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A Recipe for Success in Conflict Resolution Training Programs


Rereading a blog post that I contributed to Africa Up Close almost two years ago, I'm struck once again by how challenging it is to work in the world of peacebuilding.  We might spend years in a community, a country, or a region, working to effect positive change, ever hopeful that our efforts will take root.  Yet sometimes we see little change or the changes are ephemeral, unexpected, or even unwelcome.  Are our efforts ill-conceived? Under-resourced? Mismanaged?  Too early?  Too late? One hopes to learn from experience, to retain those lessons learned, implement them in future projects, and share the learning with others.  Yet, that seemingly straightforward process can be so hard to execute effectively.  (Perhaps I am just a slow learner…)

The bumps along my journey have underscored for me that working in the field of conflict management and peacebuilding requires the capacity for self-reflection and a regular dose of humility.  These two elements have helped me to parse the answers to these questions and, hopefully, have improved the subsequent steps along my journey by helping me to learn more effectively from my past.

A Dash of Self-Reflection

While in Burundi earlier this year, I had the opportunity to organize and implement a follow on to a training program conducted in the DDR sector in 2012.  Building on that work, the objective of the current project was to train trainers in a new conflict management curriculum. The original program had received good reviews – from program partners, donors, and most importantly, from beneficiaries – and yet, according to our partners, something seemed to be lacking.  Despite our best efforts to transfer skills and knowledge, it seemed that we'd not been as successful as we'd hoped.  And this was a country and a community with which I'd worked extensively.  Could I have so greatly misjudged our impact?  My initial reaction was disappointment: what had we done wrong?  Why had we been unsuccessful, stopping short of admitting outright failure?

This is the moment when the capacity for self-reflection comes in.  After analyzing the results from the previous program, my partners and I concluded that it had not been a failure.  On the contrary, it had been reasonably successful, motivating further investment of resources (and hence the invitation to me to organize the follow on activities).  Indeed, the original six-month program had some very effective elements – training accompanied by coaching, reinforcement sessions and the sharing of lessons learned, ending with an evaluation and feedback process.  And these elements bore fruit.  Many of the trainers had integrated the skills into their own practice and were transferring them to the communities and ex-combatants with whom they worked and beyond.

And a Pinch of Humility

At the same time, my process of self-reflection reminded me that one program does not often change an individual, to say nothing of a community.  So, given that we had another opportunity to reinforce learning, what did we want to do differently? How could we build more sustainability into the program? These answers to these questions required a dose (or three) of humility.

I like to think that I'm always learning and this project was no exception.  However, as with many endeavors, we can often consciously or unconsciously choose how and what we learn, ignoring the very lessons that might take us further along our journey.  I find this to be true, and especially challenging, when I'm in my element, so to speak, working in a context where I am considered "the expert."  During this most recent trip to Burundi, my dose of humility came in three parts, in the form of learning from one of my team members; from a trainer being trained; and from a beneficiary.

Humility part one – lessons from a team member.  It is a truism to say that we each see things differently.  We each bring different life experience to the table and that influences what we value, the opinions that we hold.  That experience also builds confidence and encourages one to ask questions, to push back.  While admirable in the abstract, it can be disconcerting in real time, especially when the (extremely relevant) push back and questions are coming from a team member that you've trained, whose career you've nurtured.  Ironically, and rather revealingly, the verb to train in French is "former" – to form, to shape, to mold – implying in some ways that the "formed" person should not be able to push back at all!  To both of our credits, the push back was effectively communicated and the feedback well-received – and, fortunately, in time to have a positive impact on the project.

Humility part two – lessons from a trainer/participant.  This was more challenging for me.  While I pride myself on integrating participant experience and feedback into my approach, I'm rarely challenged on the specific theoretical underpinnings of that approach.  When (gently) asked some specific questions about terminology, definitions, and the appropriateness of the theory to this context (backed up by some excellent sources) by a participant who had not been a part of the previous program like the vast majority of participants – and thus had not benefited from my wisdom? – it took me one, two, maybe three minutes to drop my defensive posture and engage the discussion.  It was rich, enlightening and critical to furthering my understanding of the Burundian context and the relevance of our theory to that context.

Humility part three – lessons from a beneficiary.  My final dose of humility was delivered at the close of the program, when observing the application of the curriculum to a 'test' group of beneficiaries.  After 16 years of working and living in Burundi, I pride myself on having some understanding of the context, especially as it relates to which skills and tools I think will resonate with community members.  This beneficiary disagreed, offering a completely different take on what skills and tools were most relevant to his role in his community.  His contribution forced me to rethink my own.

Catalysts rather than Experts

As external interveners in communities in conflict perhaps it is helpful to remember that we are not really experts at all.  At best, we are catalysts – for change, for new ideas, for different ideas, and models for what to do or for what not to do.  A capacity for self-reflection and a dose of humility are excellent companions on this journey.

Elizabeth A. McClintock is a Founder and Managing Partner with CMPartners

Photo Credit: World Bank via Flickr

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