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Tool Category D: Economic and Social Measures
16. National Conferences
(National Debates)


  A national conference or debate is a public forum held over an extended period to which representatives from all political groups are invited to plan the country’s political future.


  A national conference allows all sides to participate in planning the country’s political future and creates a level of national consensus. A national conference can be a preliminary move toward limited democracy, laying foundations for more inclusive institutions and democratic mechanisms while the central government maintains authority and control. Non-government political groups participate with the aim of increasing the government’s accountability to the people for its actions and to expand popular participation in the government.

Expected outcome or impact

  A successful national conference harnesses and directs popular support for improving governmental and social institutions. A national debate has a significant impact on governance and the political system, forming a new political culture and persuading diverse groups to participate actively in the political decision-making process. Political groups and representatives from various sectors participate in and negotiate a plan for the country’s political future.

A government may direct state institutions to be more representative and inclusive in the hope of bolstering citizen support. State authorities may gain greater popular support and legitimacy and instill greater public confidence in the government by participating in discussions on economic development, power-sharing arrangements, human rights and country management. A national conference can lay the groundwork for establishing a transitional government and relatively open elections.

Conference participants representing the country’s political groups can set guidelines for new political institutions such as a legislature and an electoral system that could contribute to easing tensions among various groups in the country.

A national conference can help establish stable civilian governance and control.


Relationship to conflict prevention and mitigation

  Although a national debate does not guarantee liberalization or increased participation, it can reduce internal destabilizing factors by creating a more inclusive political climate where the government is legitimized by popular support. A national conference is an opportunity for conflicting sectors and political groups to change patterns of political behavior, to negotiate on plans for the future of vital political issues without resorting to force or foreign intervention and, at least in the short term, reduce the attraction of resorting to armed opposition for achieving political change.



  The government generally takes the initiative to invite participation in planning a new political environment through the conference. A foreign third party and/or domestic political pressure may play a role in convincing the government to hold a conference. The government can invite international organizations and/or universities to organize the conference, design the program, and facilitate logistics, working with NGOs, the UN, and international donor governments. A government will sometimes constitute a committee to organize a national conference, comprising members of various political groups, including opposition groups, government members and the international community.


  Participants should include representatives of all social, religious, professional, and political interest groups who wish to participate in the process of introducing a constitutional liberal democracy. All possible participants should be invited to legitimize the conference’s results. International observers can be helpful to assure the conference’s process and results. Other participants may include local government personnel, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), human rights organizations, academics and aid donors.


  Organizers must draft an agenda and clarify conference goals and issues to be discussed to all the participants to minimize confusions and unfruitful discussions. International organizations and the host government can consolidate a follow-up group after the conference to make arrangements for and build on any consensus reached for future political development. Media involvement is important during the conference to monitor and report on the events.

Cost considerations

  Funding must support conference participants, including preparation, transportation and accommodation. Foreign financial assistance is often necessary to organize a national conference and to help support its follow-up functions.

Other resource considerations

  Conference requirements can include technical assistance, facilitation and logistical support.

Set-up time

  National conferences can be held over long—several months—or short periods—several days to a few weeks. Planning and organization typically require several months.


to see results

  A national conference’s impact on conflict may be felt even before the conference occurs, as the government’s willingness to hold the debate may signal to the opposition an impending political openness, influencing the opposition to postpone or curtail violent political actions. Conference results can be sustained if the debate is used to develop a consensus on the country’s political future and if genuine follow-on actions are initiated.

Conflict context

Stages of conflict

  Before violent conflict erupts, a national conference can provide a forum for opposing groups to communicate on political issues in a peaceful, semi-structured environment. In the post-conflict transition stage, a national debate can offer an opportunity to initiate the political adjustments needed to avert recurring conflict.

Type of conflict

  A national debate can be effective to relieve conflict initiated by ethnic, political and/or regional groups claiming inadequate political and economic access. A national conference can keep a small violent regional conflict from spreading to a wider area.

Causes of conflict

  A national conference initially contributes to operational conflict prevention by motivating political opposition groups to postpone violent conflict while testing the government’s actual commitment to peaceful political change. A national debate can also provide a forum for genuine structural prevention whereby plans can be developed for removing root political causes of conflict.


