Analysis - Thursday, July 15, 2010 0:04 - 0 Comments

Creating Safe Spaces: Building Civil Society Networks and Partnerships for Dialogue and Reconciliation



Building dialogue-oriented networks and partnerships of civil society actors representing different sides of a conflict is considered to be a part of a multi-faceted process of addressing frozen and post-conflict situations. Many of these network or partnership building processes are essentially aimed at bridging the gaps between the conflicting societies and building confidence and trust. This in turn will create a safe space for the sides to start manifesting their values and underlying motivations, thus making a shift from expressing their positions to discussing their interests — a key factor in addressing any conflict in a sustainable manner.

The rationale behind writing this article was my attempt to deconstruct, understand, systematize and articulate some of the key stages that shape a successful process of building networks and partnerships for dialogue, and to identify some characteristics and dynamics within each phase. I hope that this article may be helpful for practitioners both facilitating and participating in such processes.

At the same time, this article does not intend to serve as a rigorous analytical reference, but is rather an initial attempt to summarize personal practical experiences in facilitating dialogue, confidence building and reconciliation processes, as well as building networks, coalitions and partnerships between civil society groups from across the conflict divide in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

In this article I consciously avoid exemplifying processes described, as most of these are politically sensitive.

I. Why Build Networks of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from Across the Conflict Divide?

By their nature and vocation, civil society actors are well positioned to represent the grassroots insights, interests and motivations from all sides of a conflict, especially those communities and constituencies that are directly affected. At the same time, CSO actors are often less locked in extreme perceptions of their societies and are willing to demonstrate more flexibility and willingness to relate to the other side. These factors create good conditions for civil society groups to interact and engage with their counterparts from across the conflict divide, and through these processes they represent their constituencies and societies. There are multiple arguments behind building dialogue networks and partnerships. However, two main reasons seem to strongly justify these efforts.

First, due to the fact that the CSO groups tend to be strongly linked with conflict-affected constituencies, they can play an important role in supporting the official negotiation process by providing perspectives, input and feedback from the grassroots level towards the official negotiation process.

Second, the role of civil society actors becomes particularly crucial once a peace agreement is reached on the official level. During the process leading up to the official peace agreement, and after the agreement has been reached, civil society groups can be a driving force behind preparing conflicting societies for reconciliation and possible future coexistence.

II. Key Conditions of a Legitimate Dialogue-oriented Network Building Process

There are many factors that ensure legitimacy and effectiveness of dialogue-oriented network building processes. The following are the three minimum necessary conditions that should be met when designing the process.


Most of the conflicts result in a diverse range of newly emerging social groups that have been affected by a conflict in different ways. These groups might differ in their interests, motivations and sets of values, as well as different social patterns in responding to a given conflict. It is important to realize that these differences are observed not only on opposite sides of a conflict divide, but also among different sub-groups within each side of a conflict.

Thus, an effective dialogue-oriented network building process should aim to include civil society groups that represent key conflict affected groups across and within the conflicting societies, ensuring that different interests are communicated and taken into consideration during the process.


It is important to ensure that civil society actors that are part of a dialogue-oriented network building process are genuinely rooted in their constituencies and are able to translate and deliver the messages from the grassroots level.

In this regard, one of the common faults that occur in designing such processes takes place when a network building process is limited only to those “advanced” groups of civil society organizations, sometimes referred to as “CSO establishment” — the organizations that are popular among international development or peace-building agencies. An effective process should also include grassroots CSO groups that are less visible or might appear to be less dominant but are more strongly rooted in their constituencies. Eventually, they will play a key role in translating and voicing messages from across the conflict divide to those communities that will be coexisting in the future.

External facilitation

Questions often arise on the added value of international organizations intervening to facilitate dialogue processes in conflict-affected societies. The assumption made in this article is that external facilitating organizations can have a positive impact in such processes. Yet, the ability of an international organization to contribute constructively to a dialogue process is strongly linked with its level of legitimacy with all stakeholders. This is ensured through having no affiliation with any conflict side, not being associated with a particular political agenda and being perceived by all parties as being able to play an impartial role in facilitating the process. The level of legitimacy is also increased when an external-facilitating peace-building organization is invited by one or more conflict sides or conflict-affected groups.

In some cases a dialogue-oriented network building process cannot be initiated by either of the conflicting sides as it might be perceived as an attempt to impose peace and reconciliation by a de-facto prevailing side. In these cases, a process can only be initiated by an external facilitating agency, whose legitimacy is directly linked with its impartiality and political neutrality.

The role of external facilitating organizations is all the more important in that they have the potential to gain access to underlying motivations of all sides. If they are able to strategically position themselves, they will have the capacity to act as a mediator and channel messages across the conflict divides, therefore creating safe spaces conducive to dialogue.

III. Key Stages of a Dialogue-oriented Network-building Process:

1. Identification of Key Participants

The foundation of an effective dialogue-oriented network-building process is based on a thorough context analysis and systematic stakeholder mapping. This stage is also aimed at building relationships and trust with key civil society groups. Throughout this stage, a facilitating organization must be able to position itself as a credible and transparent actor.

When key conflict-affected groups and civil society actors are identified, the facilitating organization can initiate the process of gathering participants to be part of the process.

2. Development of an Intra-group Identity

Once an external facilitating organization has identified the participants, a process of communication among CSOs within each side of a conflict can be started.

This process is essentially aimed at developing a common intra-group identity, which will unite organizations within each side of a conflict, despite possible internal fragmentation or possible disagreements on values and interests among themselves.

