The Double-Edged Sword of Participation in Post-Conflict Contexts

Local participation is important. Decentralised reforms and the involvement of local governance do not only promote participation, but also conflict management. Nevertheless, even in legally defined decentralised countries, inequalities in access to participation still exist. This is the conclusion of a study on participation in post-conflict societies by Hanna Leonardsson and Jean-Bosco Habyarimana.

On 05 April, the Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy organised an exchange on local governance with the main theme Local Democracy: The double-edged sword of participation in post-conflict contexts. The event focused on the question of what influences participation in local contexts. It also addressed how research findings can be taken up in local politics and how to ensure that the resulting recommendations are implemented. Researchers Hanna Leonardsson, University of Gothenburg and Jean-Bosco Habyarimana, University of Rwanda/Swedish Institute of Foreign Policy shared their academic perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of local governance. Augustine Kyalo Mutiso, Director of Citizen Engagement, Machakos County, illustrated the topic from a local perspective.

The participants agreed that it is not enough for citizens to participate in important political meetings, but that they must also have a voice in decision-making.

In their study, Leonardsson and Habyamarimana refer specifically to two exemplary contexts: Lebanon, which was in civil war for 15 years (1957-1989) and Kenya, which had recurring cycles of violence especially in relations with elections (e.g. 2007).

While Kenya has shifted the distribution of power from the national to the regional level, in Lebanon the idea of decentralisation reform was enshrined in the 1989 peace agreement but has not been implemented to date.

Even though the countries have different preconditions, the results of the study nevertheless show that inequalities exist equally in both countries. During the survey it became apparent that certain population groups, e.g. women and youth, are granted less participation in decision-making processes.

Relationships with local decision-makers also play an important role in influencing local decisions. But it is not only local networking that governs the process. The ability to influence decision-making depends heavily on who one is connected to at the national level and which party is currently in power. This has the advantage that elected people from less privileged groups can make their group's voice heard. At the same time, however, it also leads to the processes becoming more vague and less transparent.

For this reason, researchers speak of a double-edged sword.

Augustine Kyalo Mutiso made these findings tangible in his presentation based on his local experiences in Kenya. Mutiso recounted that for a long time, the people in Kenya were not included in government processes and felt misunderstood by the national government. This changed with the constitutional reform of 2010. In addition to a national government, the country now has 47 county governments that operate at the local level and promote the participation of all citizens.

According to him, the district governments have enacted laws, regulations and policies to promote citizen participation and are therefore seen as being closer to the people and more inclusive. This extends all the way down to the villages. Nevertheless, Mutiso raises issues including cost, tokenism of influence and low participation due to the remoteness of some areas. He believes that districts should increase the quantity and quality of civic education. This means that citizens should understand their role in the administration and, based on this, participate more in decision-making. In his opinion, improved communication between citizens and government (including translating decisions into local languages and appropriate formats) and creating incentives for participation are needed to strengthen local governance.  

The participants agreed that the local level is a contested field, and the issue of local democracy in post-conflict contexts should be further discussed and prioritised in future meetings.  


To learn more about the research project or approaches to local governance in conflict areas, visit these links: