In some parts of the world, violent conflict has been going on for decades. In others, such as the United States, increasing fragmentation and polarization is creating fresh violence. Some established democracies are arguably eroding, and new ones struggle to take root. Can we learn to manage our differences so as to build and sustain peace and democracy?
For 20 years, Reos Partners has been forging innovative approaches to peace, democracy, and governance in deeply and often violently conflicted places. We’ve learned and continue to learn a great deal through projects in places like Colombia, torn by civil war for more than a half century; South Africa, still fractured by the legacy of apartheid; and Thailand, with its cycle of coups.
We don’t work in the traditional style of peace negotiators or mediators,but rather as guides. Our multicultural teams are practiced in being with extreme polarities and tensions, and with helping people to find a peaceful way forward together — not necessarily by resolving their differences, but despite these. And we have repeatedly seen that even in complex, entrenched conflicts, real progress toward reconciliation and renewal is possible.
It begins with people talking to each other. As you may know firsthand, this can be an extraordinary achievement, especially in contexts of violent conflict.
Here are some of the mental, emotional, and process shifts that in our experience enable new conversations and new relationships — the seeds of systemic transformation.
Tell a new story
One of our most powerful relationship-building tools is the transformative scenarios process. It’s an example of what we call a “purposeful detour.” A structured yet open-ended process that combines rigour and imagination, it calls on diverse stakeholders to do nothing more or less than construct multiple narratives of possible futures for their situation. These in turn suggest strategies and initiatives for shaping the future.
Less concretely, but as or more important, scenarios can help people begin telling a new, more hopeful story about themselves — and perhaps begin living it. Once people shift their thinking about what’s possible, they begin to shift their actions. The ripple effects can’t be measured or even pointed to, but neither should they be underestimated.
Consider the Destino Colombia scenarios, which we facilitated in 1998. After decades of war, many Colombians thought that their future was hopeless. But through the scenario process, they took a fresh look at their situation. What paths might the country take? Where might each one lead? The resulting stories helped renew their sense of responsibility for the future.
Twenty years later, the scenarios persist in the public narrative as the country continues its halting but hopeful journey toward peace. In October of 2016, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the progress he’s made. He referred to his initial meeting with Adam Kahane, a director at Reos Partners,two decades earlier as “one of the most significant events in the country’s search for peace.”
Collaborate with the enemy
It’s not always easy to collaborate, even with people you agree with. Issues of peace, democracy, and governance often ask yet more of us: to collaborate with people we don’t agree with, like, or trust. The parties may never agree, but if they want to shift the status quo, they must find ways to move forward together anyway.
We call this “stretch collaboration.” As Adam Kahane describes in his book Collaborating with the Enemy, we have learned how to help diverse, competing stakeholders move forward with no expectation of harmony or even any definitive agreement on the problem, never mind the solutions. It’s the hallmark of our work. The transformative scenarios process, as an open-ended act of imagination, can enable collaboration even in cases of extreme tension and demonization, such as in Colombia.
A primary objective of Destino Colombia was to enable combatants to talk with one another directly, and they did: remarkably, both of the active left-wing guerrilla groups participated, by phone, together with right-wing paramilitaries, politicians, businesspeople, and other actors.
“It is very difficult to bring into the same process the extremes that are tearing apart the country and who beforehand had made it clear that they would not have any dealings with one another,” one team member later said. “We succeeded in this process of dialogue, of respecting the rules of the game, and of improving the way we treat one another, our manner of conversing, and the quality of our long-term thinking.”
Get comfortable with creative conflict
Conflict will always be with us, especially in an increasingly complex and crowded world. So we and our partners are learning to manage it better — and even harness it as a creative force. South Africa stands out for its efforts to take a generative path in the face of continuing tensions.
The 1991 Mont Fleur Scenarios were constructed by a multistakeholder team of influential South Africans less than two years into the post-apartheid transition. It was a time of incredible excitement, confusion, and instability. One of the four stories was a shared vision of the better future South Africa could create if it avoided the mistakes illustrated by the other stories. While that vision subsequently faced critique and has yet to materialize, it marked a critical beginning.
In 2008, the country seemed at risk of unraveling. The ANC was plagued by factional battles, the economy was weak, and basic public services were in crisis. Could the national transformation get back on track? South Africans chose to continue collaborating, and Reos Partners guided a second national scenarios process.
