Small Wars Journal

Civil Society and Counterinsurgency

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 9:48am

Civil Society and Counterinsurgency

by A. Lawrence Chickering

Download the Full Article: Civil Society and Counterinsurgency

Since the end of the Cold War—and especially since 9/11—civil society has become an important potential strategic instrument for both foreign and national security policy. This is obvious from the logic of the new challenges that have appeared from the "weak states" that have become the new priorities for policy. Governments from Pakistan to Egypt are weak because they do not control—or command allegiance from—their largely independent, tribal societies, and they lack the capacity to provide effective leadership for change. The organizations that have an important role to play in influencing these societies are civil society organizations (CSOs), and they need to become active in order to promote significant change.

Download the Full Article: Civil Society and Counterinsurgency

A. Lawrence Chickering is a social entrepreneur and writer who designs and implements civil society strategies in public policy. He is founder and President of Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful program for promoting girls' education and empowering traditional communities by reforming government schools, partnering with the government of the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India. Before that, he founded the International Center for Economic Growth, which was headquartered in Panama and played a major role in promoting economic reform in more than fifty countries over ten years.

Editor's Note: This article first debuted in SWJ Vol 6, Issue 10.

About the Author(s)

A. Lawrence Chickering is a social entrepreneur and writer who designs and implements civil society strategies in public policy.  He is founder and President of Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful program for promoting girls’ education and empowering traditional communities by reforming government schools, partnering with the government of the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India.  He has concentrated his recent writing on the uses of civil society in foreign policy and, more specifically, in counterinsurgency warfare.  He is coauthor of Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (2006).  His other, great interest is conflict management and the search for a transpartisan politics.  He has written two books on that subject: Beyond Left and Right (1993) and (with James S. Turner) Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life (2008).  He is a regular contributor to the SWJ.


Lawrence Chickering

Mon, 11/22/2010 - 1:28pm

You keep repeating that all interactions -- governments with NGOs, NGOs with indigenous people, donors with NGOs -- are inherently stained by efforts by the party in the stronger position to impose its will on the weaker party. You suggest that it is almost a conceptual mistake to imagine a stronger party that wants -- as its agenda -- to empower other parties to "chart their own course". This may be true in many cases. It may even be true in the great majority of cases. But it is not true in many others; and since funding is going to continue -- it is impossible to imagine it will simply cease, no matter how much you may wish for that -it is important to fight for a civil society strategy that will ultimately reduce the need for (perhaps you would prefer "reduce policymakers' perception of the need for") military intervention and will expand possibilities for people to "chart their own course".

The extent to which grantees maintain independence from funders, private or public, is highly debatable. Trends, fashions, preferences and whims in the funding community often have far more influence on aid programs than the needs of the intended recipients of the aid.

Government funding of NGOs is not necessarily a bad thing, but everyone in the picture, down to those the aid is intended to benefit, must be aware that government does so for its own purposes and in pursuit of its own interests, which may or may not be shared by those in the country of destination. I'm not sure we want to see the NGO community absorbed as one more instrument of government policy.

Research and development are never bad things, but again the agendas will always be with us. The first thing to fond out is who is doing the research and who is funding it... all too often the conclusions are determined before the research begins!

I confess that I haven't seen too many NGOs working miracles in tribal areas, though I've seen some tribal people, including those I live among, work some miracles on their own, when they insist on (and fight for) the right to chart their own course.

Lawrence Chickering

Sun, 11/21/2010 - 3:41am

Leadership at the top of the government -- leadership that understands the central importance of empowerment and promotes that central value, as described in past statements here. Governments are already the main funders of many NGOs. They maintain their independence in the same way that all kinds of grantees maintain their independence from private funders.

I don't begin to know what works best where. I have seen my program, Educate Girls Globally (EGG), do wondrous things in very tribal cultures -- without ever encountering opposition. The great missing piece, in my view, is commitment to a research and development program that would produce far more information than anyone has now about how to design and implement a really effective civil society strategy.

Leadership at the top of the civil society/NGO community, or leadership at the top of government?

I think there are some valid arguments for sustaining a separation of powers, and thus for avoiding a situation where government seeks to control or direct NGOs. Certainly coordination is needed, but would it be advantageeous to see NGOs become another arm of government? If government becomes a major source or the primary source of NGO funding, will these still be "non government" organizations?

I personally think NGOs will work most effectively in what might be called "preventive COIN" situations, where areas are under stress and vulnerable to insurgency, but not in an active state of insurgency. Our current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is less pure COIN than the COIN phase of regime change, with conflict triggered less by dissatisfaction with existing government than by resistance to foreign intervention and imposition. In this environment it's easy for even well managed NGO efforts to suffer a legitimacy deficit caused by identification with the aggressor/occupier or its proxy government.

Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 11/20/2010 - 8:19pm

In thinking about an issue like this, it is useful to separate what should happen from what will happen. In looking for better policies, it is easy to flirt with the idea of abolishing the whole thing and then starting over. It is not going to happen. My sense is that the best way forward is to make a commitment to serious research and experimentation with civil society models. While we spend billions on researching new weapons, civil society initiatives are new forms of weapons, and we need to spend money researching them.

