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Social Capital, the Reintegration of Ex-Combatants, and Peacebuilding in Post-War Liberia

Social Capital, the Reintegration of Ex-Combatants, and Peacebuilding in Post-War Liberia

Photo credit: United Nations

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kilroy, W. & Basini, Helen S. A. (2018). Social capital made explicit: The role of norms, networks, and trust in reintegrating ex-combatants and peacebuilding in Liberia. International Peacekeeping, 25(3), 349-372.

Talking Points

  • Social capital—in the form of trust, norms, and networks—is central to how the reintegration of ex-combatants has played out in post-war Liberia but also is itself a key product of these reintegration processes.
  • While ex-combatants’ trust in the DDR program could be undermined when their expectations for the program were not met—with broader implications for their ability to trust the new governmental authorities—ex-combatants’ desire to be trusted by their receiving communities was a strong motivator for them and shaped their efforts to be productive members of society.
  • Adhering to behavioral norms was important to ex-combatants in order to show their communities that they had undergone some form of personal transformation since the war.
  • Social networks—whether family, friends, and so on, or in some cases former combatant comrades—proved essential to ex-combatants’ reintegration into their communities, in the form of both economic and social support.
  • Social capital is crucial to understanding not only how reintegration proceeds but also how reintegration may contribute to broader peacebuilding processes in Liberia and elsewhere.


When war comes to an end, one of the most pressing tasks is to ensure that those who fought—and may have built their identities and livelihoods around their combatant status—can return to find a meaningful place in society and be accepted by their fellow community members. This process of reintegration (usually combined with disarmament and demobilization to constitute what is generally referred to as a “DDR” program for ex-combatants), if successful, can contribute in significant ways to the broader peacebuilding project after violent conflict. The authors wish, therefore, to explore the mechanisms by which reintegration unfolds—and particularly the role that social capital plays in this process. More specifically, they ask: “To what extent is social capital a factor in how reintegration proceeds, and in how reintegration can ultimately contribute to peacebuilding?” Following Putnam, the authors categorize social capital into its components of trust, norms, and networks and use these to structure their analysis of reintegration processes in post-war Liberia.

DDR: Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (of ex-combatants)Reintegration: “a wide-ranging social and economic process through which ex-combatants gain civilian status and a livelihood.” (Authors’ definition, adapted/paraphrased from UN definition.)

Social capital: “features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.”

Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

The second Liberian civil war ended in 2003, with the primary DDR program running from December 2003 to June 2008 (and a supplementary program running from July 2008 to April 2009). The DDR program—overseen by a national commission and implemented by the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and other national and international agencies—entailed fighters handing in their weapons, registering, and then spending about five days in a demobilization center to receive “basic supports, food, health screening, and civic education/counselling.” Afterwards, they were provided with “immediate practical support” and “returned to the community of their choice” where they then enrolled in either school or vocational training. The authors conducted their research in Liberia in 2007, 2010, and 2011, employing a variety of research methods, including focus groups, surveys, and interviews with both female and male ex-combatants, as well as community members, women’s groups, and international, national, and local organizations involved in DDR work.

The authors found that social capital—in the form of trust, norms, and networks—is central to how reintegration processes have played out in Liberia but also that it is a key product of these reintegration processes. Two kinds of trust were especially notable in the Liberian reintegration process: the trust ex-combatants did or did not have in the DDR program itself and the trust ex-combatants attempted to build with their receiving communities. With the first, trust could be undermined when ex-combatants’ expectations of the program did not match their experiences—whether due to inaccurate, heightened expectations or to actual failures on the part of the program to deliver on its promises. For instance, some ex-combatants mentioned not receiving their “start-up kits” to begin practicing their new trade, their training certificates, their stipends, or adequate child care during training. Furthermore, it mattered whether these shortcomings were perceived as mere oversights or as deliberate deception—with the latter obviously having worse implications for trust. In addition, many ex-combatants mentioned the issue of corruption in the DDR program—whether authorities stealing money or tools from the program or commanders selling off combatants’ weapons to civilians who could then collect DDR benefits. The authors note that undermined trust in the DDR program—whether through unmet expectations or through blatant corruption—likely translated into lower levels of trust in the new post-war governmental authorities, with clear implications for peacebuilding.

Additionally, it was clearly important for ex-combatants to re-establish trust in the communities where they were going to settle. When asked what was most useful about talking to communities before settling there, ex-combatants mentioned “acceptance, trust, or forgiveness” as the most important consideration. Furthermore, receiving a certificate or having a trade after the DDR training was not just important to ex-combatants for practical reasons; it also established ex-combatants as productive members of the community, providing them with a new identity and a reason for community members to trust them.

The authors also note the importance of norms—the second dimension of social capital—to facilitating reintegration. Although not all norms are necessarily conducive to reintegration, behavioral norms promoted by the DDR program and the broader community, as well as governance norms related to inclusion and the nonviolent settlement of disputes, constituted a new social contract, generating both “vertical social capital” (that between a state and its citizens) and “horizontal social capital” (that among citizens, especially between ex-combatants and their receiving communities). Adhering to behavioral norms—whether simply being “polite, respectful, and neighbourly,” adopting a newfound belief in Christianity, or reverting to traditional gender roles (in the case of female ex-combatants)—was important to ex-combatants in order to show their communities that they had undergone some form of personal transformation since the war.