The Dinokeng Scenarios, which crystallized a critical debate about what role the state should play in national development, became part of the national discourse. The scenario team did not agree on the way forward, but they did agree that citizens and leaders across the board needed to reengage in shaping South Africa’s future. Said Vincent Maphai, an intellectual and businessman who helped convene both Mont Fleur and Dinokeng, “The biggest contribution we made with Dinokeng was changing the mindset and forcing people to take responsibility.” Indeed, Dinokeng inspired several new citizens’ movements.
Most recently in South Africa, the specific post-apartheid issue of land reform has been coming to a head. In 2017 wefacilitated yet another transformative scenarios process: the Land Reform Futures. These scenarios are providing a common framework for renewed, informed national debate and decision making on a politically potent and conflictual issue.
Ideally, by learning to manage conflict, people can prevent their system — whether an organization or an entire country — from reaching a breaking point. Latin America offers an example of a striking opportunity for people to learn from each other, shape their future, and head off degenerative conflict.
Comprising 20 countries and more than 600 million people,the region is diverse and complex. But one important commonality is that its democracies are still under construction. Often, they are fragile. We see crises of representation, vulnerable political systems, corruption, persistent inequality, high levels of violence and criminality, and fundamentalism.
What might become of democracy in the region? What do Latin Americans want from it? What can each country learn from the successes and failures of the others? To help guide a regional dialogue, we again turned to transformative scenarios. The Alerta Democratica scenarios offer a common language and a focal point for reflection, discussion, and action.
“We need greater capacity to talk about larger issues that cannot be solved within the confines of nation-states,” said team member Rossana Fuentes-Berain, founder of the Mexico Media Lab S21 and the journal Foreign Affairs en Español. “Even if you have the best of governments, not in Latin America, not in the developed world, can you come up with solutions without the kind of dialogue that was in that room.”
Give everyone a voice
It’s a simple principle: only with a multistakeholder approach can we hope to create something resembling the full picture of a complex system. This approach is all the more salient in view of global trends toward pluralism and individual, identity-based rights — and of the fact that exclusion increases the likelihood of violent uprisings.
Mont Fleur and Dinokeng brought together politicians, businesspeople, trade unionists, academics, community activists, black and white, left and right, opposition and establishment. The Destino Colombiateam comprised guerrillas, paramilitaries, academics, activists, businesspeople, journalists, military officers, peasants, politicians, trade unionists, young people, and media. The Alerta Democratica team’s academics, policy makers, public servants, youths, indigenous peoples, activists, businesspeople, and people from the media, religious institutions, and foundations represented 13 countries.
Fuentes-Berain, speaking about democracy, said that in this way transformative scenarios “are far more honest … than some other ways of approaching it, where politicians appropriate the discussion. The politicians are not looking into the eyes of the people.”
Persist with a platform
In addition to enabling new relationships and new stories, a multistakeholder process like transformative scenarios can establish a platform for sustained work. Our work in Thailand offers another example.
We embarked on Scenario Thailand in 2010, on the heels of two years of bloody political conflict there. The project brought together 35 political, civil service, business, trade union, and NGO leaders to think through what might happen in their country over the next 25 years. How would Thailand manage its complex, interrelated social and cultural tensions, economic and environmental pressures, and political and institutional constraints?
The team concluded that top-down solutions would fail and subsequently launched a national movement to build Thais’ capacity to collaborate. However, the country’s factions proceeded to do anything but that. Conflicts flared anew in 2014, in the parliament, the courts, and the streets.
Nevertheless, building on the understandings and relationships constructed during the 2010 project, we and our partners in Thailand continue to make progress there with a series of systemic change initiatives related to agriculture, education, and corruption. We persist — as will a whole new set of ripple effects.
Step into the confusion
Thinking and working in new ways, collaborating despite discomfort or fear, finding the inspiration to persist … People at every level of a system can find all this difficult, confusing, even distressing at times. But as practiced guides, we design our processes to give everyone the support and the time they need to feel their way through. On the other side, as we have seen again and again, is a more successful response to the complex challenges we face.
We invite you contact us about making progress together.
photo: Garry Davies/flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)