The other thing that is needed is senior foreign policy leadership committed to civil society action. As I have argued repeatedly, the foreign policy community needs to expand its field of vision to include civil society. Without serious leadership at the top, it is hard to feel confident that any positive change will happen.

I guess that leaves us with this question: how then does one develop a civil society strategy that avoids these pitfalls?

I have no very good answer, but I strongly suspect that large-scale funding flowing from the US Government to NGOs is not the answer. Possibly I am overly cynical, but experience suggests that the winner of the funding rat race is all too often a rat.

Lawrence Chickering

Thu, 11/18/2010 - 12:18pm


I agree with you completely. I am very distressed by much of what is being done in the name of a "civil society strategy". When you say that true empowerment needs to start with communities' own reflections of where they are and where they want to go, that is exactly what EGG does. That approach means there will be different outcomes in many different places -- which is fine. How could one establish such a regime across all civil society activity? I am working on that very question, which is partly substantive (what should the oversight mechanism look like) and partly political (how to get there). At the moment, I am in the middle of the stream.


Mon, 11/15/2010 - 10:13pm


I suspect that there are other distinctions that are at least as important as instrumental vs substantive change. High on the list would be the distinction between changes where the direction and instruments of change are externally driven vs those internally driven. Of course if we rely on internal impetus, we have to accept that the changes and instruments may not be those we would like to see... but is any other course really consistent with the desire for empowerment?

I suspect that any true program of empowerment must begin with a community's own perception of its needs, challenges, and desires: the idea of outsiders arriving and telling a community how <i>they</i> plan to produce empowerment seems... well, less than empowering. In this sense NGOs face real limitations. Many enter the field with pre-selected areas of focus, and their primary accountability to their funders means they have to stick with the focus areas that the funders agreed to support. This can make it difficult for NGOs to adjust their programs to fit a community's own perceptions of its needs. Strategies for empowerment must necessarily vary from community to community; there will not be a "one size fits all" solution. The donor-driven and program-specific nature of many NGOs makes it difficult for them to adjust in this way.

If some NGOs empower and some do not, who sorts out the one from the other? All of them claim to empower, of course... if Government is to adapt an NGO-focused strategy there have to be fairly strict standards for reporting, accountability, and evaluation, areas where the NGO community has in the past been less than rigorous.

Are we merely trying to defeat the Taliban? t seems to me that over the years the mission has crept from defeating, disrupting, and denying sanctuary to AQ to defeating the Taliban to a point where it now seems to be about reshaping Afghan governance and even Afghan society. Given the potential complications of that sort of mission creep it seems imperative that at every step we ask the "must we, should we, can we" question sequence before going in any deeper. I'm not at all sure that we've done that, or at least doen it with any degree of honesty.

When we first entered Afghanistan I worried about punching a tar baby. Now it it seems that we've punched it with each hand, kicked it with each foot, and we're winding up to finish it off with a head butt.

Lawrence Chickering

Mon, 11/15/2010 - 5:05am


The change implicitly called for in the quote is instrumental, not substantive. It is a change toward empowerment and engagement (with the government). A change in process may or may not imply a change in substance: the change we want is to empower them to decide; whether they change the substance or not is up to them -- it is not up to us.

That is what I think CSOs should be promoting. When they are pushing their own agendas, they are not serving COIN. I agree that a lot of them do that, and I think high priority should be given to changing that. I do not favor a civil society strategy in which CSOs are pursuing their own agendas. Besides the problem of their own agendas, I have heard many anecdotes of provincial reconstruction teams doing their own agenda because they have received woefully inadequate training on processes that empower Afghans. Especially military PRTs have no training or experience doing many things they are called on to do, and by default they do what they do because they don't know anything else. The need for change in this area is very great.

I agree that an important reason people support the insurgency in Afghanistan is "reflexive resistance to foreign presence", and I agree (returning to the point in the last graf) that disempowering CSO action can and -- I would say often -- empowers the insurgents.

Your question about whether the Afghan mission is wise resource allocation is too big to consider here. However, I would say definitely that pursuing the wrong civil society strategy is hurting COIN; and I agree -- and have argued often -- that much of what are doing to "help" is very expensive and very harmful.

What are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? That is easy: we are trying to defeat the Taliban. And the way to do that, I believe, is through a strategy that empowers and engages Afghans to build the kind of society they want.


Poetic license may at times reveal things that would otherwise not be said... though perhaps this is not one of those times.

I got the impression that change was expected and demanded from the paragraph I cited above, which seems to state quite explicitly that if governments cannot implement the changes we desire, NGOs should be deployed to do it for them. Possibly I read it wrong.

