions combine to influence the ability of leaders to promote democracy in war-torn societies. Because of perceptions of NGO partisanship, discrimination, and corruption, only certain types of citizens will want to engage with democracy promotion by NGOs. This has ramifications for whether NGO-sponsored activities will result in widespread support for democratic norms and values in the post-conflict context.
To test this argument, I deploy a mixed-methods approach primarily using data from Côte d'Ivoire, a West African country that experienced a civil war from 2002-2011. Côte d'Ivoire is an ideal setting for this book because of considerable polarization along ethnic and partisan lines, subnational variation in wartime experiences, and a history of internationally supported democracy promotion. Since the end of the war, the country has stabilized and experienced remarkable economic growth, but concerns abound as to whether reconciliation and sustained peace has been achieved, especially with violence marring every election since the end of the war.
Drawing on extensive original data collected through years of fieldwork, encompassing interviews, participant observation, focus groups, surveys, experiments, and lab-in-the-field games, Uncivic Legacies questions the efficacy of relying on leaders and organizations to promote democracy in the aftermath of violent conflict.