By Tanja Hagedorn
There is a trend towards and growing awareness of the value of locally led, bottom-up conflict resolution and peacebuilding methods – in academia as well as in policy and governance spaces. There is a hope to move away from the “Liberal Peace Project”, to “empower the local voices” and “decolonize” the social change, peacebuilding, and security sector. This includes, but is not limited to, a gender sensitive lens when designing projects, cultural awareness when writing policy briefs, and a show of respect when including those who have connection to land, water, and spirituality to the negotiation table. But is this the much-awaited shift in which humanity shows its ability and willingness to share power, to listen to each other, and to learn from the rich diversity of experiences and perspectives that lie within our different cultures? Or is it just an interesting theory, a philosophical – perhaps even idealistic – approach? What can this look like practically?
These are some of the questions that have been surfacing as I reflect on a recent pilot project within the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) regional Climate Security in the Pacific Project, focusing on climate security risk assessments in Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). As the dialogue and mediation methodology to address climate change conflict and security risks was developed and implemented, it became clear that to work towards a truly locally led approach, relationships and trust building, storytelling and deep listening, adaptive peacebuilding approaches as well as the acknowledgement of power imbalances and privilege need to be prioritised alongside security measures and policy development.
Low-lying atolls in the Pacific, such as the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and other Pacific nations, such as Fiji, are facing significant risks to their security and livelihoods due to rising sea levels, droughts, and other effects of climate change. These risks include food insecurity, migration, loss of land and spiritual connection, identity and belonging, potentially leading to conflict between and within communities as well as conflict between communities and governments.
The project, to develop an “Integrated Mediation, Dialogue and Multi-Party Process for Climate Change Impacted Communities”, was implemented by a consortium of organisations in the Pacific and Australia (Conciliation Resources, Peace and Conflict Studies Institute Australia (PaCSIA) and Transcend Oceania). The project team’s aim was to design the process in such a way that it would demonstrate the climate affected communities’ connection to land, water, spirituality, and community as well as the value of cultural ways of building connection and dialogue to raise awareness of conflict and finding relevant solutions.
The first part of the project consisted of developing an integrated methodology and “A Facilitator Guide for Integrated Mediation, Dialogue and Multi-Party Process for Climate Change Impacted Communities” (Facilitator Guide) for those working with climate change related conflicts in the Pacific. It was designed to be a set of guidelines for communities, governments, institutions, and organisations to address local issues or to raise awareness of potential conflict. The Facilitator Guide was then presented in a two-day workshop held in Fiji and hosted by the UNDP. It was attended by participants (government officials and representatives from various organisations and institutions) from the RMI, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Fiji. This was a fantastic opportunity for the people of the Pacific to share their experiences and to propose ways forward in finding solutions for climate change related conflicts and security risks.
The Facilitator Guide
How does one design and use a Facilitator Guide, which by its very nature is a procedural approach, within a context that values a relational and spiritual approach to issues affecting the community? The project team attempted to do this in two ways: Firstly, by using the complex history and situation of the Naviavia community in Fiji, familiar to two of the organisations involved (Transcend Oceania and Conciliation Resources) through previous projects, as a case study, and, secondly, by relying on the consultant from Transcend Oceania, a local Fijian, to take the lead. His connection to the Naviavia community, knowledge and understanding of local custom – from the Sevusevu protocol of initial contact with a community, holding a Talanoa (the customary way of holding dialogue and creating space for deep listening) to understanding the people’s faith and deep respect for the Church as well as the value of the village elders, women, and youth – was invaluable to the team and shaped the Facilitator Guide throughout.
The outcome of the Talanoas demonstrated the importance of a nuanced and adaptive approach to engagement, discussions, planning, and problem solving, as new information, shared by those affected locally, changed the direction of the project. For example, when our team learnt about the stakeholders involved in the complex situation of Naviavia, realising that the Anglican Church owned the land on which the people lived, it seemed to be a logical next step to engage the Church in dialogue about the sale of the large surrounding area of land to Kiribati. However, as the local team member listened to the community’s needs, understanding their values and belief systems, this was not the desired next step. First, the community wanted to ensure that everyone in the community agreed before engaging with the Church, which is held in high regard.
This further illustrates that awareness and acknowledgement of any bias that we might carry is required, acknowledging that we cannot fully understand the context, values, needs, hopes and fears of those we might want to support locally. I, for example, am a woman of European descent, shaped by my upbringing, faith and education and need to be aware of any bias or privilege that influences the lens through which I view others. It is in this awareness that we might find the ability to let go of the desire to find solutions for (climate change and other) conflict afflicted people, but can walk alongside them, if that is what is required.
The two-day workshop was presented in a hybrid format: In person in Suva, Fiji, (facilitated by three team members) and online (facilitated by two hosts). Rather than focusing on the methodologies of stakeholder and conflict analysis, security policy or relocation strategies (as important and necessary as that is), the emphasis was on relationship building and creating a shared space of understanding. The introductory emphasis on the people of the Pacific and the connection to land, water, and spirituality and the value of community needs in relation to issues concerning climate change security set the tone. It was fascinating to listen to representatives of various institutions as well as government officials sharing stories of how they and their families were personally affected and challenged by the crisis that climate change presents to the low-lying atolls of the Pacific. It became clear that relationships are essential for mutual understanding. These are not transactional or based on any agreement (especially with an outsider organisation or institution), but based on trust built over time through dialogue, deep listening und mutual learning.
A key aspect of this relationship-building during the workshop was catalysed by storytelling. As the headman of the Naviavia community relayed the history of his village, including the settlement of Naviavia by Solomon Islanders through “black birding”, living and working on land on a Fijian island owned by the Anglican Church, the recent sale to Kiribati of the surrounding land on which the community relies for their livelihoods, and increased flooding risks from the adjacent river as a result of climate change (to name just a few of the complexities that would need to be addressed when trying to find a solution for the community to thrive), the atmosphere in the room – and even in the online space – changed. Many of those attending shared that they had been unfamiliar with the story and expressed their empathy and concern as well as heartfelt gratitude to the village headman for his openness. This shows that to ensure that ownership and agency is maintained by the community, ongoing hearing – in whichever form is appropriate for the local situation – is a priority. This may be an obvious part of dialogue and mediation, even problem solving and policy making, but it also may mean that there is time for storytelling, which is much more detailed, personal, and even emotive than fact sharing.
Throughout the remainder of the workshop, as the case of Naviavia was used to illustrate the necessity of the various steps in the Facilitator Guide, it was evident that this community driven and relational approach, albeit complex and potentially slow in progress, was viewed as one that would lead to more sustainable solutions than a mere security and policy driven process.
The richness of this experience was further increased by a comment regarding gender perspectives, challenging the team’s choice of having three men facilitate the workshop, which is not representative of the communities that were meant to be supported and advocated for. Even though the two of us hosting the online workshop were women, the imbalance was acknowledged, and the Facilitator Guide was amended to ensure that a gender sensitive approach was incorporated into the steps of the guide. The Facilitator Guide was also shared as a “living document” with all participants, who were invited to add their thoughts and experiences, especially those related to local custom, to the guide. This further demonstrated the value placed on listening, adapting and change to honour those who are affected and hold local knowledge of culture and customs.
Even though this was a relatively small pilot project, I believe it holds promise. The work with the Naviavia community during the development of the Facilitator Guide, the moments of sharing, reflection and even confrontation gave me hope. Lessons learnt from this project may be transferable to other projects – not necessarily in the same format or according to a specific plan or process, but with caution and consideration, respecting the varying contexts, perspectives, and strengths of local communities. I look forward to continued learning, alongside local communities, other practitioners, and policy makers.