The Emerging Role of NGOs in Conflict Resolution


            With the multiplication and escalation of conflicts at various levels, the need for conflict resolution has become urgent than ever before. There has been a growing realization among governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations that more resources and time need to be set apart for managing conflicts and that the work for peace has to take place by harnessing the cooperation of several agencies at different levels. Governments, by virtue of their rigid structure, very often fail to address adequately questions relating to conflicts of a delicate and complex nature. Also agencies and resources available with governments have been found inadequate in this respect. The latest tendency is to search for other tracks of conflict resolution and also to tap resources to compliment governmental effort.

Towards Multi-Track Approach

            The movement from ‘track- one diplomacy’ 1 to ‘track –two diplomacy’2 resulted in the emergence of a large number of actors in conflict resolution and peace building process. John McDonald and Louis Diamond have identified nine actor categories or tracks in conflict resolution: official diplomacy, education, research and training, business, funding, media and communication, religion , NGOs and advocacy groups and private citizens 3. In addition to these group of actors, the Carnegie Commission recognized the role of the UN and regional organizations in peace building process 4 . Barnett Rubin and Susana Campbell in a study for the Center for Preventive Action pointed out that “the multiplicity and variety of actors involved in generating conflicts requires a similar multiplicity of international partners to resolve them” 5. Multidimensional nature of conflicts has also been partly responsible for giving rise to the concept of a multi-track approach in conflict resolution.

            According to Diamond and McDonald Multi-track diplomacy is “a conceptual framework designed … to reflect the variety of activities that contribute to international peacemaking”. They point out that track two diplomacy is designed (1) to reduce or resolve conflict between groups or nations by improving communications, understanding and relationships; (2) to lower tension, anger, fear or misunderstanding by humanizing the “face of the enemy” and giving people direct personal experience of one another; (3) to affect the thinking and action of track-one (i.e. official diplomacy) by exploring diplomacy options without prejudice, thereby preparing the ground for more formal negotiations or for re-framing policies 6. The successful resolution of conflict mainly depends on track-two diplomacy complimenting track-one diplomacy. Thus a combined effort of track-one and track-two becomes imperative in the process of conflict resolution.

NGOs and International Agencies

            Over the years there has been a tremendous increase in the number of NGOs 7, so also the variety of their activities and their geographical spread. Because most of the NGOs are involved in works relating to development, relief and advocacy, which are of direct and visible benefit to the people, they have achieved a high degree of goodwill. In addition, many of the NGOs have skilled personnel who can intervene in conflict situations creatively in order to bring resolution. This fact has been recognized by the United Nations as well as international funding agencies like the World Bank, who now bank upon the resources of NGOs for conflict resolution, particularly in areas like early warning, third party intervention, reconciliation and peace building. The UN General Assembly recognized the role of NGOs and called upon the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) to work with NGOs interested in communicating information about the United Nations 8 . In continuation of the General Assembly resolution, the NGOs and Institutional Relations Section was established within DPI to provide information and other liaison services to the growing number of NGOs accredited to the United Nations. In 1968, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) formalized its consultative relationship with NGOs 9 . However, it is to be noted that NGOs were not given any formal status in the General Assembly or other powerful bodies like the Security Council.

            Now NGOs have become key partners in development assistance especially to less developed countries from international agencies like the UN, the European Union and the World Bank. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the UN affirmed that NGOs “are an indispensable part of the legitimacy without which no international activity can be meaningful.”10.

The Role of NGOs

            NGOs constitute an essential part of civil society 11 and they have the potential to play key roles in resolving conflicts and restoring civil society. NGOs involvement in conflict resolution introduces a citizen element into it. NGOs can support to form well knit local infrastructures or peace constituencies12 comprising of people from different sectors of civil society whose aim is to attain sustainable peace and whose activities are based on long term commitment. NGOs should invest more resources for capacity building activities at different levels. It involves the training of own staff, identifying indigenous partners, local leaders and so on. NGOs can act as mediators to bring consensus among different conflicting groups with the help of local peace constituencies.

