Six Factors for Successful National Dialogues

Six Factors for Successful National Dialogues

by Chistopher Zambakari

National dialogues have emerged in recent years as powerful tools for peace-building across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Today there are attempts to launch national dialogues in Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Lebanon, and Myanmar. National dialogues are used as mechanisms to bring the major stakeholders together when political institutions and governments are delegitimized or collapse. They are also increasingly used in transitional societies as a means of collective deliberation upon key issues essential to progress.

Peace-building by the means of a national dialogue is a demanding and arduous process with great possibilities – but only when attention to the details and process precedes action. Given the sudden preference for national dialogues, those who organize them must consider six factors for success:

  1. National dialogues are a tool for resolving intractable conflicts.

In need of alternative methods for conflict transformation, conflict management organizations have turned to national dialogues for peace-building and to resolve deep-seated conflicts in divided societies. However, national dialogues are not restricted to open conflicts. National dialogues take many forms including: national conferences (Benin, Congo, Togo, Mali, Niger, Zaire, Chad), multi-party negotiations (The Convention for a Democratic South Africa), roundtables (Poland, Germany), and constituent assemblies (Bolivia, Afghanistan). National dialogues can also be deployed in contexts such as a political stalemate or where political institutions are de-legitimized – as in Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia, and Lebanon.

  1. Issues to be resolved should be realistic, and determined in an inclusive, consultative forum.

National dialogues can be established through consultative meetings, which produce consensus on key issues around which the dialogues are organized. It is often important to determine such issues of importance and decide which are fit for a large-scale forum and which are suitable for deliberation in smaller forums. The scope of the dialogue must be clearly defined so that it is realistic, achievable, and manageable by the body responsible for the dialogue in the time allocated for the deliberation.

As noted in a report by the United States Institute of Peace, “the issues selected should also be balanced against the role that other political or transition processes might play.” This suggests that the issues to be discussed, the actors that should take part, and those included or excluded in the dialogue must be carefully defined and managed. Whereas the exclusion of key members is unwise, inclusion of too many issues can overwhelm a dialogue, increase the burden for resolution, and ensure that little progress is made during periods of tense negotiation. Countries considering a national dialogue should streamline the agenda to the greatest extent possible, weighing carefully which political issues do, or do not, lend themselves to a large-scale public forum. The balance between a big national dialogue and smaller peace processes must also be weighted carefully. In some cases, national dialogues and other negotiations can run on multiple tracks within the same effort. For example, security sector reform can be discussed in a separate, non-national dialogue forum given how big a topic it often is, and how many actors are involved.

  1. Pursue national dialogues if they are the best pathway to engage the right stakeholders for resolution.

Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference was very inclusive, including 565 delegates comprising all conflict stakeholders. The design of smaller working groups of the right political actors who were influential within each party enabled the negotiations to flow and compromise to be reached. Despite the fact that national dialogues take a lot of resources – including great amounts of time, energy, and coordination – the United States Institute of Peace report notes, “Countries in transition often value such mechanisms because they can galvanize all parties and the public to focus on issues of national importance. They do so at a price. The time and focus devoted to them can detract or derail other transition processes or even simply distract the government and public sector from business as usual.”

  1. Every successful national dialogue has certain phases – and duration.

Whereas each national dialogue is unique to a particular context, some broad phases need to be carefully considered, including: preparation; establishment of mechanisms/committees to oversee, manage, and lead the process; conference; consultations; consensus; implementation; and developing a strategy for the post-national dialogue period. Many experts now believe that for an effective dialogue to occur, the timeframe must be adequate – anywhere between a few months to a few years.

  1. A democratic approach is key to beginning, but not necessarily concluding, an effective national dialogue.

The process leading to the organization of a national dialogue must be democratic – namely, broadened to include all key stakeholders in society, such as civil society organizations, professional associations, religious leaders, political parties, and armed or unarmed resistance movements/oppositions. The democratic mode of organizing a national dialogue does not guard against certain undemocratic outcomes. Consequently, provisions must be made to assure that majority rule is not the only principle guiding deliberation.

Zaire’s eighteen month-long Sovereign National Conference – starting in 1992 and featuring 2,842 delegates discussing the country’s transition into the post-Cold War era – produced an outcome that excluded the Kinyarwanda-speaking minority, according to a report submitted by Mahmood Mamdani to the General Assembly of the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa. The conference upheld the provisions of a 1981 law that restricted the definition of citizenship to those who could demonstrate an ancestral connection to the territory that, since 1885, was Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). To guard against these undemocratic tendencies – whereby a majority decides to exclude a minority from certain rights – democratic principles must be checked, so that a minority group is not excluded by the common deliberations of a majority.

  1. National dialogues are complex, but positive outcomes are more likely in certain conditions.

Finally, certain minimum requirements do exist for hosting a national dialogue. While not exhaustive, the following should be considered when designing a national dialogue: credibility of the convener; confidence-building measures; in the case of ongoing hostilities, an agreement on the cessation of hostilities during the dialogue; broad-based inclusion of all key stakeholders; and a clearly defined pre-consultation phase, followed by the actual dialogue, implementation, and post-dialogue plans. It is important during the preparation phase to form inclusive committees that build consensus around core issues. An advisory committee is often used to consult with key individuals or organizations, while a secretariat can provide logistical and operational support. If needed, a consensus-building committee might also be included.


Image "UN Security Council" Courtesy Global Panorama / CC BY-SA 2.0


About the Author

Christopher Zambakari is a Doctor of Law and Policy, Board Member of the Sudan Studies Association (SSA), and a Rotary Peace Fellow. He is based in the School of Political Science and International Studies at University of Queensland, Australia. His area of research and expertise is policy development that ensures political stability and socioeconomic development, and his interests include modern political and legal thought, governance and democracy, the rule of law, postcolonial violence, and nation-building projects in Africa. His work has been published in law, economic, and public policy journals.

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