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Newsletter, August 2006

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Engagement and resolution
by Andrew Acland

It's a depressing time for everyone in the conflict resolution world. As the Middle East spirals into battle once again we think back over the years and decades from Camp David to the Oslo talks and the 'Road Map': the endless failed initiatives and almost-breakthroughs.

A dozen or so years ago I spent a long and sleepless week as part of an international initiative on the Middle East, mediating talks between Israelis and Palestinians at a time when such contacts were still notionally illegal. I was struck by two things. There is the difficulty of making progress when every move is mired in the shadow of whose fault it all is; and when the multiple uncertainties of the future mean that the past, however grim, does at least offer some anchors. History becomes the great comfort of those who feel that survival means living only from day to day.

How does this relate to what Dialogue by Design does in the far cosier world of public engagement, where the most danger we face is the occasional scrap at a public meeting?

First, all conflicts, regardless of scale or protagonists, are alike in their underlying motivations and processes if not in their manifestations. Those arguing for and against incinerators and wind-farms, for example, argue facts and figures, seek alliances, demonise opponents, maximise the strengths of their arguments and minimise the weaknesses just as do Israelis and Palestinians, pro-abortionists and pro-lifers, climate change campaigners and climate change deniers.

Secondly, the road to resolution, though different in its details for every situation, again has the same components. The process of claim and counter-claim needs to be replaced with a process of calmer dialogue, of listening and examining, of joint exploration, of seeking common ground and visions for a shared future. The pro-abortionsts and pro-lifers agree on the need to prevent unwanted pregnancies; those for and against climate change agree on the need to conserve fossil fuels, albeit for very different reasons. Such areas of agreement are not, of course, the end of their differences, but they are a first step in the long trek forwards.

Such simple changes of process can work in the most intractable circumstances, as organisations such as Search for Common Ground (http://www.sfcg.org/) and Conciliation Resources (http://www.c-r.org/), to name but two, have been demonstrating for twenty years. But they are working against the grain of the world: if we spent as many billions on waging peace as we do on waging war, the world would be a very different place. So many fragile ceasefires and tentative steps falter for the lack of minimal funding for monitors and mediators.

At Dialogue by Design we are not, currently, involved in international conflict resolution initiatives, but from this autumn we will be turning our attention from merely engaging people and identifying their concerns to helping to resolve them. We increasingly think that engagement processes need to be regarded as the first step in efforts to bridge differences and reconcile opponents. Over the coming months we will be putting forward ideas to turn this into reality.


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