Understanding CR #5: A three stage approach to practising Conflict Resolution

In my last post I will present three practical approaches to Conflict Resolution that I believe can build constructive change in societies that have suffered violent conflict, and suffer deep divisions.  I am looking at the resolution process from the perspective of it being the field that will imply stages such as constructive conflict management, constructive peacebuilding, and working from a bottom-up approach.  You are now probably thinking, what do I mean by constructive? Let’s explore!

Getting to Yes, not to “Oh, what have we done?”

By constructive conflict management I understand negotiating, or mediating an agreement which will set foundations for a positive change. In the past, ending a conflict was mainly about having a winner and a loser[1]. I believe a more constructive approach to managing conflicts is to get to win-win situations. Fisher and Ury argue that reaching an agreement should improve rather than damage relationships. In order to get to this stage, they suggest the following[2]:

  1. Don’t bargain over positions, it is inefficient. Focus on interests instead.
  2. Be neither hard nor soft, but principled (separate the people from the problem!)
  3. Share the “pie”/use integrative bargaining/aim for a win-win situation

What about (constructive) peacebuilding?

  1. Different conflicts, different cultures. Do not even stop to think that Western ways of solving problems will fit everywhere. Take into consideration local culture. That requires hard work, I know.[3]
  2. Rebuild state capacity.
  3. Separating people physically will only worsen the problem in the long term. Look for solutions that integrate rather than divide the people. [4]
  4. Implement programmes that transform relationships. [5]
  5. Look at gender issues. Women ‘s participation in peace processes can make a big difference.[6]
  6. Forgive but never forget:  encourage reconciliation through restorative and retributive justice practices.

Working our way up

After ten months in Bosnia I wrote an article and asked “What are they doing trying to build a house by starting with the roof and making their way down?” That was the peacebuilding I witnessed was mainly practiced there.  Another question followed: “Would it not make more sense to start with the foundation and work our way up?”

The conclusion I got to was that peacebuilding should at least start at the bottom. Grassroots organisations have a lot more capacity to implement programmes, and gain the trust of the local population than “Western imperialists who came to enslave us, bringing in their banks, McDonalds, and clothing brands”[7].  Everyone is grateful at first, but then they get suspicious: is there anyone they can really trust in the aftermath of violent conflict (sometimes ethnic cleansing, or even genocide)?

Grassroots work can change people/transform relationships at the personal and community level, with the necessary resources. The only issue we still have though, is it takes a long time; maybe a few generations. Funders in the field of peacebuilding want to see social change, clear results that the money is worth investing in peace, in a certain region. In fact, who wouldn’t? This takes us to the next issue. How do we measure social impact, and social change? Theorists who research peacebuilding evaluation seem to be struggling to answer that question. [8]

A way to clearly see social impact and change in a post conflict/conflict society is by large scale non-violent social movements. For example: Liberia, Argentina, the Civil Rights movement. Is it right then to argue that conflict resolution and social movements should act together? If political entrepreneurs and ethnic activists can mobilise populations to turn violent, can peace activists, and peacebuilders mobilise them for positive social change? How do we build a successful, “visible”, non-violent movement, in societies that are divided, with dissidents, high rates of violence, and in some cases a youth bulge with grievances?

Am I asking too many questions, already?  Hopefully I will have plenty of words to answer some of them in my future research.


[1] Take for example the two world wars.

[2] Fisher, Ury, Getting to Yes- Negotiating an agreement without giving in, (London: Random House Business Books, 1999)

[3] Paul Kimmel, Culture and Conflict, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, eds. Morton Deutsch, Peter Coleman, and Eric Marcus (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), pp 625-649

[4] As seen in the cases of Northern Ireland, and Bosnia, where divisions allow for the conflict to continue.

[5] John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, (Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2003)

[6] Canadian International Development Agency, Gender Equality- Peacebuilding, 2011, pp 2-3

[7] Very often heard among Bosnian youth.

[8] Andrew Blum, Improving Peacebuilding Evaluation, (Washington: USIP, 2011), p 1

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