David Smock, senior vice president for USIP’s Centers of Innovation, outlines some of the more salient points and experiences in the new USIP press publication,  Facilitating Dialogue: USIP’s Work in Conflict Zones.”


October 11, 2012

Today’s international conflicts typically involve multiple actors, interests, and drivers that have sparked long, violent histories. Ending these conflicts relies more and more on facilitated dialogue, a process in which a neutral third party helps a broad spectrum of conflicting parties overcome the many barriers to effective communication.

David Smock, senior vice president for USIP’s Centers of Innovation, is co-editor, with Daniel Serwer, of the new “Facilitating Dialogue: USIP’s Work in Conflict Zones.” This new USIP Press publication presents seven case studies of the Institute’s facilitated dialogue efforts in Iraq, Kosovo, Israel/Palestine, Colombia, Nigeria, and Nepal. Covering a variety of conflict situations and peacemaking efforts, the cases tell stories of peacebuilding successes, efforts in progress, limitations on what can be achieved, and lessons learned.  

Smock outlines some of the more salient points and experiences in the book.

Watch video from the October 17th book launch event, hosted at the Inited States Institute of Peace. 

USIP is active in conflict zones around the world. Are there examples of USIP helping to manage or resolve conflicts by directly intervening with some kind of mediation effort?

We have collected seven cases in which USIP resolved or helped to manage specific conflicts through what is called “facilitated dialogue”—when a neutral third person helps the antagonists start a real conversation. These cases take many forms, and they are laid out in the book. The cases come from Iraq, Kosovo, Israel/Palestine, Colombia, Nigeria and Nepal.

Give us the example from Iraq.

We worked in the so-called Triangle of Death in Iraq in 2007. This was in the area of Mahmoudiya, a rural district of 400,000 people located just 20 miles from the center of Baghdad. It was a center of bloody sectarian and inter-clan strife. In the early months of 2007, U.S. and Iraqi forces had managed to drive back al-Qaida, militias and armed gangs that had turned the area into a cauldron of violence. Local tribal and government leaders approached the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division combat team seeking support for a peace initiative.

We worked with Iraqi facilitators and other Iraqi partners to reach out to a wide network of local sheikhs to encourage them to join in a peace process. The focus was on a three-day conference that combined training and facilitated dialogue to encourage the setting of specific community goals, such as rehabilitating destroyed schools and hospitals, holding elections and getting the local economy back on its feet. The conference established working groups to focus on security, the economy, governance, rule of law and social well-being.

What were the aims?

One was to encourage the sheikhs to concentrate on solving current problems rather than on past grievances. Another was to foster a collaborative environment in which they could begin to rebuild trust. And a third was to enable the sheikhs to take collective responsibility for stabilizing and rebuilding their communities. At the end of the conference, all 32 senior tribal leaders agreed to and signed a peace accord. The key provisions of that accord were later implemented, and Mahmoudiya has remained relatively peaceful.

You mentioned that the process relied on skilled Iraqi facilitators. Is there another case where this same approach was adopted?

Yes, in Nigeria’s Niger Delta—the country’s main oil-producing region. It has seen intense interethnic fighting and attacks by armed militants against oil industry and government facilities. The Delta was the site of two USIP-funded conflict management projects, dating from 1999 to 2007 and executed by Academic Associates Peace Works (AAPW). The first project launched a two-year facilitated dialogue among the three ethnic groups locked in competition and conflict.

The second project brought together the various parties in 20 conflict-prone local governments to work for nonviolent elections in 2007. AAPW analyzed the sources of the conflict and then selected six mediators from the three ethnic communities in conflict with each other. After three days of heated discussion, the six came to agreement on a vision for the future. But violence broke out again and the government embarked on a flawed and failed peace effort.

What happened then?

The situation kept changing and required some creative solutions. The Nigerian mediators convened representatives of the youth from the three communities, since they were the principal perpetrators of the violence. Then a meeting of carefully selected elders was held. Both of these gatherings enabled people to listen deeply to those from the other ethnic communities. These meetings generated the Warri Peace Forum, named after the city where most of the violence occurred. Over time, Warri became a much more peaceful place. It was not a linear process, but there has been a lot of progress toward peaceful accommodation.

Religious differences are often cited as the source of intense conflict. Do any of your cases illustrate how religion can also be used to help make peace?

Let me mention two cases. One was called the Alexandria process and it prompted a sustained dialogue among Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Territories beginning in 2002. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is primarily over territory, but given the centrality of this territory to the three major monotheistic faiths, it is not surprising that the conflict has taken on a strongly religious dimension. The religious leaders involved in the Alexandria process concluded that the Oslo process failed because it was a secular plan imposed by secular leaders on a Holy Land. Almost all the top leaders from the three faith communities in Israel and Palestine gathered in Alexandria, Egypt, in January 2002 and signed the Alexandria Declaration, which called for a religious peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Afterwards, representatives of the three communities met regularly for several years in Jerusalem to promote interfaith peace and to support a political peace process. Unfortunately, the political peace process has not materialized so far. But overall, we think the Alexandria process did establish important interfaith relationships that endure. They could provide the basis for interfaith interventions at critical moments of tension between Israelis and Palestinians.