            Pamela Aall 13 suggests a number of roles that NGOs can play in the peace making process. NGOs should pursue their traditional relief and rehabilitation activities with a long-term perspective. “The initial emergency relief response should be linked to a set of activities that leads to the transformation of those conflicts in a way that promotes sustained and comprehensive reconciliation among the warring parties” 14. Aall cautions us against the dangers of using external resources in relief and rehabilitation activities. Excessive use of external resources can foster dependence and passivity. It can also become a new object of contention, inadvertently fueling the conflict. NGOs should mobilize local resources which empower the people and enroll new participants into their activities, especially women who have often been kept passive in the peace process. NGOs should continue to monitor human rights abuses. They should undertake new task of providing early warning of potentially violent conflicts and should pursue conflict resolution activities. Aall warns that these roles must be kept separate both for the safety of NGO workers, and in order to be effective15.


            To work effectively in a conflict situation, NGOs should preserve their own identities and neutrality, and should appear to be impartial. Unofficial status of NGOs provides more access to conflicting parties, which helps in the process of negotiation. The long-term commitment of NGOs is a crucial factor in establishing trust among the people and to attend to the goal of long lasting peace. Pamela Aall prescribes four conditions for NGOs more directly engaging in conflict resolution activities : (1) the NGO must be very familiar with the country, issues, and participants in the conflict (2) the NGO should have indigenous partners (3) NGO staff must be well grounded in conflict resolution skills and knowledge and (4) NGO workers must understand and accept the personal risk they run in attempting to intervene directly in the conflict 16 .


                        State is often seen as one of the parties in a large number of conflicts. Therefore, it is important for NGOs to maintain their independence without loosing trust of the conflicting parties including the state. NGOs should work in co-operation and co-ordination with each other to reduce duplication in their activities. In this process NGOs should not loose their individual identities. Coordination and networking of NGOs is a key factor in lobbying and advocacy at a higher level. NGOs should not limit their scope of work to mere conflict resolution , but expand to address the root causes of conflict and enhance the process of peace building. In sum, the role of the NGOs in conflict resolution is based on their presence at the ground level as actors with a reservoir of good will, generated through years of development and rehabilitation work. Apart from creating a congenial atmosphere for negotiations, where the prospects for such negotiations are not visible at the level of the conflicting actors, the NGOs can play a key role in many intractable conflicts. Peace building is now seen as a part of sustaining agreements reached. No organization is perhaps more equipped than the NGOs in undertaking this task. However, in order to play a more effective role in conflict management, the NGOs may have to reorient themselves with the requisite attitudes and skills, which of course should be seen as an additional element of their development work.

Notes and References

1. According to McDonald track-one diplomacy is a term used to describe official government to government negotiation among instructed representatives of sovereign states.

2. Track-two diplomacy is a term coined by Joseph Montville in 1982 to refer to methods of diplomacy that were outside the formal governmental system.

3. Simona Sharoni, “Conflict Resolution and Peacemaking from the Bottom Up: The Roles of Social Movements and People’s Diplomacy”, in Dossier IUPIP International Course, Rovereto, October 2000.

4. Paul Van Tongeren “ Exploring the Local Capacity for Peace: The Role of NGOs” in Dossier IUPIP International Course , Rovereto, October 2000.

5. ibid.

6. Simona Sharoni , op. cit.

7. There are more than twenty thousand international non-governmental organizations registered with the Union of International Associations.

8. General Assembly Resolution 13, February 13, 1946

9. ECOSOC Resolution 1296, May 23, 1968.

10. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, “Democracy, A Newly-Recognized Imperative,” in Global Governance, Vol. 1, No.1 , Winter,1995, p.10.

11. “ Civil Society concept entered political philosophy and social theory as a way of describing the capacity of self-organization on the part of a political community or the capacity of a society to organize itself without being organized by the state. It consists of plethora of private non-profit sector including non-governmental organizations that have emerged in all parts of the globe to provide citizens opportunities to exercise individual initiative in the private spirit for public purposes” For details refer, M.S. John, “Civil Society” Unpublished Paper presented at the Refresher Course on Political Science, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, 1999.

12. Paul Van Tongeren, op cit.

13.  Pamella Aall, “Non-governmental Organizations and Peacemaking”in  Managing Global Chaos, eds, Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamella Aall, Washington D.C. 1996 pp. 433-444.

14. ibid., p. 434

15. ibid.

16. ibid

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