This stage is often characterized by intensive intra-group dynamics. CSOs try to position themselves within their own group and power-struggle patterns may also be observed. This is a gradual process, at the end of which participants will be able to identify a common unifying ground that they will later be communicating to the “other” side.

3. Meeting the ‘Other’ Side and Shaping a Common Intra-process Identity

Once an intra-group identity is shaped on each side of a conflict divide, direct interaction between CSOs from conflicting sides can start taking place. The first few encounters between CSO groups are structured around two crosscutting processes.

Mutual assessment. Throughout this stage, organizations from across the conflict divide assess each other’s potential and capacity to relate to the “other side.” This process includes assessment on many levels: an ability to communicate on an interpersonal level, an assessment of the organizational capacity, and an assessment of ability and legitimacy to represent diverse conflict-affected groups on both (or more) sides.

Developing a common intra-process identity. The second dimension of this stage is structured around developing a common network identity, which allows organizations from across the conflict divide to feel part of a united process. Shaping a safe space and building a common intra-process identity often involves finding and condemning a “negative other,” usually a third party that is not present around the table. In this case, the artificially constructed image of a “negative other” contributes to shifting immediate responsibility to an external actor, which in turn contributes to the unification of the network and thus creates a positive internal dynamic.

A particular feature of this stage is that participants would choose to relate to each other through discussing “safe” topics, and would avoid talking about underlying conflict issues directly.  Many disagreements may take place nevertheless, but these clashes would take place around non value-based issues, such as terminology, composition of groups, or other technical matters.

At this stage it would be rather premature and difficult to start developing joint strategies or concrete details of cross-border initiatives. It is important to allow the participants to initiate these discussions at a point when they feel comfortable enough to engage in such issues.

4. Engaging with Each Other on Values and Underlying Interests

Once the common intra-process identity is formed, CSOs will feel safe and comfortable enough with each other to be able to engage in discussions on root causes and underlying conflict issues. The level of comfort established by this stage allows for a shift from discussing symptoms to finally touching upon values and underlying interests of the conflicting sides.

At this stage, such values and interests are usually processed on two levels.

Retrospective. Creating a mutually acceptable conflict narrative, where CSO actors attempt to review the conflict history, its backgrounds, and the consequences for the different sides. The negotiated conflict narrative will then serve as a foundation for future communication and engagement and will help to form a common denominator, enabling the participants to relate to each other when challenges arise.

Prospective. Attempts to envisage the future, where the values are also processed and addressed while discussing practical plans, including the details of possible joint or cross-border projects, as well as the scope and the composition of future activities. The engagement on underlying values is also accomplished when the process participants start developing strategies and approaches on engaging external actors including media, governments and the general public, through discussion on joint memorandums, public statements, and appeals.

5. Escalation and Open Confrontation

Communication about underlying values and interests may lead to open confrontation, which in turn can take the process towards an escalation of tensions between participants. At this stage CSOs representing different sides may take extreme positions. In reality, those extreme positions might differ from what participants genuinely believe in and could be perceived as one of the ways to communicate the interests of constituencies and societies they represent.

At this stage, the role of a facilitating organization is crucial – it is important to allow for the escalation and confrontation to take place as this might be the only possibility to uncover some of the deeper value-based issues and bring them to the surface. In this regard, a facilitating organization should be able to capitalize on the previously acquired  knowledge of interests of both sides, keeping the confrontation on a level of constructive interaction without allowing the process to slide towards a point of no return. If this stage is not facilitated and navigated carefully and in a sensitive manner, the entire process might collapse without any possibility to develop it further.

6. Shift in the Quality of Interaction and Increased Level of Trust

If the open confrontation is managed and de-escalates, the interaction between CSOs can shift to the next qualitative level. At this stage the different sides communicate with each other having more in-depth insight into each others’ underlying values and perceptions. The level of confidence and trust between participants is higher than at any previous point of the process. On the other hand, the open confrontation stage does not pass without losses, and some of the participants might choose to leave.

Communication continues in a more transparent and open manner, which allows for joint or cross-border activities and projects to be initiated. At this stage, these activities would usually remain within the scope of participating CSOs.

This stage may also lead to a turning point when some of the civil society actors would start communicating and feeling comfortable enough to engage with each other without the support from an external facilitator.

7. Expanding the Circle and Projecting Trust to a Broader Group

Once the process takes off, participants will gradually start projecting trust to a broader audience. At this stage, CSOs will start engaging other actors from conflict-affected groups in their activities and joint projects, thus gradually expanding the number of stakeholders directly cooperating with each other across the conflict divide.

IV. Conclusion

It is important to acknowledge that the process described is not necessarily linear. The stages are interrelated and may overlap. Events might take the entire process back to the initial stages, or the process can develop faster or stagnate at certain points.

However, if the participants and facilitating organizations are aware of possible dynamics and key characteristics of every stage, this may help them to consciously maintain a distant, yet engaged attitude towards the process. This self-awareness will also help participants to recognize their own behavioral patterns and prevent them from feeling overly frustrated or disoriented throughout the process.

While not intending to provide a comprehensive analysis of the process, I attempted to gather some conclusions resulting from extensive participation, facilitation, observation, asking questions and listening, and multiple failures as well as inspiring successes of building dialogue-oriented networks. I hope that this article will help sharpen the instruments supporting development of civil society networks and partnerships that work towards bringing conflicting societies closer to each other.

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