I have no objection to change, or empowerment. I do think that it is most effective when local communities decide for themselves what they want to change and how, and outside entities assist them in achieving the changes they want. This is difficult to do in an NGO-based strategy, because NGOs are generally committed to their own programs, which they have already sold to their funders, and are often unable to respond to the actual perceived needs of the community. I have a hard time seeing how we can avoid seeing an NGO-based development or reconstruction program devolve into donor-driven aid, the pitfalls of which we've already discussed.

My comments on the need to avoid the reflexive assumption that insurgency must be countered referred to insurgency in general, rather than to the specific insurgency in Afghanistan. I've no illusions about the nature of that insurgency... but we must also consider the possibility that much of the local impetus supporting that insurgency may be driven less by support for its objectives than by reflexive resistance to foreign presence and interference. To the extent that this is the case, our presence, and our desire for change, may actually empower the insurgents in some cases.

While it is certainly admirable for private groups to raise private funds and pursue goals like the global empowerment of women and the general improvement of living conditions in the marginalized areas of the world, I am less convinced that these are viable policy goals for the US government in an era of limited resources. Back to the old question: what exactly is the US trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? Difficult to evaluate the means to an end if the end isn't clear.

You asked above if there is a way to communicate privately from this site. On the blog, not as far as I know, but there is a PM function on the discussion board, which is in many ways a better venue for conversation, less transient and with a somewhat broader range of input.

Lawrence Chickering

Thu, 11/11/2010 - 2:51am


I used the expression "command allegiance", using poetic license that was perhaps inappropriate. Obviously, a democratic government cannot "command" allegiance. I meant the word to mean "earn" or "deserve". My point about weak states is related to foreign and national security policy. You may not like the idea of states' trying to influence each other, but for hundreds of years that is what they have done. That is what they do. My point in this era of weak states is that any state wanting to influence a weak state needs policies aimed at societies, working through CSOs.

You ask a lot of questions calling this idea into question -- whether it is a good idea, whether it can be done well. I am arguing it can be done well -- not that it is being done well -- but it can be if it is true to certain principles. For me empowerment is the central principle -- empowerment to make choices. What, you ask, if people don't want that; they just want to allow development from within, led by people who are now insurgents? Part of me wants to respond that empowerment to make choices includes the choice to be paralyzed and not make choices, but at least they will have had the choice.

I need to focus on one of your statements: when you suggest that "insurgency may . . . [be no more than] change from the inside, and by which people empower themselves . . . ." You then call into question opposition to insurgencies. What people are you talking about: women stoned to death for sullying family honor? women who want to go to school and make their contribution to economic and social progress but who are prevented by people "empower[ing] themselves"?

You ask who is disempowered in these traditional societies. Well, women for one -- women who are setting themselves on fire to escape the brutality of these societies. Your suggestion that CSOs' efforts to help are less than perfect pale in implication to environments (e.g., in Pakistan) where insurgencies in power would bring a horror of human rights abuses, while also controlling nuclear weapons.

Real engagement of people, which CSOs can facilitate, will prevent nightmare scenarios. Empowering people, which includes engaging them in common purposes, will make a powerful contribution to COIN
Where did you get the idea that I feel we should demand people make changes? I just want to open choices to them -- allow them to decide to change or not; and if they want to change, how much and in what direction.

The other part of me wants to cite EGG's experience: if CSO activity really empowers, no one will refuse it -- no one. At least that has been our experience in more than 2,000 schools. The reason why everybody wants to change is that people living traditional roles are not fully alive. Since most people prefer life to the alternative, that is why we have encountered no opposition or conflict in any school.

Once again, I think the discussion would be well served if the focus were not on EGG and schools for girls, but rather on the article's premise that NGOs (I would still prefer to reserve the term "civil society" for indigenous organizations) can or should play a central role in development, "nation building", or counterinsurgency. As I stated above, I think there are serious pitfalls there, in accountability, control, coordination, and in the reality that these organizations are in constant competition with each other. It's not about any one organization or program, it's about the problems of managing a multiplicity of organizations, each with its own interests and agenda. Then of course there's the question of whether "nation building" is a viable concept at all!

Looking at the lead paragraph from the article, two questions emerge:
Governments from Pakistan to Egypt are weak because they do not control--or command allegiance from--their largely independent, tribal societies, and they lack the capacity to provide effective leadership for change. The organizations that have an important role to play in influencing these societies are civil society organizations (CSOs), and they need to become active in order to promote significant change. </i>

First... is it not our own belief, possibly even a value that we hold to be universal, that government should be controlled by, and owe allegiance to, the society it governs? If that is the case, why would we desire or seek to see governments control their societies or command their allegiance? How many of us would want to be governed on those terms?

Second... who decreed that we have the right or the responsibility to tell others that they must change, or how they should change, let alone to send our own people to far away places to manage their changes for them? We speak of empowerment, but are these tribal societies disempowered in the first place? Do they perceive themselves to be disempowered? Do they want us to come and tell them how they should empower themselves? The complaint that the government is unable to control the tribal societies suggests that they are already empowered to a substantial degree: they have the power to stand up to government, after all. Is that a power we want to take away from them, or that they would be willing to surrender?

