Challenging and reinforcing the status quo: Services, civil society and conflict in the MENA region

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How and why do civil society organisations (CSOs) engage with service delivery and with what consequences for political change in conflict-affected contexts? Most existing work in this area focuses on specialist NGO service provision, concluding that this remains a relatively apolitical sphere of activity with little relevance for peace and conflict dynamics. By examining the experience of CSOs in three countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, we show that engagement with services plays a crucial, yet highly varied and hitherto under-studied, role in these organisations’ efforts to build legitimacy and pursue their political goals, with potentially important implications for peace and conflict dynamics. By bringing literature on social movements into conversation with research on NGOs and civil society in conflict settings, and drawing on interviews with key informants, we develop a novel tripartite framework for understanding civil society engagement with service delivery. We identify three main patterns where CSOs’ engagement with services contributes to political change and highlight the dynamic interaction between these three patterns: providing to initiate a challenge (where services provision is used as a means of establishing new organisations that are critical of the status quo by bolstering community-level legitimacy), protesting (where services are used as a focal point for critical groups’ mobilisation and coalition building) and providing to reinforce (where groups that are supportive of the status quo use civil society service provision to shore up support). We show that in the MENA region, civil society’s engagement with service delivery makes an important but mixed contribution to political change. While it can contribute indirectly to political transformation by cultivating the legitimacy of new civil society groups or provide a focal point for a wider critique of the status quo, it can also undermine a shift towards political transformation by entrenching the position of existing elites.
Original languageEnglish
Article number106685
Number of pages12
JournalWorld Development
Early online date6 Jun 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Jun 2024

Data Availability Statement

The authors do not have permission to share data.


We are extremely grateful to the respondents who gave up their time to be interviewed for this research. We are also grateful to colleagues who provided feedback on earlier drafts and assisted us in other ways: Rana Jawad, Sophie Plagerson, Tina Jaskolski, Janan Aljabiri, Mar Logrono, Walid Merouani, Maysa Baroud, Sam Nadel, and Ali Hamoudi. We are also grateful to participants at the 2023 MENASP conference in Rabat for their constructive feedback.


  • Civil society
  • Conflict
  • Protests
  • Services
  • Social movements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Sociology and Political Science

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