Civil Society in Post-Conflict Situations

A Role for Young People in Building Post-Conflict Civil Society

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 9, Issue 4, August 2007

Donald J. Eberly and Reuven Gal1

Young people in national youth service organizations can play a vital role in post-war community reconstruction, in maintaining peace in tense situations, and perhaps in preventing post-conflict sequelae. Nigeria offers an excellent example of the utility of youthful participation in effecting post-conflict reconciliation. In the late 1960s Nigeria was plunged into civil war when one region – called Biafra – tried to break away from the rest of the country. The attempted breakaway can be traced directly to the fact that Nigeria is not a natural country, formed from within. Rather, its borders were drawn by the European powers meeting in Berlin late in the 19th century. They divided people of common language and culture, and they joined people of different cultures.

Biafra failed in its effort to secede, but Nigeria decided it must endeavor to foster national unity. University students and other youth groups called for a national youth scheme, whose first project would be providing relief in war-torn areas. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors called for one year of service by all university students following their first year. After much debate and considerable controversy, Head of State General Yakubu Gowon issued a decree in 1973 creating the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) to develop “common ties among the youths of Nigerian and to promote national unity.”

In Nigeria in 1962 I dropped in on a biology class in a high school in Benin being taught by a Peace Corps volunteer. I was enthralled by his description of the disease kwashiorkor – as were his students – and stayed for the whole class period. Only a few teachers I had had over the years measured up to his standard. In 2004 I dropped in on a high school geography class in Ikenne being taught by a member of the National Youth Service Corps and was equally impressed. I also met with 16 other NYSC cadets serving in the same area; all were from other parts of Nigeria, most were teachers, a few worked in village administration and one was a physician. All were serving in the fields in which they received their university degrees. (DJE)

The NYSC requires all university graduates to serve for one year in a part of the country different from where they grew up. Following a quasi-military orientation period, Corps members are posted to their places of assignment where they are expected not only to work for eleven months in a regular job, but also to initiate community development projects in the areas they serve.

Corps members serve in their professional areas. Agricultural graduates advise farmers on crops and pesticides, while English majors teach high school English. The government provides stipends for them. After service, Corps members are brought together again to discuss their experiences, participate in a parade, and receive Certificates of National Service that entitle them to be employed in Nigeria. Although neither entering members nor their families like postings to distant parts of Nigeria, a study of ex-Corps members posted away from home showed that in retrospect, only one in ten viewed the experience as negative, with the rest judging it positive (Enegwea, 1993). A summary of an account given by former Corps member Alhaji Sani Garba portrays life in the community-development aspect of NYSC. Garba’s summons to NYSC duty saddened him, “as he viewed it as a year of suffering and hardship, and did not want to be deployed from the north to the southwest – it was a long way from his parents.” The summary continues (Community Service Volunteers, 1998):

Following his three-week-orientation, he was posted to a remote village with no transport, no electricity, no clean water, and poor sanitation. He had to stay and learn how to survive, because the assigned location could not be changed. Money was minimal, so he used his elementary school carpentry skills to build a bed, and make a mattress from the grasses. His demonstration of mattress-making inspired the whole village to make mattresses. As sanitation was poor, he worried he would get sick, so he built a pit latrine (there were no facilities prior to this). He also helped the villagers to dig mini-wells to find clean water. He said, “The community learnt a lot from me and I learnt a lot from the community…. I went in a Northerner and came out a Nigerian.”

While nearly all university graduates serve in the NYSC – there are a few exemptions based on such factors as age and army service – the annual enrollment of about 100,000 suggests the magnitude of its impact, both on societal needs in areas such as health and education, and on the promotion of understanding among the Yorubas, Ibos, Hausas, and other cultural groups.

Although the Nigerian case is perhaps the most direct example of utilizing youth participation to foster post-conflict reconciliation, service by young people appears to be a common element in the various patterns of building post-conflict civil societies.

While still under British mandate and before the Jewish state was created in 1947, Jewish leaders had established various paramilitary groups and pioneer youth movements, which they described to the British overlords as nothing more than Boy Scout troops. In truth, much of the underlying rationale for these youth groups was to develop a cadre of young people trained in military discipline, capable of going on long marches through the desert, and ready to defend the nation state when the time came. Those cadres, known as PALMACH (“Striking Squads”), played a major role in Israel’s War of Independence (1947-1948). With the birth of Israel, and its subsequent wars with its neighbors, Israel has maintained a high state of readiness combined with a high level of participation by young people.

Both young men and women are conscripted into the Israeli armed forces. As recently as the 1980s, more than 75 percent of Israeli young people did military service. But by 2000, the number had declined to almost 50 percent as the army became increasingly professionalized. The low participation rate concerned many Israelis, who viewed service by young people as vital to national development and as a rite of passage to adulthood.

A number of civic service programs – called Sherut Leumi – have developed over the years in response. An example is Bat Ami, an NGO that recruits some 3,000 religious young women for a year or two of social service. Another 1,000 young women of varied beliefs serve in Shlomit, which by 2000 had expanded to include a few Arabs and young men in their service projects too. The Israeli army assigns the women to civilian service activities, sometimes alongside those in Bat Ami and Shlomit. Together, the various civic service programs in Sherut Leumi include some 7,000 young people in full-time, year-round service. Since all but a few of them are women, that equals about 12 percent of the single-year cohort of young women.

The proportion of young Israelis performing civic service would increase if a proposal made by one of the authors (Reuven Gal) and others were adopted. The proposal calls for universal civic youth service on the part of all Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel who, for whatever reason, were not called into military service. A 1995 survey of Arab high school students revealed that 60 percent would readily enter such a program (Gal, 1995).

Another variation is found in Cuba. The successful military revolution segued into what was termed the “continuing revolution.” The leaders recognized the importance not just of overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s government, but of improving the lives of citizens. The most widely acclaimed accomplishment of Fidel Castro’s Cuba was the near-elimination of illiteracy in 1961, largely through the efforts of 100,000 young people who went to the countryside and taught people how to read and write. Although the literacy campaign was a short-term effort, the linkage between school and community has continued:

In Cuba in 1977, I visited a kindergarten where students were weeding the lettuce and radish plants they had planted a few weeks earlier, an elementary school where the children were packaging tea into small bags for sale, a high school where students were making baseballs, a dairy farm which doubled as a residential high school where students took regular high school classes and learned farming by doing chores, and a university where medical students were serving in a clinic. (DJE)

Young Americans’ tremendous interest in the Peace Corps was motivated in part by antipathy toward war and conscription for military service, as reflected in the motto of the times, “We want to build, not burn.” They wanted to show that American young people could and should serve on the frontiers of human need rather than the frontiers of battle.

The programs in Nigeria, Israel, Cuba, and the United States are examples of what we refer to as National Youth Service (NYS), by which we mean an organized activity in which young people serve others and the environment in ways that contribute to society. NYS participants normally serve full-time for between six months and two years, receive government or NGO support sufficient to enable them to serve, and have opportunities for reflection. NYS also embraces service-learning, where students use their education to serve others and, at the same time, reflect on their service experiences to inform their learning.

It is worth noting that each of the youth service programs described above is more than 30 years old and is still going strong. It is also worth noting that similar NYS programs have developed in a variety of countries for a variety of reasons. For example, Canada’s Katimavik seeks to improve cross-cultural understanding; Chile’s Servicio Pais, to give university graduates firsthand experience in rural communities; China’s Poverty Alleviation Relay Project, to foster education and development in the rural and western parts of the nation; and India’s National Service Scheme and Costa Rica’s Trabajo Comunal Universitario, to acquaint university students with national needs while broadening their education. Perhaps most noteworthy is Germany’s Zivildienst. It began in the late 1950s, as an alternative to required military service for a handful of conscientious objectors. By 2000 – following a number of changes that virtually let young men choose between military and civilian service – 38 percent of young men planned to enter Zivildienst, compared to 30 percent who planned for military service.