Again, we come back to the question: what exactly are we trying to accomplish here. and for whose purposes?

If we're going to speak of NGOs as a tool in counterinsurgency, should we not consider that insurgency may simply be a part of the process by which societies change from the inside, and by which people empower themselves, in their own way, to suit their own objectives? If that's the case, must we necessarily assume that insurgency is something to be reflexively countered?

Lawrence Chickering

Tue, 11/09/2010 - 9:12pm


I want to say first that our exchanges are very interesting and useful for me. But I am also frustrated by them because I see no way we can do what I would really like -- which is to buy you dinner and have a really exhaustive conversation about the experiences you are talking about versus those I am discussing. (You are not, by any chance, going to be in or near Washington DC M and Tu of next week, are you? I live in CA and will be there.)

I can only guess now what is going on between us -- talking past each other, I think. The key part of your comment (". . . when you imply . . . then we don't have anything else to talk about..."), although a reasonable attempt to summarize my position, actually has very little to do with it.

I want very much to understand what you are talking about in your repeated references to "bad men". Let me try an analogy. EGG's program, I believe, quasi-privatizes government schools. When people hear this, they often respond, "How can the government permit this?" Their question comes from the assumption that if people are taking power, the government must be losing it, and they would not tolerate that. This is analogous, I think, to your point about bad men, who you think would react if they thought community empowerment was diminishing their power in any way.

I think both other people's comments about the government and yours
about "bad men" make a lot of sense, but only if -- these words are crucial from the graf above -- "*if they thought* community empow . . ." etc. What if they didn't? What if the empowerment existed in something like another dimension, a dimension that does not intersect or interfere with [with emphasis here on their *perceptions* their sphere of influence? The analogy I have used on this for years, referring to the government, is that our program, operating *organically*, operates below the government's radar screen. What if it also operates below the radar screens of "bad men"?

I can't remember if you responded to my SWJ piece "Humanizing 'The Man'" -- because in it i shared some serious meditations on the value of experimenting with Aikido, redirecting aggression to another place, rather than confronting aggression. The "real world" I am referring to is the experiences of many school systems even in the most difficult places. When I visited the schools in Upper Egypt, there were five machine guns in the car just ahead, driving in from the airport. But when we visited the schools, which were 2/3 girls and 1/3 boys, the guns were gone -- there was no need for guns. I can't remember if I am repeating, but many fathers who would not let their girls out of their homes after 4-5 years of the UNICEF schools said they would let their girls to go to Cairo to college.

All I can say is that these experiences are widespread in the most difficult places. You refer to "all good faith efforts of empowering the locals" over ten years have "failed". Can you point me to descriptions of exactly what these good faith efforts amounted to? I am really interested in understanding what is going on, and I would hope that you would be interested in understanding the experiences I am describing.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Mon, 11/08/2010 - 8:00pm

Dear Lawrence,

I am very happy that your program of educating girls in a very tribalized, male dominated community as found in Rajasthan has not experienced any push-back from local bad men... but I was focusing on your rhetoric to empower the community vice education girls. You continue to refuse to address my questions pertaining to you propagating empowerment (via civil society organizations) in support of COIN... Please stop trying to disprove my negative by extolling the positives of educating girls ... I get it... I embrace all forms of education, and educating and empowering girls (I have a daughter)... But when you imply that your program of educating girls and by extension empowering whole communities in support of COIN will succeed where all good faith efforts of empowering the locals during the last ten years have failed, then I must challenge the fact that you "assume away evil people" who manipulate others to their own ends and may react violently to good faith efforts at challenging the status quo... If you assume away this "reality" and only retort that x amount of schools have not been targeted by bad men... as proof of empowering the community against bad men with guns or government security forces who act out... then we don't have anything else to talk about...

You might be right... I may indeed be unconnected to the real world after six years in Iraq and one year in Kandahar, Afghanistan but I am not so sure who is more guilty of spouting lots of generalizations supported by incomplete evidence...

Good luck...


Lawrence Chickering

Mon, 11/08/2010 - 10:08am


I am sure you are right that many of these problems long predate the new environment. It is also obviously true that our motives are often conflicted between altruism and realpolitik. My own belief is that altruism is not a very strong motive for aid politically. Political support for aid has never been strong when it is limited to altruism, and this is especially true when people express uncertainty about what works. Many people assume that with Republicans coming back into the government, they will try to cut aid. This may or may not be true. While it is true that Republicans often want to cut aid for aid's sake, they are also the strongest supporters of COIN; and for that purpose, they may want to increase some forms of aid.

You have consistently expressed opposition to U.S. initiatives that attempt to impose our values on others. My own view of this has two parts: first, that many positions commonly thought to be "American" are not our values, but universal values (e.g., the desire to have choices); and second, that our interests are best served if other people are empowered to do what they value even if they make choices (which they sometimes will) that are different than ours.


