Conflict Prevention and New Year’s Resolutions

This year, I’ve resolved to exercise daily, get eight hours of sleep every night, eat less sugar and fat and more fiber and protein, floss nightly…

Yeah, right!

Most of us have figured out that we can’t change multiple bad habits at once; nor can we expect perfection of ourselves even if we do concentrate on just one change. But some of the things you hear about the prevention of violent conflict actually sound like this unrealistic set of new year’s resolutions. (I know, that’s a leap, but bear with me.)

One influential theory of conflict prevention comes from the Carnegie Corporation’s seminal report, Preventing Deadly Conflict. Published in 1997, the report distinguishes between “operational” and “structural” prevention. The operational variety is more short term and involves diplomatic, military, or economic engagement to interrupt the onset or escalation of violence. The structural variety–synonymous with peacebuilding, per the report–is more about long-term societal improvements that will make people less likely to undertake political violence. A country seeking to prevent armed conflict should make law enforcement and the legal system fair and efficient; ensure full access to jobs, education and health care; eliminate inequalities between different demographic groups; ensure religious, cultural, and linguistic freedom… Now see the parallel to those new year’s resolutions? Is there really no hope for peace unless this paradise is achieved?

I have been thinking about this question for quite a while, since I started teaching the course Conflict Assessment & Prevention (developed by Prof. Anthony Wanis-St. John). The structural-v.-operational prevention framework was a big step forward in theorizing conflict prevention, but how to prioritize among the many worthy economic, political, and social goals of structural prevention?

I’ve been playing with the beginnings of a three-part theory to help answer this. First, prevention efforts must focus on grievances. For example, if we were to look at racial tensions in the U.S., we might focus first on grievances of the African-American community around mistreatment by police. We might also look at the complaint among poorer whites that they are victims of reverse discrimination in, say, college admissions. Second, perhaps the key thing is direction of change. If people can honestly tell their children that things will be better for them (in terms of those key grievances), perhaps that’s reason enough not to answer a call to arms. Third, while the objective reality is important, just as important is the narrative. What story are people telling about their problems, and about the direction of change? The term “grievance” actually implies this narrative aspect–it’s not only about what’s objectively wrong, but what people feel aggrieved about, which is based in part on their perceptions about what should be different, which in turn may be influenced by what community leaders tell them should be different. This suggests that conflict prevention requires a shifting of narratives, and perhaps that real, positive change needs to be accompanied by a bit of a promotional campaign to help make that shift.

There is a very exciting report due out next month by a joint UN-World Bank team on conflict prevention, based on numerous case studies. (Well, it’s exciting for peace-and-conflict geeks like me… and maybe you.) That team released a preliminary, summary report late last year, and it puts a lot of focus on addressing grievances. I’m eager to dig in to the longer report and see if the research supports the other parts of my theory. Meanwhile, I’m interested in your feedback: How did you prioritize your goals or resolutions for 2018? And, what do you think of the framework I’ve proposed for prioritizing structural conflict prevention goals?

Facilitating Better Governance?

Last night my father, Ahmad Ghais, spoke to a group I belong to here in Colorado called the International Business Circle. He spoke (alongside Monir Ludin and moderator Paul Kullman) on the topic of the origins of Islamist extremism. It was a great discussion (and nice for me to be a relaxed audience member instead of the speaker!). As you might expect, the Arab Spring came up, and with it the question of whether Arabs are “ready for democracy.”

Well, this one always gets me a little riled up. Some say Arab culture or the Islamic faith is not compatible with democracy, which always strikes me as condescending. Isn’t everyone in the world capable of expressing their interests and needs in the political sphere? Does anyone really deserve to live in a society where innocents can be thrown in jail? Some folks are enthusiastic to help political development in other countries by setting up democratic institutions modeled after ours; others say it’s none of our business how another country governs itself and we have no right to impose our system on others.

The problem with these debates is that when we talk about democracy, or even a broader term like good governance, the assumption is that the Western models–parliamentary systems and presidential systems–are the only way to go. These standard models do bear features of Western culture, especially individualism and competitiveness, and I’m not aware of much serious work in helping develop new or hybrid models that respond to local needs and cultures (although this book presents the interesting case of Malaysia).

If we break down this huge concept democracy into its component parts or functions, we can ask how these functions can be accomplished in a way suitable to the particular society. Components might include government accountability, popular participation, separation and limitation of powers, rule of law, etc. Let’s take  popular participation as an example. As Monir pointed out last night, there is a long tradition in Islamic thought and practice of shura, or consultation. What if we asked, Where is shura working well? Who conducts it? What institutions and skills are required? What are its shortcomings and how might they be overcome? How can we replicate what works and adjust what doesn’t?

