What can the Thinking and Working Politically community learn from peace and conflict mediation?

July 24, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Alex Douglas from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue adds some useful insights for adaptive management/TWP from his vantage point in peace building

Wily aid practitioners have long understood the importance of adapting their programs to the political environment, and even use their activities to push politics in a progressive direction.  But this magic was spun secretly, hidden behind logframes and results frameworks.  Only recently has a range of programs been permitted to escape the dead hand of technocracy.

But there was one corner of the development and humanitarian world that never needed to shroud its political ambitions; those of us working on resolving violent conflicts.  Donors have always understood our work could never be disembodied from politics. This field included elements of the UN, regional organisations, and NGOs, such as the one I work for: the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.  With a new focus on development being enabled by a series of ‘deals’ between different actors, it seems timely to examine the strategies used to reach peace agreements and whether they contain broader lessons for TWP/DDD/Adaptive Management.

Look for Mutually Hurting Stalemates

Much of the thinking in the TWP community has rightly focused on identifying and exploiting critical junctures.  The mediation community has come to a different conclusion.  Rather than fleeting moments of opportunity, look for a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ in which both parties gradually accept they can no longer win the conflict outright, but instead are trapped in a cycle of unacceptable losses. When trapped in such stalemates, the willingness to accept difficult concessions is unlikely to arrive in a flash of insight, but rather will probably accumulate gradually.

Thinks About Processes, Not Just Outcomes

The striking of deals or even the building of consensus requires an ongoing negotiation process that allows the parties to build trust and converge on a mutually acceptable outcome.  But perhaps more important, this negotiation processes allow leaders to reconcile themselves with the concessions they will need to make.

It is common for peace agreements to contain provisions which would have been unthinkable to parties at the beginning of negotiations.  But they are eventually accepted because leaders have progressively invested more and more of their own political credibility in the process.  For development practitioners this means reaching out to their adversaries early, then thinking carefully about what type of negotiation process and architecture could be used to resolve the dispute. If a campaign’s goal is to secure living wages for plantation workers, it could start by convening agricultural corporations and workers on mutually beneficial issues such as productivity-enhancing technology. These types of confidence building measures can build relationships and shape attitudes enabling future deals on more contentious issues.

Engage the Potential Spoilers

Conflict polarises societies and often results in groups behaving reprehensively.  Many times peace processes have excluded these groups for having unrealistic goals or simply being morally offensive.  Their exclusion has often haunted peace negotiations, as these ‘spoilers’ seek to derail the process with violence.

For this reason when working on policy change the exclusion of regressive constituencies from negotiation processes should only be done as a last resort.  While there may be actors that are implacably opposed to a reform, they are often impossible to identify without engaging them. Sometimes convincing a potential enemy of reform to only oppose a reform half-heartedly is a valuable contribution. In the words of Lyndon Johnson, it is better to have potential spoilers ‘inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in’

The Challenges of a Fragmenting Opposition

Conflicts are settled because groups mutually agree to behave differently in the future (share power, withdraw military forces, disarm etc).  But they will only uphold their end of the bargain if they believe that their opposition is both willing and capable of upholding its own commitments. When groups fragment into smaller constituents it prevents leaders making credible commitments.  This fragmentation is common among armed groups and requires peace mediators to build cohesive umbrella bodies that can genuinely speak on behalf of multiple constituencies.

While there may be times when it is expedient to fracture your opposition, there will be others where fragmentation makes it impossible to reach a successful deal . For development practitioners, this underlines the important (but awkward) task of promoting the cohesion of groups that oppose reform.

Conclusion: All of this may seem extremely transactional, with an undue focus on reaching consensus rather than fighting for justice.  There may be times when progressive reform requires the total defeat of the opposition, but there are other circumstances where the most viable solution is to facilitate a deal between sections of powerful elites and sections of the citizenry.  And for that, we can look to the spotted history of peace and conflict mediation for ideas.