There is no doubt that empowerment will challenge and affect current power arrangements. It is true that I "assume away" evil people who manipulate people to their own ends who you predict may react and make things worse. I think my best response to you is to cite experiences in many countries, which have tribal societies not unlike Afghanistan, where the results have been as I have written. I will start with EGG's experience in Rajasthan, the most male-dominated and tribal of all Indian states. If you respond that Rajasthan does not have Afghanistan's security issues, you would of course be right; but the experience of the UNICEF Girls' Community schools around the city of Asyut in upper Egypt, the "epicenter of Islamic terrorism" in Egypt, is exactly like Afghanistan; and this program is universally celebrated and is now expanding throughout Egypt and even the Middle East. So is the experience of the Ammal Project in northwest Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan -- and the project (name forgotten) with three hundred girls' schools in central Punjab in Pakistan, near Multan. My host there took six Kalashnikov bullets to the body from terrorists; yet his schools are thriving.

I think I can ignore your point by pointing to these real experiences, in which *not a single school* deviates from my observations -- not one. I think the reason your analysis cannot explain what is going on in these places is that you are imputing Western intentionality to a traditional and tribal concept of self. Our process -- and those in these other experiences -- shifts the concept of self. With a more individuated concept of self, you get much more ruthless autocracy -- see Jack Burckhardt's history of the Renaissance and his discussion of how the emergence of modern individualism at the end of the middle ages coincides with the emergence of modern dictatorships.

You think I am speaking abstractly, without any empirical support for my claims. But unless you can explain this enormous body of experience that shows what I am saying is true, one can only conclude that yours are the abstractions, unconnected to the real world.

Bill M,

Your citation of cases where the Taliban have burned schools and thrown acid in girls' faces are deeply troubling of course. The important question here is: why has that happened in some places in Afghanistan and not in many others? Why has it not happened in the instances I cite above? In the case of the Ammal Project, the Taliban, it is true, shut down two girls' schools, but only 2 out of 89 -- only two! And again: why could they do that in those two and not in the others?

We out to be researching questions such as these. Yet there is no serious initiative to research and experiment with issues such as these and others. Without much more information, the debate is limited to a lot of generalizations unsupported by evidence and more serious analysis.


You hit the nail on the head with your comments above. Your comments apply to a wide range of proposed actions to address irregular threats from good governance, civic action, economic development, etc. They all tend to simply disregard opposing forces to their solutions, which in the end makes them unrealistic. I think Lawrence makes some good points, but as noted in other posts, our efforts to elevate the status of women in Afghanistan is honorable, but is it moral? What happens to these educated women if we leave? We have already seen numerous attacks by the Taliban on girl's schools to include the cruel tactic of throwing acid on their faces. We can't simply transfer western ideas and values upon this society without considering second order effects on the very people we're trying to help.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sun, 11/07/2010 - 11:08am

Dear Lawrence,

We agree that there exist no zero-sum environments... but ... you assume that there exist no power play... and by default that there exists no authority in Afghanistan's villages, valleys, and mountains among the people you presently seek to engage ... yet you also seek to disperse power rather than concentrate it... I, on the other hand, assume that some form of concentrated power exists and your efforts to disperse power (i.e. empower those who have not held power before) challenges this authority... It matters not the good intentions of "increas(ing) cooperation and increas(ing) identity beyond family and tribute, thus bringing people together who are now in deep, tribal alienation from each other"... all efforts at empowering challenges the status quo... The notion of challenging the status quo is embedded in the definition of "empowering"..

I assume that there already exist individuals and groups that depend on exploiting identity politics and actively attempt to keep folks from cooperating... I seems to me that you assume this condition away. You presume to tell me that your efforts along the frontier will not initiate a new cycle of violence because you mean well... and that all will benefit equally... You are after all seeking to change an existing tributary relationship...

While I empathize with your intent... I am more concerned with how you will deal with those who see no benefit to your empowering the powerless or disenfranchised ... You do not address this issue... and are frustrated with me because I want you to explain to me how you are going to deal with "the bad and the ugly". The fact remains that someone will have to deal with these bad men... if not you... who... government security forces or local militias?

I embrace educating and empowering girls... period... I have a very powerful daughter and can only hope that I've played a small part in this positive development... but to insinuate that EGG would cause no angst in certain parts of Afghanistan is just ridiculous... "It was the third such attack against a girls' school in Afghanistan in as many weeks, raising fears that the Taliban are resorting to increasingly vicious methods to terrorize young women out of education" (The Independent, Wednesday, 13 May 2009). It doesn't matter that the parents want their daughters to earn an education... What are we going to do about the ugly and the bad who seek to violently stop the effort?

On the other hand... maybe educating girls doesn't represent a great danger to the status quo or interfere with the opium trade or other tribute generating industries... Maybe one reason why most illiterate power-brokers don't bother with terrorizing young disenfranchised girls...

