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Role of Community Development Organizations in Conflict Resolution

by Edward Kingston Jombla
(Accra, Ghana)

Visitor Question: What are the causes of conflict and what is the role of community development organisations in their resolution?

Editors Reply: The root cause of community and inter-community conflict is competing goals that one or both parties believe to be mutually exclusive. We will answer at two levels, one of which we hope will be pertinent to your situation in Africa and one that looks more at social and psychological causes of conflict.

In Africa, here is what we understand (and we are learners here and perhaps not very good teachers, so if we are wrong, please comment back to us). Major conflicts there are fueled by factors such as huge inequalities in social, political, and economic status; historic ethnic conflicts that maybe were based in a competition for essential food and goods at one time, but which now are based on just an historic dislike for one another; conflicts about borders that maybe were imposed by colonial powers who really lacked cultural knowledge and sensitivity; economic problems based on too much exploitation of natural resources in the past, famine, desertification, or exploitation by a ruling class; poor resolution of past conflicts so that conflicts bubble up time after time; an excess of arms and emphasis on military power; and the collapse of governments through just poor leadership, inappropriate imitation of other governments that faced far different circumstances, or outright corruption.

So your question is what community development organizations can do to help resolve these conflicts. Community organizations can be great at creating group support for conflict-reducing ideas if they don’t try to take on too many different ideas at once. For example, if historic ethnic conflicts are a factor in the places where a community development organization is active, the organization can and should undertake an active campaign to build inter-group understanding and tolerance.

To do this, involve both groups in planning a campaign and in membership and governance of the organization to the extent possible. Create many opportunities for the groups to socialize on each other’s territory and in neutral places. For these events to be successful, they need to be planned jointly and they need to emphasize each group’s strong points. Further along in the conflict resolution process, competing groups can try to understand one another's historical viewpoints. South Africa and Northern Ireland should be your textbooks for this more advanced stage.

At the beginning though just have a program of people getting to know each other. To multiply the success of this program, make sure to create more than one event and get people to commit at the beginning to attending the entire series.

As another example, if past conflicts were not resolved well and to the satisfaction of both parties, the community development organization can sponsor the same types of get-acquainted meetings and common meals as a way to ease tensions enough to allow a formal negotiation process to begin. The community development organization also could work on finding some neutral mediators from NGOs that aren’t involved in the disputes to help that peace process bring a more durable solution.

Whether the community development organization can impact economic, political, and/or social inequality or just overall economic scarcity depends on the scale at which the organization operates. If it is large enough to connect with international NGOs, certainly those problems can be addressed. Some important scarcity issues, notably food scarcity, can be addressed at the level of the community development organization through researching and then educating the local population on effective local food production for their area and circumstance.

Food scarcity provides an example of the approach that less wealthy societies should take to such conflicts: community development organizations need to work smarter, not harder. Get your most educated members really engaged in creating new solutions that will work in your culture and geographic setting. Good internet research for worldwide examples that might help resolve your conflict, followed by the education of ordinary people in how those solutions might work, is the key in today's world.

When a community development organization wants to see a real reduction in conflicts such as border disputes, which clearly are beyond the scope of most community development organizations, the answer is to learn to form good partnerships and coalitions. We have written about partnerships in our August, 2017, newsletter, and described an even more complex and effective approach called collective impact in the December, 2017 edition. See our newsletter archive for links to those articles.

Lastly, we want to urge that community development organizations in Africa learn to emphasize their assets, not their liabilities. In the U.S. we have a movement called asset-based community development, and we suggest that you to learn about it and then apply that same way of thinking to your own local situation.
We want our readers in the U.S. and Europe to learn about the role of community development organizations in conflict resolution too. Recently one of us traveled extensively and re-read a lot of history.

The overwhelming conclusion is that the main causes of conflict in Europe and the U.S. seem to reside in group needs to be better than someone else, fears that some other group is about to gain a competitive advantage or that particular groups will end up losing economic or social status, and individual needs to accumulate wealth, power, and prestige. These more social and psychological causes of conflict also are present in Africa to be sure.

We will give three examples of typical local conflicts in America.

1. A neighborhood disagrees about whether they should oppose a large new development that will bring in renters able to pay much more for housing than most current residents could afford.

2. A community organization is split about whether the next president should be a young newcomer to the area who envisions a really hip neighborhood, or a long-term resident who understands area history and wants it to return to its former glory.

3. A small suburb is divided over whether they should grant a big tax incentive to a major chain store to locate in their particular suburb, as opposed to a neighboring suburb.

These conflicts reflect our anxieties, hopes, and fears about the nature of our community’s future. The first zeroes in on a fairness argument that underlies many residents' ideas about America, versus a progress argument that we want more economic activity because of new residents' higher incomes and we want the new and shiny development to feed our egos by showing what a great choice of neighborhoods we made.

The third conflict above plays on fears that if we don't give this store a lot of money, someone else will and we will lose out on an opportunity for shopping and for entry-level jobs. Worse yet, we will have to pay more taxes in the long run because we will not have the businesses that pay a lot of taxes.

The second conflict above is about both culture and personalities. People tend to identify with the person who is most like themselves, so long-term residents may automatically favor another long-term neighbor. Newcomers may identify with other newcomers. But the future look and feel of the neighborhood are at stake too. The more established residents may feel threatened by what they see as a possibility of too many young people, who are too loud and maybe too tolerant of diversity. They also may fear that eventually they will be priced out of the neighborhood.

Community development organizations can address all three fears and power plays. In the first two examples, a strong neighborhood association can create and uphold a tradition of facing these kinds of issues openly and honestly. There is no substitute for frequent face-to-face interaction when organizations have honest disagreements about who they are and who they want to become. While final decisions in both cases probably will be made by voting, a hearty dialogue before the majority vote will make for a more enduring and peaceful solution. As we have said elsewhere, don’t allow major conflicts to play out primarily in social media, where behavior is more harsh and communication is less nuanced.

In the third example a community development organization such as a neighborhood group usually cannot address that issue effectively all by itself. It will have to lobby its city hall if the association wants to argue against the municipal position. (See our how to fight city hall article.) If both city governments seem likely to escalate the bidding war for the big store, dismayed community development organizations should try to kick the dispute up to the next highest level of government or a large non-profit, such as a county or state government, metropolitan planning agency, or strong civic association.

In sum, community development organizations can and should help prevent conflict. But they must be realistic about which causes of conflict they can address, they must work hard to research possible solutions for sources of conflict, and they must learn about organizations to which broad conflicts can be referred for mediation and resolution.

Community Development > Questions > Conflict and Community Development

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