The practice of facilitation has much to offer here to help resolve the tension in wanting to help but not wanting to impose our way of life. A facilitator manages the process, while group participants do the substance, from conveying their views and interests and needs to making decisions. The facilitator can be a catalyst, but is in no way imposing outcomes.

What if every not-so-democratic country undertook the exercise, in an inclusive, participatory manner, of figuring out what good governance should look like for themselves? What if local facilitators managed the discussion and fed results into a national dialogue or a constitution-building forum? What if the role of the outsider was to help stimulate and facilitate this discussion, in partnership with local facilitators? Maybe then we’d end up with some models of democracy that might actually work in their host countries.

Of course, any good governance requires the slow, painstaking process of building institutions as well as the mental shift among citizens of understanding their own role in governance. Last night, my dad pointed out that most Arabs identify governance with the individual leader rather than with institutions. In such respects, it is true that most Arab societies have a long way to go. We also need to remember, of course, that our own system of governance is far from perfect, that our democracy will (hopefully) continue to evolve, and that we don’t have the perfect recipe even for our own society, let alone others. Maybe, though, we can help others if we come with humility and a facilitative approach.

Peacemakers & Peacebuilders, Take Heart

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Alliance for Peacebuilding‘s annual conference. It was my first time attending, and I think it’s my new favorite conference, striking what for me is the right balance of practical and practitioner-friendly topics but well informed by scholarship. One thing that struck me was how   no one was dwelling on the difficult current political climate. Instead, everyone seemed fully engaged in whatever issues, regions, or goals they were working on; all seemed to continue with hope.

What about you? If you work in peacebuilding, peacemaking, conflict resolution, etc.–or are merely interested in these subjects–have you been feeling discouraged? I’ve certainly had my moments. These are not the brightest days for peace. Nativist, nationalist, exclusionary movements are ascendant in places ranging from Europe and the US to Turkey and India. The number of armed conflicts reached a post-Cold War peak of 52 in 2015, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. There’s a bit of an epidemic of presidents-cum-dictators overstaying their constitutional term limits in Africa. The danger of nuclear war feels the highest it’s been since the 1980s. You’ve got some solid reasons for that grim look on your face.

The reality looks a bit different, though, if you step back and look at longer-term trends. Check out this graph from the Human Security Report 2013, p. 18:

It shows a bumpy but steep decline in deaths from armed conflict (where at least one party is a state) since the end of World War II. The graph only goes to 2008, but the number of deaths from armed conflict in 2016 was around 90,000 according to UCDP, still below the first horizontal line in this graph — still a historic low.

Things are not quite as happy in the category of “one-sided violence” (see chart below or here) — that is, organized violence targeting civilians, a category that includes both terrorism (included in the black bars) and attacks on civilians by government forces (red bars). (The 1994 red bar is literally off the chart at >500,000 due to the Rwandan genocide.) The recent peak of 2014 is driven by the Islamic State and others closely connected to Syria’s civil war; it is coming back down. Even better, state violence against civilians (the red bars) is down considerably in the last 10 years compared to the previous 15.

So while war is down overall (despite a recent uptick), terrorism has been stubborn. However, there’s another interesting point about terrorism. A State Department report notes on p. 5 that “74% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Pakistan).” That means the bulk of the problems are in a few countries plagued by civil war or instability (and notice that the top two were invaded by the United States after the 9/11 attacks). This suggests that terrorism is more symptomatic of broader political conflict than its own distinct threat. Groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram exploit chaos and lawlessness. So to tackle terrorism, we need to keep working to end wars.

And we need to keep getting better at it, which I think we are, slowly. Peace processes account for more war terminations than ever before. In the period 2000-2006 (the latest data I could find), 61% of civil wars ended by negotiation rather than military victory (per Caroline Hartzell, “Civil War Termination,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Oct. 2016). That’s compared to numbers well under 30% during the Cold War. Lots of peace negotiations fail, but later resume. Many countries at peace today underwent several distinct peace processes before finally landing on a workable, comprehensive settlement. There is progress to show for all of humanity’s peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts. The political winds will change again. We need to press on.

How Much Agreement Is Enough in a Multiparty Negotiation?

My 9-year-old daughter has her multiplication facts down cold. She can give a fast answer to any problem from 0 x 0 to 10 x 10. She is very proud of herself. Or actually, she was, until I came home the other evening from “Curriculum Night” at her school and told her the teachers now expect the kids to know up to 12 x 12. My daughter was upset, frustrated… and most of all indignant: it felt to her that the rules changed in the middle of the game, or at least like this new rule was popping up out of nowhere.