The relevance of these examples of NYS to building post-conflict civil societies is fortified by an analysis of the ways in which societies can recover from the effects of conflicts.

The Nature of Wars and Their Aftermath

There is congruence between the characteristics of certain wars and the characteristics of their aftermaths and recovery periods.

Total wars, between two or more states or between coalitions of state-allies, can end in a decisive victory or in a more ambiguous conclusion. Thereafter, each side licks its wounds and engages in its own postwar reconstruction.

By contrast, civil wars, or protracted conflicts between neighboring entities, last a long time, rarely produce clear winners and losers, and typically end because of a stalemate, both sides’ exhaustion, external intervention, or some combination of these factors. A civil war often involves countless communities where neighbors suddenly find themselves fighting one another. It is frequently not a war between longstanding enemies, but a war between those who were once friends, neighbors, and colleagues. The conflict and resulting distrust can quickly destroy any social norms of civic-minded behavior.

Furthermore: typically a total war is identified with the top leaders – as was the case in World War II with Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt – and centrally organized military corps, fully obedient to a clear hierarchy of authority, conduct the war itself. The entire population, across all its communities, feels strong identification with the “collective” homeland.

By contrast, in almost all civil wars, the leadership is not clearly distinct, the fighting is frequently conducted by different militia groups varying in their ideological reasoning, and the local and communal identity many times exceeds the collective identification. Again, the historical illustration could be seen at the turn of the 21st century in the Middle East, among both Palestinians and Israelis. These characteristics of civil wars were also very apparent among the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, in the civil wars in Nigeria and South Africa, and also in the former Yugoslav states.

When the fighting stops, community rehabilitation is as critical as individual rehabilitation. Rebuilding the social fabric and the mechanisms for civic engagement can be singularly challenging. Enemies during the recent ethnic or religious conflict must learn to be neighbors, friends, and colleagues once again. Communities must again create a sense of joint purpose, with networks of trust and mechanisms for citizens to involve themselves in collaborative problem-solving.

The cause of the war, then, determines the conduct of the war – which, in turn, shapes what happens after the war. It is not only “la guerre comme la guerre,” but also“la post-guerre comme la guerre.”

So, in the period following a civil war or a protracted ethnic conflict, the communal, grass-roots, civic level becomes crucial. Restoring the civic infrastructure is no less important than restoring the physical infrastructure. Furthermore, when one adversary group in the civil war emerges with a confident self-identity, it seemingly becomes more tolerant toward the “other.” Confidence breeds tolerance; insecurity breeds intolerance. Sturdy senses of self-identity, then, can help bring about a stronger, more equitable solution to the conflict. This was indeed the case in Northern Ireland and in South Africa; and this will happen in the Middle East and in Southeast Europe. In some respects, events in the former Yugoslav countries reflect that process, albeit predominantly at the national rather than the communal level. The election outcomes in Croatia, Serbia, and to a certain extent Bosnia-Herzegovina show people turning from extreme nationalism to more tolerant positions.

Modes of Recovery and Community Reconstruction

After (or during) mass disasters, mental-health professionals seek to help affected civilians, especially children, recover from the trauma and prevent any long-term impairments such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Ordinarily, this help comprises mental support, expressions of empathy, and acknowledgment of legitimate post-distress difficulties. In more serious cases, the treatment seeks to strengthen idiosyncratic coping mechanisms. Depending on the individual, these coping modes can fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • affect/emotional processing, addressed through such methods as enabling the expression of unconscious or repressed emotions (“abreaction”) and transforming uncontrollable anxieties into tolerable fears;
  • cognitive processing, addressed through such methods as reframing the situation and manipulating the person’s cognitive appraisal; and
  • active-behavioral processing, addressed through such methods as encouraging active behavior and practicing preferred behavioral patterns.

