‘One unfortunate side-effect of the professionalization of mediation over the past three decades is that the focus has shifted from the conflict and the parties to the mediator and the agreement’,  says Research Professor Cedric de Coning (NUPI).

This has led to considerable pressure on mediators to generate agreements that adhere to international expectations, based on international ‘best practice’ or ‘standards’.

  • Read the full interview with Cedric de Coning here.

‘The result is that many agreements reflect international expectations as to what a peace agreement should contain, more than reflecting the local context or the interests of those involved . In many cases, the mediators and their teams have so much influence over the process and content of the agreement reached that the parties to the conflict and the people affected by it simply can’t recognize themselves and their experiences and concerns in the agreements’, de Coning points out.

No ’one-size-fits-all’

Together with co-editors Ako Muto and Rui Saraiva, de Coning has authored Adaptive Mediation and Conflict Resolution:  Peace-making in Colombia, Mozambique, the Philippines, and Syria (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).

Adaptive mediation is a specific approach to mediation. It is based on the recognition that social systems are complex – emergent, dynamic and non-linear – and thus unpredictable. This uncertainty means we are not able to pre-determine a causal chain of interventions that can lead a society from conflict to peace’, explains de Coning.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to mediation.

‘This complexity also implies irreproducibility. A given successful practice cannot be transferred from one context to another – for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa – and expect it to have the same effect in another context.’

Three implications for mediation

This complexity has three implications for mediation:

‘First of all, the uncertainty and unpredictability mean we cannot use a deductive theory of change. Instead, we need to use an inductive process of learning-from-doing: exploring a range of options, and continuously revising and adapting them, in the basis of what we have learned from experience.’

De Coning explains that this iterative adaptive process informs both how the mediation team and parties generate knowledge about a conflict, and how the parties to a mediation process develop a sufficient understanding of their shared interest to generate an agreed path to resolving the conflict.

This method of coping with complexity by learning-from-doing and doing-whilst-learning is what is called Adaptive mediation.

‘Must be generated by the parties themselves’

The second implication of the complexity and unpredictability of mediation processes has to do with ownership to the peace agreement.

‘For an agreement to be self-sustainable, the content of the agreement must be generated by the parties themselves. This is also consistent with the role that self-organization plays in the ordering of complex systems, including social systems’, explains de Coning.

Third, the role of the mediator must be restricted to facilitating the adaptive process.

‘If the mediator starts to become involved in the content, this distorts the context and disrupts the self-organizing dynamics among the parties – and that results in dependence and undermines self-sustainability. ‘

‘This also makes them more resilient to withstand future setbacks and shocks’, de Coning adds.

Many agreements collapse soon after being signed

‘Many peace agreements concluded over the past two or three decades meet some or all of the international requirements, but fail to reflect the issues that the people and parties are concerned with – beyond perhaps some form of elite power-sharing bargain.  As a result, many agreements collapse soon after they have been signed. This is why Adaptive Mediation is especially concerned about the agency of the parties to the conflict, the quality of their participation in the mediation process and the self-sustainability of agreements reached’, the NUPI researcher explains.

The case studies in the new book – in particular those of Colombia, Mozambique and the Philippines – demonstrate how attempts at mediation failed because they were dominated by the mediators, whereas later attempts that were more adaptive in style and accorded more agency to the parties, have proven more successful.

‘All four cases studies in this book support the adaptive mediation thesis: that, when the aim is achieving a self-sustainable peace agreement, mediators should restrict their role to process facilitation; they should protect parties from external interests and agendas, foster inductive processes that maximize the capacity of the parties to self-organize, and help them to generate agreements that are rooted in the local context.’

The Syria case: Undermined by power rivalries

‘In particular, the Colombia case shows the importance of recognizing the variety among different local contexts in one and the same country, and how mediation processes need to be adaptive to the specific needs of different regions, communities, and local contexts’, de Coning points out.

At the other end of the scale, he notes, is the case of Syria:

‘International and regional power rivalries undermined the ability of the mediators to forge peace from the bottom and up. Moreover, excessive interference disrupted the ability of the parties to self-organize, especially at several critical potential tipping points, and this undermined the ability of several highly experienced mediators, and the parties themselves, to find ways of settling on a pathway to end the conflict.’

De Coning notes how the mediation experiences in Colombia, Mozambique and the Philippines stand in contrast to those from Syria:

‘These have shown that when the parties – or insider neutrals associated with them – participate in generating a shared conflict analysis, identifying options and exploring pathways to agreements, the outcome is more likely to reflect local narratives and perspectives relevant to the context, rather than the assumptions, interests, and biases of the external or international mediators,’ he concludes.