What else did it achieve?
It helped stimulate the creation of the Mosaica Center for Inter-Religious Cooperation by Rabbi Michael Melchior and Elie Wiesel in 2004, which has organized important interfaith initiatives. In addition, it led to the creation of a successor organization, the Council of the Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, which brings together the three faith communities on a regular basis and helps organize joint interfaith action. USIP was the principal source of financial support for the Alexandria process, and we have supported Mosaica in its interfaith work.

What is the other case with a religious dimension?

That is in Colombia, where USIP has helped bring together religious women from both Catholic and Protestant communities to promote peace. Beginning in 2006, USIP staff discovered that women involved in peace efforts through their religious communities were organizing exciting initiatives and were eager to move more deeply into ecumenical work. Previously, most of the peacemaking by the two faith communities had been managed by male leaders. Since 2008 USIP has helped organize a dialogue between Catholic and Protestant Christian women who are involved in peacebuilding. By fostering ecumenical relationships, we are helping to create a broader movement of faith-based peacebuilders and to strengthen the role of women in addressing Colombia’s conflicts.

Wasn’t the Balkans an arena for early USIP work in the field? Did USIP engage in facilitated dialogue there?
USIP organized a series of dialogues among Kosovar Albanians and between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs between 1998 and 2002 to try to promote constructive engagement and ultimately peace between the two communities in Kosovo. They involved officials, politicians, intellectuals, civil society leaders and youth. One of the early meetings was held at Lansdowne in Virginia and produced the Lansdowne Declaration, which was referred to in Kosovo many years after the meeting. The discussion focused on the political process, economic reconstruction, revitalization and reform and strengthening civil society. We wanted to help the participants project just what kind of Kosovo they wanted to see in five years and how to get there.

And where did that lead?

Over some three years, USIP helped to steward 10 facilitated dialogues and training workshops that brought Serbs and Albanian Kosovars into discussions about interethnic coexistence and coalition building. That led to a series of documents that serve as standards for interethnic cooperation, dialogue, good governance and economic and social reform in Kosovo. The dialogues also opened up both interethnic and intra-ethnic communication among political leaders and representatives of civil society. They have made Kosovo a safer, more peaceful place and brightened its future prospects.

What lessons have been learned from the Facilitating Dialogue project?
First, the role of the facilitator is critical: A skilled facilitator needs to be actively engaged in directing the discussion and helping the participants reach consensus. The impartiality of the facilitator is critical to the success of peacebuilding processes. Also, local facilitators can play a central role. And integrating the roles of foreign and local facilitators is important. Second, collaborating with local partner organizations is ideal. Civil society has considerable peacebuilding potential. Third, the importance of timing cannot be overstated. The start of a dialogue process needs to be effectively timed. It also needs to be understood by all involved that effective dialogue may require a great deal of time. Last, it is not necessary, or in many cases even prudent, to wait for Track I processes to take the lead. Track 1.5 and Track II processes can advance the peacebuilding agenda. However, initiatives that might affect national policies need to incorporate linkages to Track 1 diplomacy.

Effective dialogue needs to recognize the past but also look to the future.The imbalances of power among the parties to a dispute need to be taken into account when an initiative is being planned.

Explore Further

  • Global Change, Peacebuilding and USIP
    USIP leaders explain the effect that events around the world and here at home will have on the U.S., and the contributions the Institute can and does make during a time of tremendous challenge – and opportunity.

Related Publications

USIP in Nigeria: Connecting Civic, State Leaders to Stem Violence

USIP in Nigeria: Connecting Civic, State Leaders to Stem Violence

Thursday, May 3, 2018

By: Susan Stigant; Oge Onubogu

A common thread underlying many of Nigeria’s most pressing problems is a failure of governance—a disconnect between officials and citizens in Africa’s biggest democracy. Whether the issue is the rise of Boko Haram, corruption or persistent intercommunal violence, the failure of government to understand or meet the needs of diverse groups of Nigerians is often the cause of volatile breakdowns.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Nancy Lindborg on Nigeria's Central Role in Africa

Nancy Lindborg on Nigeria's Central Role in Africa

Wednesday, May 2, 2018


Fresh from her USIP delegation trip to Nigeria, Nancy Lindborg explains Nigeria’s importance to Africa and the United States. Lindborg discusses the critical on-the-ground work happening to prevent violence and underscores the importance of Nigerian governors to countering Boko Haram.

Peace Processes

Democracy and Security in Africa Depend on Nigeria

Democracy and Security in Africa Depend on Nigeria

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

By: Nancy Lindborg

When Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari met with President Trump on Monday, much attention was paid to the importance of counterterror efforts and economic investments that will help the country continue its climb out of its deep recession. These are both critical areas for U.S. focus and assistance, but will not ultimately be sufficient to resolve Nigeria’s internal and regional security challenges.

Democracy & Governance; Violent Extremism

Trump Meets Nigeria's Buhari Amid Lake Chad Crisis

Trump Meets Nigeria's Buhari Amid Lake Chad Crisis

Thursday, April 26, 2018

By: Oge Onubogu ; Chris Kwaja

When President Donald Trump meets Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on April 30, problems of terrorism and security across much of Africa’s Sahel region will get renewed media attention. Although the Boko Haram extremist group has been forced back from the large territories it once ruled and terrorized, its militants still carry out attacks. And groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS continue to operate in the Sahel, pursued by a U.S.-backed multinational military force. Talks at the White House will focus on broader issues of democracy and stability for Nigeria and the surrounding region.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

View All Publications