Finally, ex-combatants drew on their various networks to help them reintegrate into the community. While many ex-combatants pointedly remarked on their efforts not to associate with former combatant networks, in an attempt to move on, others clearly did still draw on these combatant networks for daily socio-economic survival. But even more prominent was the simple use of broader social networks—family, friends, religious groups, etc.—not only to provide economic support but also to “foster trust and counter stigma” in the broader community by “vouch[ing] for” returning ex-combatants.

In the end, the authors argue that social capital is crucial to understanding not only how reintegration proceeds but also how reintegration may contribute to broader peacebuilding processes in Liberia and elsewhere.

Contemporary Relevance

Although the present research is focused on post-war Liberia, its central contention—that social capital is a key factor in how reintegration processes unfold when combatants return from the battlefield—is relevant to a range of post-war contexts. Certainly, how social capital will operate in each context is unique, but this research reminds us that what is important is simply to inquire into the role that trust, norms, and networks play in reintegration processes, lest we miss out on crucial dimensions of these processes. With regards to Colombia, for instance, which is currently in the process of reintegrating former FARC combatants as part of the peace agreement signed in 2016, we might ask the following questions: Do ex-combatants trust the authorities implementing the DDR process, and how does this trust (or lack thereof) influence their perceptions of the DDR program? Is the DDR program meeting ex-combatants’ expectations, and how is trust therefore being reinforced or undermined? What norms are being promoted by the DDR program, and do these resonate with other norms in the community or among former combatants? What social networks are ex-combatants already drawing on to navigate post-war life, both socially and economically, and how can these be leveraged by the DDR program? What are the implications of all these interactions between social capital and reintegration for peacebuilding, more broadly? As noted in some of the sources under Continued Reading, there are currently frustrations with the DDR program among ex-combatants in Colombia, in part due to the slow implementation of farming and/or vocational training programs. The present research makes us more attentive to the possible implications of such frustration for “vertical social capital”—the relationship and trust between citizens and their government—and for longer-term peacebuilding. In short, if the peace process is to succeed, former combatants must find a productive place within society where they feel valued and able to contribute, and they must also trust their government and feel as if it serves them as fully as it does other citizens.

Practical Implications

Reintegrating former combatants into society, ensuring that they become full, productive members of the community who trust their government and feel valued and trusted by their neighbors, is a crucial step in transforming and moving beyond violent conflict. This research provides an important piece of the puzzle for understanding the micro-dynamics that drive successful (or less successful) reintegration. There are, therefore, practical implications of the research for practitioners involved in DDR programs. First, it is important to remember that former combatants are socially embedded like the rest of us, with their own forms of social capital, which DDR programs should take into consideration and build upon; as the authors note, DDR programs do not just start from scratch generating social capital in the societies in which they operate. Second, DDR practitioners need to have heightened awareness of the issue of trust—and the way it can be undermined if they do not follow through with their end of the DDR “bargain” (fulfilling obligations vis-à-vis skills training, employment, and so on). This includes more clearly communicating the benefits of the program and tamping down on rumors involving inflated expectations, as these can contribute to undermined trust if ex-combatants genuinely think that the program is going to deliver something that it is never going to. As probably one of the first venues ex-combatants have for interacting with “authorities” after the war, DDR programs have real potential to build trust between ex-combatants and their governments as long as they are well run.

Third, it is important that DDR programs not discount the value of ex-combatant networks, while being mindful of the risks associated with remobilization. Although some ex-combatants may wish not to associate with their former comrades-in-arms in an effort to break ties with their old selves and carve out fully new identities, others may naturally turn to fellow fighters—those who may have been their main friends and trusted confidants for the past several years—for economic and social support amid the uncertainty of the post-war context. Finally, as ex-combatants are eager to establish new identities and become trusted members of their communities, it is also important—as mentioned in the video linked under Continued Reading—to prepare society for the re-entry of ex-combatants; in other words, the focus of DDR programs cannot simply be on the ex-combatants alone, without attention to the wider community to which they will be returning. This is easier said than done, of course, as many members of society may have experienced violations at the hands of these very individuals. Trust-building and forgiveness are slow, uncertain processes and will likely require broader transitional justice mechanisms at the societal level before they can unfold at the interpersonal level.

Continued Reading

Colombia: Reintegrating 14,000 Ex-combatants Remains a Challenge, Security Council Told By UN News. January 10, 2018.

Colombia: After the Violence By Sara Reardon. Nature, Vol. 560, No. 7716, August 2018.

Disarming the Mind Produced/directed by Adam Levy. Nature, May 3, 2018.

The Reintegration of Former Combatants in Colombia By Isabella Flisi. Oxford Research Group, February 13, 2017.

Life After War: Watch as Colombia Celebrates Peace with FARC Rebels By Sofia Lotto Persio. Newsweek, June 27, 2017.

Keywords: social capital, ex-combatants, DDR, reintegration, peace building, Libera


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