Tool Category D: Economic and Social Measures
16. National Conferences
|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 countrys political future.|
|A national conference allows all sides to participate in planning the countrys 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 governments 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 countrys political
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 countrys 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 conferences results. International observers can be helpful to assure the conferences 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.|
|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.|
|National conferences can be held over longseveral monthsor short periodsseveral days to a few weeks. Planning and organization typically require several months.|
to see results
|A national conferences impact on conflict may be felt even before the conference occurs, as the governments 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 countrys political future and if genuine follow-on actions are initiated.|
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 governments 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.|
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.
Governments 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.
Outside the Greater Horn
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 Kérékous 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
Traorés 22-year dictatorship was overthrown in a
March 1991 military coup. The oppositions 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
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.
conferences hold no guarantees of political freedom or
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.
|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 governments 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.|