I can't presently wholeheartedly embrace your efforts at creating the conditions for a new "golden age" in Afghanistan since your good intentions, like most other good intentions neglects talking about the dirty work that comes along with it... You can't get something clean without getting something else dirty. I would like to know how we should deal with the bad men who have proven themselves ruthless and who will start killing those we seek to empower before they get too powerful to challenge the status quo. Might be a good thing to be able to explain to the locals what they are getting themselves into (but I venture to say they already understand the costs of empowerment) before we start the process of fostering cooperation and increasing identity beyond family and tribute, thus bringing people together who are now in deep, tribal alienation from each other...

My last point does not apply directly to your proposal for action in Afghanistan... but it is some food for thought... We too often subvert or eliminate native mechanisms of social control at the same time that the state is unable to exercise effective legal control... all in the name of doing good...


I certainly can't disagree on the dysfunction, and I agree that it begins at the policy level. I'm less certain that it stems from an inability to adjust to new priorities in foreign policy: I've been watching the aid industry since the late 1970s, and dysfunction is nothing new. Many trials, many errors, and very few attempts to honestly assess the impact of those errors on the populations that served as involuntary guinea pigs for various experiments in development theory and practice.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of presenting development/empowerment/etc as a counterinsurgency tool. Counterinsurgency is at root our goal, not necessarily that of the populace concerned, and attempts to place the altruistic impulse at the service of the policy goals of COIN often rest on unrealistic assumptions about the causes of a given insurgency.

American policy in the developing world often presents in an almost schizoid fashion, part self-interested realpolitik, part very real (if often naive and inept) altruism. Sometimes we're pursuing one, sometimes both, sometimes we try to place one in the service of the other, sometimes we don't seem to know what we're doing. It's confusing even to us; it's baffling to the people on the other end.

I've no fundamental objection to engagement, but when the vast majority of our engagements are initiated by us, for our reasons - and I suspect that this is the case with US engagement - it may be time to reassess our engagement policies.

Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 11/06/2010 - 2:14am


You have raised a number of very important issues. One has to do with what we are doing, our objectives. One has to do with our capacity to implement, with a special problem the USAID contracting system. Important issues result from the institutional structures of the USG's foreign policy institutions, which were established for a different time and different strategic realities.

I personally think there is huge dysfunction at almost every level, but starting at the leadership level. Our policymakers, reflecting problems in the broader foreign policy community, have not yet figured out foreign policy in relation to the "weak states" that have become the new priority concerns of foreign policy. They know civil society is part of the answer, but they don't know enough, and the institutions are poorly organized, to make good CS policy. Nobody know what they are doing.

They are making it up as they go, and the results, unfortunately, are not pretty much of the time. I have to say I agree with you on almost every point you make. The challenge of this new world is so completely different from past challenges that it is hard to be optimistic that we will work through the combination of intellectual and institutional/political problems without a very long period of trial and error.

I am, temperamentally, a person who believes in engaging internationally. But EGG does things that are very different from many of the v large CSOs. I worry a lot about what many of them are doing.


Sat, 11/06/2010 - 12:19am


I'm not referring to EGG specifically, but rather to the very real (IMO) hazards of a development/empowerment/reconstruction/stabilization/whatever strategy that's based on support for NGOs, especially when large amounts of money are involved. It's terribly easy for that to devolve into an NGO circus, with dozens of organizations competing for money, territory, local partners. Somebody has to manage that, decide who gets how much, who works where, who works with whom. Those decisions are generally far removed from the village level, and despite the empowerment chorus, the result is seldom empowering.

Often the issue is not about the inherent virtue or desirability of any given change, but about the cumulative impact of many organizations promoting many changes, each convinced that their own desired change is the key to progress. The impact on communities can be overwhelming and disorienting, especially when exposed to different NGO roadshows coming through one after the other. Each organization may be good, with good methods and good purposes, but people who sit through several in a row come away with the impression that the outsiders want to turn their lives upside down.

I'm not saying that any of these activities are not viable or desirable, but that a great deal of thought and a great deal of restraint has to go into planning, both within organizations and in the necessary but often neglected coordination among organizations.

And at the end of the day, we have to recall that the US didn't get involved in Afghanistan to empower the Afghans, we got involved in pursuit of our policy goals. Our strategy since has been to use reconstruction/stabilization/etc as a lever to pursue those goals. We need to ask ourselves what exactly we (the US) are trying to accomplish, and how we (the US) propose to accomplish it, in what time frame and with what resources. If the only way we can deny Afghan sanctuary to AQ is to empower Afghans and transform Afghan society, we'd best be settled in for a long haul, because those are multi-generational goals that can only be sustainably achieved in very gradual increments. Change generates friction, always and everywhere. Too much change too fast, more friction. Change pushed from outside, still more. Friction generates heat, and enough heat generates combustion. That doesn't mean change is a bad thing, it just means that those who would be agents of change need to be eternally aware of how much, how soon, where and in what way they try to push things, and of who else is pushing on the same edifice from different directions. Messing with other people's lives, even with the best of intentions, is not something to be taken lightly.

Bill M.