  State-society relations should be examined before a national conference is initiated. A national conference is generally more effective in a country with traditionally strong state control because the conference functions to sustain state authority by developing a more democratic basis of support while relying less on repression. If various factions, chiefs, and/or regional elites are more influential than the central government, difficulties in coordination and follow-up would make the national conference less effective.

Government’s plans for defense, agriculture, justice and education should be publicized by radio and other means before the debate to rally support for and involvement in the process and to help the public clarify positions on various issues.

If the conference takes place after a conflict, a cease-fire agreement has to be in place.


Past practice

Outside the Greater Horn

  Benin, 1990. Benin was the first country in francophone Africa to adopt multi-party democracy through a national debate. President Kérékou had made the first concession to his opposition by accepting an opposition group spokesman into his cabinet. The national conference lasted nine days. Despite President Kérékou’s initial reluctance to accept reduced and divided presidential prerogatives, his political isolation left him little option but to respect the acts and declarations of the Beninois National Conference as sovereign. Robert Dossou, the opposition leader, helped negotiate the membership of the conference, which included representatives of numerous civil associations and nascent political parties along with representatives of the former ruling party and the army. The interim period was scheduled to last for one year, during which time elections and a referendum to approve a new constitution were to be held. Kérékou was eventually removed from office.Mali, 1991-1992. After three days of bloody street riots, Moussa Traoré’s 22-year dictatorship was overthrown in a March 1991 military coup. The opposition’s umbrella organization feared a new dictatorship and pressured the new military rulers for democratization. The military leaders established a transitional government with joint participation by the opposition coalition and the military. Three months later, a national conference was convened. During the two weeks of the conference, the different factions devised a new constitution, electoral code and charter for political parties. In elections held in April 1992, a new president was elected, taking office in June. The transition was a success, and the losing candidate became part of the "democratic opposition."

Congo, 1991. Following the Benin conference, Marxist Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso came under increasing pressure from opposition groups to renounce Marxism-Leninism and carry out political reforms. In the midst of strikes that began in September 1990, Sassou agreed to opposition demands to hold a national conference the following year. A National Conference was held from February through June 1991. Some 1,200 delegates representing 67 different political parties and associations, including the ruling Parti Congolais du Travail, participated in the conference.




  A national conference can establish an effective base for other conflict prevention and resolution tools as participants from all sides share views, interests and political objectives.

A national conference provides opportunities for politicians, businessmen, journalists, and leaders of non-governmental organizations to discuss the quality of national and local governance and economic and social policies.

A national conference is a proven method for extending dialogue from the national level to the grassroots level and is therefore helpful for building a national consensus for specific national policies and for developing a relatively stable social order. Obtaining a national consensus is important when government legitimacy is fading but political institution-building is incomplete.



  National conferences hold no guarantees of political freedom or power-sharing.

It is difficult to anticipate which issues will be addressed and how participants will manage a conference. A national conference can begin with chaotic disagreement over conference membership and participation, as the government and the opposition struggle for control over conference management.


Lessons learned

  A national conference can have a modest immediate impact if the opportunity for political participation and debate by various political parties and groups involved in conflict causes groups previously involved in or planning political violence to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and divert their efforts toward preparation for the conference. However, if no actual, substantive political changes result, such groups may return to violence with even greater zeal, and additional disillusioned groups may choose to join them.

A conference alone is not sufficient to avert political conflict; steps must be taken before and after the conference to make constitutional and institutional changes that increase under-represented groups’ political representation and participation.

A national conference can have a significant impact on promoting democracy if the public continues to pressure the government to continue democratic political development and to sustain the results and commitments of the conference.

The political opening signaled by a national conference may be motivated more by a government’s need to attract or continue external assistance than by sincere government wishes to liberalize and restructure. However, such an opening still presents an opportunity to bring about genuine political change.


References and resources

  John F. Clark, "The National Conference as an Instrument of Democratization in Francophone Africa," Journal of Third World Studies, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1994, pp. 304-335.