A range of pertinent questions and problems were discussed as experts working with dialogue in countries such as Morocco, Bosnia, Kosovo, South Sudan, Uganda and Hungary were gathered to share their experiences in Budapest:
How can we link community-level dialogue with international processes? Are we too focused on easier forms of dialogue between reasonable people? When is it acceptable to talk to extreme groups and criminals? How should we handle the difficult dialogues in places where the risk of atrocities and genocide is on the rise? How can we connect civil society processes with state institutions?
Several of the experts noted that local dialogue initiatives can sometimes lead to results that the international society doesn’t like. Dialogue results that are perceived as an acceptable compromise and a silver lining in a community, can, for reasons connected to sensitive international diplomacy, be shot down by the international society. An example that was mentioned was Hamas. Hamas’ participation in the democratic election in Palestine in 2006 was the result of years oflocal dialogue, however, when they ended up as winners, the international society turned its back to the Palestinians. The Americans recent decision to work with the new Hamas-Fatah government is an example of how these international conditions can change. Still, there is a tension between local dialogue initiatives and more formal international negotiations. Local processes can for example include more extreme and undemocratic parties, and despite the positive and transformative dialogue processes in which these actors participate, it can easily be cut off by rigid international formalities.
Donors’ demands for quantitative measuring, log-frames and quick results were also emphasized as a challenge for dialogue projects. In many countries dialogue and reconciliation addresses historic and trans-generational grievances which will require long-term commitment. Very often limited political will (both in the country’s political elite and among international donors) and limited understanding of dialogue processes’ dynamics undermine promising dialogue efforts. In other words, dialogue will always ‘play the long game’ – donors will not.
Another lesson that was shared was simply not labelling dialogue processes ‘dialogue’. Very often the conflicting parties in a given context avoid any initiative that entails coming to terms with its antagonists. Many will refuse to enter into anything that smacks of dialogue. However, if you carry out a workshop on a given theme (e.g. food-security or the UN’s role in the country) and happen to invite all parties – they may come and meet each other without being aware of the dialogue-nature of the workshop.
A last lesson everyone agreed in was to carefully mange expectations. Dialogue processes per se are important: talk for talk’s sake can sometimes be very fruitful – when the participants are come from very isolated and segregated groups. However, sometimes participants are expecting some kind of implementation following the dialogue. In such cases it is of high importance to carefully think through what the expectations are on behalf of the dialogue and what kind of ‘results’ one can achieve.
All in all there was wide consensus on the fact that any dialogue processes must be rooted locally and owned by the participants. Local capacity and will for dialogue is essential.