Understanding. Resolution. Compromise. Conversation. Multi-partiality. Exchange. These are just a few of the words that were shared by participants in a recent webinar when asked to describe dialogue. In these words, it is clear that people have different opinions when it comes to the purpose of holding a dialogue. Is it about coming to an agreement or is it about the process itself, of sharing your viewpoint and listening to other’s perspectives without an expectation that participants will resolve their disagreements?
It was actually a central theme during the webinar which we hosted to talk about the messages in our new publication, Dialogue in Peacebuilding: Understanding Different Perspectives. Like the title suggests and several contributions in the volume also underscore, dialogue can be seen as a more of a continual process that requires fostering relationships and building trust than forging agreement.
This webinar specifically gave young peacebuilders and civil society a chance to share their experiences in promoting youth participation in dialogue. They also discussed how youth involvement strengthens dialogue in itself and came with ideas on what can be done to support youth efforts that encourage dialogue.
Dialogue as a means to strengthen youth participation
Cynthia Wakuna explained that her organisation, Mother of Hope-Cameroon (MOHCAM), has programming on dialogue that aims to create a sense of togetherness more so than coming to a resolution. Facilitating dialogue has at the same time impacted how young women are engaging in their communities more broadly.
Young women in north- and southwest Cameroon face particular challenges to engaging in peace efforts, as they are often seen as victims of violence rather than active participants. By providing trainings on how to participate in and conduct dialogues, the organisation promotes a space for these young women to openly voice their opinions, as well as the confidence to advocate for their participation in decision making.
In creating this type of space for young women, the organisation also had to build relationships and work closely with stakeholders and leaders in the community, some of which were perhaps hesitant to young women having a say. While the dialogues focus on young women, MOHCAM also makes a point to include young men in the conversation so that they can listen to young women’s perspectives and serve as ambassadors within their communities in favour of young women’s participation. In this way, the dialogue process was able to reach beyond those who participated in the MOHCAM-facilitated discussions and in doing so make community members more comfortable with the idea of young women’s engagement in decision making.
Convening is half the battle
Ilias Alami of the Afghanistan New Generation Organization shared how they also facilitate dialogue with the aim to open up space for further discussions. He underscored that through dialogue they hope to create a common understanding and appreciation of the different viewpoints that exist, but not to come to an agreement. As he describes in his contribution to the volume, society in Afghanistan is so polarised between those who support a more liberal society based on democratic ideals and those who support religious and traditional values. Getting young people with these different perspectives into the same room is 50% of the work; in fact, different methods, including meeting bilaterally with participants ahead of dialogues, are needed to convene rather than facilitate a dialogue. Once they have made the initial step of sitting at the same table it is much easier to then have a constructive conversation.
The organisation seeks to break down stereotypes by facilitating dialogue with students at universities, promoting the idea that the diversity of perspectives should be celebrated. Rather than engaging in violence with those who have different viewpoints that a respectful dialogue is needed to better understand why they think what they think. To break down barriers, sessions often start with conversations on topics – e.g. favourite food, movie, etc. – not related to the main topic at hand. They have been able to see the impact of this work on social media sites such as Facebook where participants with different viewpoints become friends following the dialogue.
Responding to Ilias’s experience with dialogue in Afghanistan, some webinar participants highlighted how they use debate to allow participants to learn about the ‘other’ side’s viewpoints. Others discussed the usefulness in their own contexts of having participants to a dialogue make commitments, as well as regular check ins with participants on how they have followed up on these commitments as a way of ensuring that the conversations to come out of a dialogue continue beyond a particular event. It was at the same time noted that it can also be important to avoid having participants make such commitments so as to move away from a more formal process.
From the formal to the informal
In the webinar we also talked about how in many contexts including, for example, South Sudan the word dialogue is associated with formal peace processes, including National Dialogues. This can further disenfranchise young people, who often do not feel like they are engaged in formal processes and who are increasingly seeking out ways to engage and voice their opinions through informal processes.
Rafael Tyzsblat, another contributor to the volume, highlighted that when they facilitate online dialogues between young students from different backgrounds, there is a distinction made between dialogue and decision-making processes. That is, the dialogue is about building relationships, voicing disagreements and learning from each other, rather than coming to an agreement. Janna Greve, who wrote a piece on some of the qualities needed as a third-party dialogue facilitator, noted however that sometimes informal dialogues can be useful to bring together actors of change to identify a common goal or to influence a formal peace process.
We also discussed that in certain situations, it can be important to move away from using the word dialogue and rather connect it to other areas of work, such as efforts to empower and train youth on their civic rights. It does not have be called a dialogue to be a dialogue. And perhaps this is the biggest takeaway from the discussion; young people are more and more moving away from strictly defining the peacebuilding work that they do and in so doing are able to reach out to more diverse members of society. They are also more flexible in the ways that they work to strengthen peace and development.
This flexibility should be rewarded through increased technical and financial support by governments and multilateral organisations to youth initiatives. Young people must also be given the space to voice their opinions and engage in a conversation with others on how to move forward in building a more peaceful and inc