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 11:59pm

Lawrence, my apologies for the typo, I meant to type "a little off topic" instead of a little topic. Meaning that your post didn't seem to mesh with your article. By no means do I think this is a little topic. Bill

Lawrence Chickering

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 9:20pm

Bill M,

I believe this is not a "little topic". And neither, apparently, do you, reading your concerns about how badly it can end up if it empowers warlords and others who will obstruct and retard development of modern, democratic institutions and values.

I am not proposing that we make CSOs the main agencies for security. I am about to post a sequel to this piece, saying much more about my understanding of "empowerment". The central meaning has to do with a change in the concept of self in traditional societies -- from people who do not believe they can control their own lives and live through traditional roles to people who can come together in conscious, connection -- first with community girls -- and commit to education for them. The idea is empowering people by giving them a stake in the system -- thus giving them a reason to resist forces trying to bring the system down.

Empowering people is a powerful way to create mini-experiments in democracy, avoiding autocratic systems dominated by gang leaders.
For more on this, see my recent article "Humanizing 'The Man'", posted 10/11/10.

MAC, my experience with this issue comes partly from studying other experiences; but it comes primarily from my experience of my organization, Educate Girls Globally, working in the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India. All I can say is that in looking at the experiences of 500 schools in Pali District, there is no evidence whatsoever of your zero-sum-game belief that empowering some can only happen by weakening others. In fact, there is every reason to believe that empowering communities, especially when they are networked with other communities, will increase cooperation and increase identity beyond family and tribute, thus bringing people together who are now in deep, tribal alienation from each other. There is no "power play" here; the principal effect of this is to disperse power rather than concentrate it. That, at any rate, has been the experience in *every single school* in which EGG is operating. There are no exceptions.

The last thing I want to say is that there is no call here to *impose* any "healthy society" on Afghanistan's traditional tribal society. The objective is to open spaces in which people can reach out, in trust, to each other to cooperate in objectives they agree about. If there is any "manipulation" in promoting trust and consensual action entirely controlled by these communities, you are using that word in a way I don't understand.


I have to agree with everything you say about many large civil society programs. What they do is really all about them (no matter how they talk), and not about local people. What they do is ultimately disempowering to local people. Therefore, I am completely sympathetic with your skepticism about their intentions, which they always express in beautiful words. I am a newcomer to this site, and I am not sure how people can communicate privately with each other. I would like to send you information on Educate Girls Globally (please, if you have not read my article "Humanizing 'The Man'", posted on 10/11/10, look at it -- I think it will answer some of your concerns). EGG's website is In a week or so, it will be completely redone and will explain, much more deeply, what we do. I hope you see something there that is very different from what you have seen in a number of large, international CSOs.

You ask about our goals. I think it is all about empowerment. In my next article, GEN Petraeus, in an article he wrote in early 2006, quotes a statement made by T.E. Lawrence in 1917 that perfectly captures the essence of empowerment as an imperative. I would like to hear your comments on my next article, which explores these issues at greater length.


Again, looking at this from the bottom up... I've seen a lot of interactions between national and international NGOs and local civil society, many at close range. The larger external organizations always talk about partnership, but there is always the implicit (sometimes explicit) assumption that the bigger, more sophisticated, better funded "partner" knows best, and will lead, and that the locals will follow. There is always talk of empowerment (NGO types are good at using the right words) but there is always the assumption that the external organization knows best how "empowerment" should be achieved and what it should look like. There is often an assumption that local organizations and institutions should resemble foreign ones; if they do not, the locals need to be taught how to organize. Local organizations led by individuals who spout the jargon and use the right words often receive funding priority, regardless of actual local support.

All of these and many more are subtle (sometimes less than subtle) ways in which external organizations try to shape local organizations and communities to fit their own goals and agendas. From the local perspective, it comes right back to "we'll tell you what you need and how to get it", even if it doesn't say that on the wrapping paper. It always starts with "we'll have a meeting and organize the community", which is utterly baffling.... how about spending a few years in the community and finding out how it is already organized? Too much time and trouble, of course.

I am, I confess, suspicious of saviourism, in all its many guises... and when these issues emerge in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan I have to wonder what our goals are in these places. Did we go there in the first place to transform these societies? To empower the people? What made us think the people want to be "empowered" by us, our way, by our organizations? What was the goal then, and how did it become what it seems to be now.... and should it really be what it is becoming?

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 11:08am

Dear Lawrence,

Reference..."Governments from Pakistan to Egypt are weak because they do not control--or command allegiance from--their largely independent, tribal societies, and they lack the capacity to provide effective leadership for change."

Key phrases "(governments weak because) they do not control - or command allegiance" and "lack capacity to provide effective leadership for change."

Another way of saying the same is... governments are WEAK because the largely independent tribal societies are STRONG.


1. Independent societies seek change.

2. Independent societies seek a hegemon or autocrat to provide effective leadership for change.

3. Government must be capable of imposing itself so as to control or command allegiance.

One definition defines "civil society" a medium where individuals and groups cooperate/compete with other individuals and groups and public authority to address and solve social challenges/problems.