Nowadays, both local and international projects mobilize to provide such help in areas undergoing severe trauma, whether the trauma originates in manmade evil, such as a war, act of terrorism, or series of atrocities, or natural disaster, such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami. Typically, however, these psychosocial programs limit themselves to traumatized individuals and shattered families.

Only rarely do they expand beyond the family and into the community, the larger society, or the region – but when they do, these more holistic approaches can help the civic fabric. In the wake of a disaster, affect processing, cognitive processing, and active-behavioral processing can and should apply to whole communities, not just to individuals and families. NYS programs, manned by young and typically healthy men and women, can become a major source of help here, in restoring not just community services but the sense of community

In the last twenty years, several key concepts have emerged within the social sciences that shift the focus from individual-based to community-based modes of post-stress recovery. We would like to focus on three examples: Social Capital, Citizenship Behavior, and Service-Learning.

Social Capital. Though occasionally heard earlier, the term social capital became widely used only in the 1990s, mostly through the fascinating field research conducted by Robert Putnam. Putnam defines social capital as “features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (1993a, p. 167). James Coleman describes it in greater detail: “The more extensively persons call on one another for aid, the greater will be the quantity of social capital generated…. Social relationships die out if not maintained: expectations and obligations wither over time; and norms depend on regular communication” (1990, p. 321). Coleman also provides in-vivo examples that illustrate how social capital can become a powerful basic resource. Here is one (1990, p. 303):

A mother of six children, who moved with her husband and children from suburban Detroit to Jerusalem, describes as one reason for doing so the greater freedom her young children have in Jerusalem. She feels it is safe to let her eight-year-old take the six-year-old across town to school on the city bus and to let her children play without supervision in a city park, neither of which did she feel able to allow where she lived before. The reason for this difference can be described as a difference in the social capital available in Jerusalem and in suburban Detroit. In Jerusalem the normative structure ensures that unattended children will be looked after by adults in the vicinity, but no such normative structure exists in most metropolitan areas of the United States. One can say that families in Jerusalem have available to them social capital that does not exist in metropolitan areas of the United States.

Social capital, then, stands atop social norms, habits, and traditions. But at the day-to-day level, it wields (and gains) its strength through such simple communal activities as citizens’ meetings, neighborhood gatherings, voluntary teamwork, support groups, and social clubs for dancing, music, and games.

A classic way of enhancing social capital is by instituting voluntary youth service within a community or within the diverse communities of a society. Following William James’s famous call for a “moral equivalent of war” (1910), numerous youth volunteers, operating through different frameworks in different countries around the world, now serve to foster social capital in their communities. In addition to the examples cited above, American organizations include New York’s City Volunteer Corps and Boston’s City Year (Goldsmith, 1993).

The NYSC cadets working in remote villages in the post-traumatized Nigeria; the volunteers undertaking psycho-social projects in earthquake-stricken areas of Japan, Armenia, and Turkey; the massive volunteer activities initiated after the 2004 southeast Asia tsunami – all these illustrate young volunteers enhancing social capital and community resilience following a major disaster. The major international aid bodies with which young volunteers work include UNICEF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Catholic Relief Service, and the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.

In many countries with strife between ethnic or religious minorities, volunteer youth organizations can help minimize civil tension and promote common identity simply by example: they show that youth from all demographic categories can work effectively together, the melting pot in action (Eberly & Sherraden, 1990). Such is the case, for example, with Canada’s Katimavik organization, where youth of French and English background serve together in different provinces, as well as Nigeria’s NYSC. Only recently in Israel, young Jews and Arabs have started to serve together in volunteer groups with the aim of easing political and religious tensions, as will be discussed further below.

But how does social capital become a strengthening force for community reconstruction?

