Creative & American University partner to identify lessons learned in reconciliation

By Jillian Slutzker

December 14, 2015

In the past five years, 15 conflicts around the globe have either erupted or reignited, displacing some 60 million people, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Renewed conflict in many of these hotspots— Cote D’Ivoire, Yemen and South Sudan, for example—underscores the pressing need for durable solutions, beyond a mere ceasefire.

Through a research partnership, Creative Associates International and the American University School of International Service identified lessons learned in reconciliation efforts to improve on-the-ground programming and support post-conflict societies in achieving sustainable peace.

“When done well, reconciliation efforts transform an environment and build cohesion in broken societies.  Our intention was to learn from both the theory and the practice of reconciliation so that we can ensure Creative’s efforts minimize the risk of post-conflict recidivism and maximize the opportunities for peace,” says Paul Turner, Senior Conflict Advisor at Creative, who oversaw the research project.

The research team—consisting of American University graduate students Alexsandra Canedo, Ashley Law, Justine O’Sullivan and Sacha Stein—examined four case studies of reconciliation efforts in post-conflict societies, including Indonesia, Liberia, Nicaragua and Sierra Leone.

While the term “reconciliation” is usually associated with efforts after a conflict has ended, the researchers say that their findings may have implications for communities in the midst of ongoing conflicts today.

“Programs can begin in the midst of violence if there is an interest and willingness to begin a peace process,” says Stein. “The conflict need not necessarily be completely resolved or finished in order for reconciliation programming to begin.”

Measuring cohesion

During and after conflict, relations between groups are fraught with mistrust. Neighbors may have perpetrated violence against one another, or government forces may have committed grave abuses against citizens.

Rebuilding relationships, establishing trust and creating cohesion is a key aim of reconciliation programs, and can be a critical buffer against reignited conflict, say the researchers.

To measure the effect of reconciliation programming in the four selected countries, the team evaluated each country using a modified version of the Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) index, which was developed by the United Nations Development Program in Cyprus, USAID and the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development.

SCORE measures essential elements of reconciliation using indicators such as intergroup contact, perceptions of social threat and active discrimination. It also evaluates social cohesion with indicators such as satisfaction with civic life, freedom from corruption and trust in institutions.

The working hypothesis behind SCORE is that social cohesion affects or predicts reconciliation, and in turn, the propensity of a country to remain or become peaceful.

In their book “War and Reconciliation: Reason and Emotion in Conflict Resolution,” William Long and Peter Brecke, both professors of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, researched 430 violent conflict in 109 countries.

Their research revealed that 64 percent of countries where at least one reconciliation event occurred—like a meeting between former opposing factions—did not return to violence. Only 9 percent of countries where no such event took place remained violence-free.

A hybrid approach for holistic change

The American University researchers examined a range of reconciliation approaches in each of the four selected countries, from truth telling sessions in Sierra Leone to interfaith dialogue in Liberia, land reallocation in Nicaragua and a national truth and reconciliation commission in Indonesia.

These initiatives were most effective, say the researchers, when various reconciliation activities originated from both the national level and the grassroots level.

In Indonesia, for example, a failed national truth and reconciliation commission gave way to numerous disparate local reconciliation efforts. While these local truth telling sessions and dialogues made headway in some communities, the results on a national level were mixed, says Stein.

“Grassroots actors took it upon themselves to initiate reconciliation programs in their specific communities, but because they are operating at the grassroots level, this has resulted in a somewhat disjointed sense of national reconciliation,” she says.

In Liberia and Nicaragua, by contrast, grassroots efforts to repair relationships and address psychological trauma from war were supplemented by government-led initiatives to address lingering grievances and acts committed during the conflict on a national scale.

“In Liberia and Nicaragua, society really benefited from the hybrid approach, which was a top down and bottom up relationship,” says Canedo.

For example, Canedo explains, when local mental health outreach in Nicaragua began to show success in helping survivors overcome conflict-related trauma, national actors scaled up the program—even inaugurating a Master’s degree program in mental health at a local university to expand the pool of qualified personnel available to assist victims of the conflict.

These local-national partnerships are critical to scaling up reconciliation efforts from a micro to macro level so that good programs “don’t remain localized in the context from which they emerged and are able to spread to wherever their presence is relevant,” says Stein.

Local knowledge for better interventions

International partners are also often key allies of national governments and grassroots organizations in scaling up effective reconciliation efforts.

However, the researchers caution that to succeed, each intervention must be tailored to the local context and take into account the specific traditions and grievances of its community members and stakeholders.

“Local consultation is the way to start your program,” says Law. “It helps to avoid that prescriptive, Western approach that sometimes actors have when they go into local communities.”

Law says that by including local actors in the design and implementation of reconciliation activities, implementers can grow local capacity and increase the chances of programmatic success and sustainability.

In Nicaragua, for example the Catholic Church, which is a very central institution in the lives of many citizens, played a key role in leading truth telling sessions in a familiar setting, which already had credibility in the eyes of both victims and perpetrators.

“The church created an alternative commission….and worked at a community level, getting victims and perpetrators together to discuss their issues within this sanctified setting and come up with resolution and ways forward,” says O’Sullivan.

Ultimately, says the research team, whether specific reconciliation activities take place on a grassroots or national level, and whether they target individual or collective grievances and healing, practitioners must keep in mind that reconciliation is a long and multipronged process. Healing, the researchers say, takes time.

“There is a difference between reconciliation and forced integration,” says Stein. “You don’t have to have [a population] give up their identity or give up their independence to have a reconciled environment. But you can build social cohesion and reduce the distance between populations.”

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