While I intuitively appreciate the fact that we seek to create a social space of shared interests, purpose, and values... in which all may share and participate in uncoerced collective action... a strong civil society strategy actually implies a concerted effort to weaken specific segments of strong societies and the creation of an impartial hegemon to manage the consequences.

I can't shake the idea that this approach is a direct power play clothed in good intentions... Not that there is anything wrong with that... let's just be honest about it so that the government and or non-governmental organization seeking social change can provide us with a staff estimate of the social and economic costs of imposing a "healthy" civil society on strong independent societies in which specific groups tend to push back.

I've simplified the actors and factors into an either or for sake of conversation... but I submit the reason we are so challenged in imposing our version of a healthy civil society on the Afghans is because Afghan civil society is very complex nor easily manipulated by outsiders.

... but you've heard me spout my suck before... :-)


Lawrence, I found your article to be thought provoking, but on the other hand I found your post above to be a little topic. I'm not sure how we would organize and mobilize "civil society" to conduct "national security"?

They of course can be organized to augment and assist the State security organizations in such an effort. However, buyer beware, when we attempt to make civil organizations the main effort for security. Historically this has frequently resulted in undesired second order effects of criminal organizations and/or gangs that pursue political power through coercion and stifle legitimate political opposition (reinforcing corruption), and creating additional underlying factors for prolonged instability. In short, this method can very effective short term, but if there isn't an effective plan to transition this responsibility to a professional force that supports the law (versus the interests of the gang leader) then what have we created?

I think there are many ways we can mobilize civil society to support development, security and better governance, as long as we have an accurate understanding of the society we're working with and develop mobilization plans and subsequent organizations that are helpful, rather than blindly pursuing empowering the people. In summary I agree with your arguments, but I believe if we do it poorly it will turn out worse than if we didn't do it at all.

Lawrence Chickering

Thu, 11/04/2010 - 12:36pm

One further, very broad comment. An article posted here a few days ago ("Stabilization and Reconstruction of Nations: Where, When, and Why Should the U.S. Intervene?") highlights why a strong civil society strategy is important not only in current theaters of conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan, but in many other countries threatened by potential insurgencies. The authors of that article are obviously right that we cannot intervene everywhere. But I believe we have the knowledge and resources to empower citizens in many countries to take much greater responsibility for their national security than they are now taking. I come close believing, in fact, that we could recruit armies of citizens to play important roles in COIN. Empowering people is the central mechanism for doing this.

Lawrence Chickering

Thu, 11/04/2010 - 12:18pm


Thank you for your comments, which raise issues I am now addressing in a second part of this piece.

Your comments on U.S. civil society organizations (CSOs) versus indigenous organizations is a crucially important point. My emphasis on empowering rather than helping hinted at the importance of working through indigenous organizations and empowering them to do what they value rather than what we value. This article -- and a previous one ("Humanizing 'The Man'", posted October 10 -- place primary emphasis on the important of making the relationship about them and not about us.

Concerns are often expressed, as you did, about pushing U.S. values on other people. My emphasis on empowering rather than helping should indicate I agree with you about this. On the other hand, certain, central values I feel should be at the heart of a civil society strategy reflect, I believe, universal rather than American values. Empowerment is surely a universal value -- empowering people to do what they value. That is the central value informing my CSO, Educate Girls Globally, whose model was developed in partnership with Indians and Indian CSOs for work in rural, tribal India. Our work in other countries will be implemented -- must be implemented -- by indigenous CSOs, speaking the local language, with local networks of support, and so on. I would encourage you to read my earlier piece, which is all about this.

Thank you for your comment. I agree entirely with the spirit of it, and I think many aspects of current policy are violating what you and I take to be the central values of a successful civil society strategy.

With much of this agree... but isn't the current condition and capacity of Afghan civil society quite rudimentary at this point?

We cannot pretend that foreign organizations are part of Afghan civil society. They aren't. An organization initiated by westerners, managed by westerners, and funded by westerners is part of western civil society, and reflects western goals, values, and priorities. It is not Afghan, and suffers from many of the same limitations that restrict western government/military enterprise.

The danger, of course, is that an influx of foreign NGOs may actually impede the development of a truly Afghan civil society, as they and "local counterparts" organized by them crowd truly indigenous organizations out of the competition for funding and attention. Of course western funding agencies may not always be fully comfortable with organizations that do not reflect their goals and priorities... but is it really our place to dictate what these priorities should be?

The idea of a global civil society is attractive, but today that civil society is dominated by the west and by western agendas. Where I live (Philippines) local organizations sometimes complain of "NGO imperialism", and they often have a point. I doubt that the problem is unique.

Not saying that NGOs have no place in the development spectrum; they have a place and it is an important one. The distinction between global NGO and indigenous CSO must not be forgotten, though, and the ever-present temptation to try to construct a local civil society that suits us, rather than the locals, must always be resisted.