A huge body of literature, encompassing many field research and systematic observations, decisively answers this question (see, for example, Putnam, 1993(a), 1993(b); Coleman, 1990). These civic engagements and social connections called social capital clearly produce better schools, faster economic development, lower crime rates, and more effective government services. Furthermore, social capital is positively associated with people’s health and with the welfare of children (Putnam, 2000). All these findings indicate that a community can recover from conflict or war far more easily if the community has substantial social capital. Its members share higher mutual trust and collaboration, and they exhibit higher levels of well-being.

Citizenship Behavior. Although not as operationally defined as social capital, citizenship behavior is marked, above all, by active participation in the public affairs of one’s community (Walzer, 1980). This modern notion of citizenship diverges from traditional republican citizenship, embedded in the classical republics of Greece and Rome, which emphasizes loyalty toward the homeland and the performance of civic duties. By contrast, the liberal tradition of citizenship, originating in the philosophy of Locke and Jefferson, focuses more on the rights of the citizen, and highly values civic involvement without characterizing it as a duty.

Stemming from this perspective, citizenship behavior means “being familiar with the basic tenets of [one’s] state and respecting them, especially those tenets concerning the effective working of a democracy: the separation of powers, the supremacy of the law, the democratic procedure for electing a government and for legislating, and for reviewing government activities” (Hareven, 1996). Another expression of a liberal version of citizenship behavior is civic initiative. These initiatives can take place in many fields, such as politics, economic enterprise, environmental protection, civil rights, education, and culture. Finally, a higher level of citizenship behavior may involve ameliorating other citizens’ miseries and attending to others’ needs.

Reflecting such a view of citizenship behavior is the proliferation of NGOs in democratic countries. The rise of NGOs and of citizenship involvement in general attests to a growing recognition that “in a civil society not everything depends on government, but citizens can assume a great deal of initiative for change, independently of government, or in cooperation with it.” (Hareven, 1996)

This is exactly the raison d’etre of most NYS programs: before devoting several years to self-development – whether through higher education, job training, or some other self-interest initiative – a young citizen can model the right “citizenship behavior” by giving a year or two of time and energy to the society. And while the society undoubtedly gains, the youth does, too.

Citizenship behavior, thus, produces two valuable outcomes: a stronger and more effective community, and individuals who feel a sense of empowerment and self-efficacy.

Service-Learning. “Civil society will not survive without a new generation of engaged citizens. Bringing up youth with more entertainment or possessions has produced neither gratitude nor enlightenment. Regulating and controlling has led to rebellion and destructive acts. Dead-end jobs paying little and teaching less are not the answer … [only] the wisdom of combining service and schooling … provides a better path” (Kielsmeier, 1998, p. 28). These were the fervent words of James C. Kielsmeier, one of the world’s leading advocates of service-learning. Service-learning is a form of experiential education that combines structured opportunities for acquiring academic skills, reflection on the normative dimensions of civic life, and activity that addresses community needs or assists individuals or families in need (Hunter, 2000).

Service-learning programs are widespread today at all levels of schooling. About 83 percent of schools and universities in Argentina have them, as do about half of schools and universities in the United States. Typically, students at all levels rank these programs among of the most significant parts of their education (Gray et. al., 1999). Furthermore, students who participate in service-learning programs often change their perceptions of democratic governance and the practice of politics, become more willing and more likely to participate in voluntary programs, and gain an enhanced sense of competence and commitment. For illustration, here is one example (Rattanamuk, 2003):

Thammasat University in Thailand instituted the Graduate Volunteer Diploma Program in 1969. Its aim is to help cadets “see their service in the larger context of social justice and social policy rather than simple charity.” Following four months of classroom study related to sociology and rural development, cadets serve for seven months in rural areas on projects related to such topics as nutrition and soil improvement. The service period includes five days to get together with fellow cadets to reflect on the service experiences, and after service cadets submit a mini-thesis integrating their classroom studies with the learning gained from their field experiences. In 2002, the Thai government was devising a plan to use the GVDP as the basis for engaging some 70,000 university graduates to serve as development volunteers.