The same thing can happen when the rules change–or were never clear in the first place–about what is “agreement” in a multiparty negotiation. People plunge ahead in the quest for agreement, usually not defining what will happen in the fairly likely event that some, but not all, of the parties reach agreement.

In 1996, during Chad’s struggle with multiple armed insurgencies, president Omar Bongo of Gabon did Chad a favor: he hosted a highly inclusive “roundtable” in the Gabonese town of Franceville. This dialogue included the government, an array of armed groups, and representatives of political parties and civil society. The event ended in disappointment: the government signed a ceasefire agreement with only two of the many armed groups. Judging by his statements to the media, Bongo was offended that the armed groups wanted Chad’s president Deby (Bongo’s guest) to step down. Representatives of the armed groups, however, told reporters that their position (Deby’s departure) was not a precondition to continuing talks. Seems an opportunity was lost. Chad’s long cycle of insurgencies and separate, bilateral agreements continued for two more decades.

Similarly, in 2015, the government of Myanmar and an assortment of armed groups negotiated towards the “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA). Trouble is, it was only signed by 8 of the 15 armed groups present. This was partly because they were running out of time: then-president Thein Sein was eager to get a deal before he left office. The country is now struggling with three simultaneous peace tracks–NCA signatories are engaged in a political dialogue towards a federal system; some non-signatories are negotiating the terms under which they’d sign on to the ceasefire; other non-signatories are continuing to fight. Commentators agree that peace is a long way off.

What might have helped in each case was agreement in advance on how to determine how much agreement is enough. One option is to aim for a consensus agreement–one that all parties can accept and will support. But it’s always important to define IN ADVANCE what will happen if consensus cannot be reached. Will there be no action? Will the issue be referred to some decision maker? Or is there some “sufficient consensus” that will allow a signed agreement document? “Sufficient consensus” was used in both the South African and Northern Ireland peace processes. In South Africa it was left in the hands of the chairman to determine if sufficient consensus had been reached. In Northern Ireland, there was a detailed definition, with the upshot being that an agreement could go forward if the two biggest parties (the Social Democratic Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party) reached agreement. In both cases, some of the smaller parties were dissatisfied, but at least all foresaw this might be the outcome. There was some fallout (the Inkatha Freedom Party engaged in some further violence in South Africa, for example), but it could have been worse, and in each case the peace process did move forward.

The point is to avoid creating a new source of indignation–a new issue to fight about. If participants thought they were coming to try to achieve full agreement of all parties, and then just a few reach agreement and dismiss the concerns of the others, that feels like creating new rules in the middle of the game.


Presentation at the Korbel School

I gave a talk at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, at the invitation of the university’s Conflict Resolution Institute. The talk, based on my doctoral research, was titled “Inclusivity and Peace Negotiations: Engaging Armed Groups and Civil Society” and featured Prof. Tim Sisk as discussant. The Institute’s newsletter just came out with a nice write-up by student Rowan Mundhenk–thanks Rowan! Thanks also to Prof. Tamra d’Estree for the invitation.

Consultation in Burma/Myanmar

I had the enormous good fortune to conduct training and consultation with some groups involved in the country’s ongoing peace process in Myanmar/Burma. This was at the invitation of U.S. Institute of Peace’s Burma office, headed by Vanessa Johanson and colleagues Kyi Kyi Sein and Ye Htut (pictured). Learned a lot and am hoping to go back!


Recording of webinar: Engaging Civil Society in Peacemaking

Yesterday I conducted a webinar, “Engaging Civil Society in Peacemaking” hosted by the International Section of the Association for Conflict Resolution. Below is a recording in case you missed it. The full recording is 53 minutes; my actual talk runs approx. from minutes 3-28. The questions were great so listen to those too if you have time. Thanks Giuseppe Leone and Kyra Buchko of ACR!

Radio interview

I was recently interviewed on a local radio show for businesses about mediation & facilitation–listen to my two short (10-min.) segments here: /C_C_7-18_03.mp3

Please join me for a free 1-hr. webinar “Engaging Civil Society in Peacemaking” sponsored by the Association for Conflict Resolution’s International Section
Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 1:00pm Eastern Time (10:00am Pacific Time | 11:00am Mountain Time | 6:00pm London/UK Time).

Click here for more details and to register.

Listen to me on the radio

I’m excited to announce I’ll be live on the radio in the 4:00 pm MDT hour Tuesday (July 18) on 1690 am Denver and also livestreamed. I’ll be talking about mediation and facilitation in business for the show “Connect and Collaborate,” the voice of the Colorado Business Roundtable, hosted by Paul Kullman and Tammy Schmidt. It’s part of the Money Talk series. I’ll also post a recording when it’s over. Hope you’ll listen!