Following the CPA and subsequent peace agreements, civil society's immediate challenges lie in peacebuilding and democratic transformation. Meeting immediate needs must be balanced with engaging in structural change and long-term programming. CSOs can bridge the gap between what the Sudanese people want, and what the negotiating parties and the international community perceived they wanted.
Many Sudanese have yet to see a peace dividend. CSOs can contribute in many ways by:
- encouraging dialogue and promoting peaceful coexistence and cooperation between ethnic and religious groups;
- promoting civic education, democratic values and a culture of peace and human rights at the community level;
- assisting community planning and drawing attention to local, national and international problems;
- promoting regional and local development and more equal distribution of wealth and opportunities between regions and social groups;
- promoting transparency and accountability, and monitoring the use of rehabilitation and reconstruction resources;
- providing education on the environment, resource use and management, and promoting economic alternatives to reduce the pressure on resources and the likelihood of conflict;
- reducing pressure on resources though direct service provision (water, medical and veterinary) to returnees and war-affected communities.
CSOs represent the main national forces working with communities to counter the impacts of war, mismanagement of resources and poor policies. Their resources for peacebuilding include external links and extensive experience in negotiation over the last two decades, which have enabled them to survive in a hostile environment. Yet CSOs in Sudan are faced with challenges relating to government restrictions, internal failings and external conditionalities.
The government continues to try to curtail the independence of CSOs. It uses its own parallel organisations to undermine existing CSOs, especially those working on rights issues, swamping meetings held in the presence of international or UN representatives. New legal restrictions on CSOs include the Organisation of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act (2006), which requires Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs approval of all CSO proposals before they are submitted to donors. The Ministry can also ban any person from voluntary work.
Economic deterioration, debt, political instability and ongoing conflict contribute to diverting CSOs' efforts towards addressing symptoms rather than causes, at the expense of influencing policy and legislation. CSOs lack a long-term strategic vision for their programmes and the in-depth research needed to guide their plans and priorities. The work is reactive and vulnerable to external influence by the state or donors: the regime has sought to divert civil society attention from important issues such as human rights violations in southern Sudan and Darfur, while oil production and revenues form a 'no-go area' for CSO activity.
The dependence on foreign funding and a lack of specialisation among CSOs has undermined the formation of effective networks, making them competitive rather than cooperative. Donor conditionality is sometimes imposed at the expense of local priorities. Stereotyped and mostly imported methods have been adopted; for example, credit and women's empowerment programmes are common throughout Sudan but rarely adapted to its varying local contexts. As a result, large segments of civil society, such as Sufi sects and tribal associations, are not well integrated into the civil society sector, notwithstanding some emerging interchange between tribal-level organisations and NGOs in local peacebuilding initiatives.
If the peacebuilding potential of CSOs to be realised, a more effective civil society sector needs to be created that holds sufficient power to provide checks and balances to the executive. The government should legislate to support CSOs – or at least create a more supportive environment for them. CSOs need to improve their coordination and cooperation, building new alliances free of political polarisation and dependency. They will need to build their capacity to generate accurate information upon which proper long-term planning of interventions can be made. For this they must link better with research institutions and persuade donors to finance research and surveys.
Experience from other countries shows that, to immunise itself from the state's pre-emptive and restrictive measures, civil society needs self-discipline, ethical codes and an internal commitment to the values of democracy, transparency and accountability it preaches. This will help international donors identify genuine partners. Effective, non-dependent partnerships with international organisations, the private sector and the state should be based on mutual trust and shared experience, not just financial support.