To summarize, then, the expanding implementation of service-learning programs throughout the world is transforming many thousands of students from passive members to active participants, from help-seekers to help-providers, from at-risk to at-strength, and from self-centered youth to service-oriented leaders (Eberly & Kielsmeier, 1991).

An Israeli Example

Israel exists under the pressure of continuous wars and struggles. While the repeated wars are between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the struggles mostly relate to Israel’s diverse population and minorities. Twenty percent of the population of the Jewish state of Israel are Arabs (both Muslims and Christians). Although citizens, these Israeli Arabs are not allowed to serve in the Israeli conscription-based military (Gal & Sherraden, 1990), nor do they enjoy fully equal rights. This situation has generated repeated tensions throughout the years.

Since the mid-1990s, a major effort has been launched to include Arab youth, between the ages of 18 and 22, in the existing frameworks of voluntary youth service (Gal, 1999). Most of these Arab volunteers, predominantly women, serve in their communities, among their own people. A small number, however, have preferred to serve alongside Jewish women. Researchers at Carmel Institute interviewed these young volunteers after the first year of mixed teams (2000-2001). All the volunteers who served together said that the experience had changed their attitudes. They no longer saw the “others” as a monolithic stereotype, but rather as individuals.

As one Arab girl who, after initial apprehensiveness of serving in a Jewish school and being the only Arab, summarized: “Everyone is equal, and we must move on with life, move past the political situation and continue with our lives.”

Several Arab girls reported that serving together “turns your head upside down,” that it helps very much to change stigmas and stereotypes. One Jewish girl said about her close Arab friend serving with her: “before anything, she is an individual.” (RG)

Arab girls who reported on successfully integrating into the Jewish setting (such as a school) expressed a new sense of connection to the state and a sense of the importance of their contributions, as well as a feeling of being accepted by the greater society and positive feelings about their contributions to it.

The Arab volunteers speak about their desire to feel as part of the country, an attachment to the country, that they gained through their service. As one girl explained: “The actual ‘doing’ of the national service gave me a certain connection to the country, a connection which is no longer expressed in words only.” (RG)

One should keep in mind that these testimonies were made only six months after some terrible clashes between police forces and Arab citizens, in the northern region (Galil) of Israel. Thirteen Israeli-Arabs were killed in these riots, many were wounded, and almost all were traumatized. Yet mixed community service prevailed. We hope to see it expand further, and thereby help lead the way toward communal recovery and peaceful coexistence.


Regional tensions, civil wars, and ethnic conflict – as well as natural disasters – are usually handled by military forces or political interventions, on the one hand, or by professional health-care givers, on the other. Another resource, that of NYS, can be brought to bear in these situations. Further, all of those involved in rescue, relief, and rehabilitation must keep in mind the concepts of social capital, service-learning, and citizenship behavior. These resources, in turn, can develop and empower local forces – such as lay leaders, social networks, and support groups – in the crisis aftermath, and thus provide crucial leverage for community reconstruction.

Though the strength of a chain depends on the individual links, the opposite can be true when it comes to recovering communities: the well-being of each individual depends in part on the health of the civic community. The still-developing concepts of social capital, citizenship behavior, and service-learning can significantly contribute to post-conflict and post-disaster recovery.


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1 Donald J. Eberly has been Honorary President of the International Association for National Youth Service since 1998. He founded the National Service Secretariat in the United States in 1966 and served as its executive director from then until 1994. He has written widely about national service and related topics. Reuven Gal is director of Israel’s Civic Service Authority, founder and former director of the Carmel Institute for Social Studies in Israel and former Deputy to the Head of the Israeli National Security Council for Internal and Societal Affairs.

Mr. Eberly and Dr. Gal are the authors of the newly published book Service Without Guns, available at, from which this article is adapted. Copyright 2006 by Donald J. Eberly and Reuven Gal. Reprinted by permission.