Anti-government protesters in Sana’a, Yemen in February 2011. As the only country from the Arab Spring protests that emerged with an internationally supported transition process, the development community can learn from Yemen’s experience in conflict resolution. Photo by: AJTalkEng / CC BY-NC-ND

United Nations mediation in Yemen’s transition process after the country’s president stepped down in 2012 was crucial in avoiding broader conflict, according to a report published this month by the International Peace Institute.

Devex spoke to author and Overseas Development Institute humanitarian policy group research fellow Steven Zyck about his findings, and how the lessons learned can be used by global development professionals delivering conflict resolution on a smaller scale.

Here are his top six guidelines:

1. Break down the conflict.

Most conflict situations are fuelled by several simultaneous problems.

“It’s rare that you have a simple one-issue conflict,” he said. “You’re usually dealing with five or more different conflicts at the same time. Break them down and decide what you can influence.”

In Yemen, the United Nations helped set up a National Dialogue Conference of 565 participants to discuss the transition process and agree future humanitarian, political and security approaches.

“There were too many issues that the U.N. tried to deal with all in a single form,” Zyck said. As his report points out, during the process a smaller group of 16 people had to be formed “once it became apparent that Yemen’s future state structure would not be resolved within the NDC.” This group was eventually able to put forward a plan for a six-part federal state.

It’s also important to consider which issues to discuss in public, such as “a land dispute you may want to resolve in front of people,” and which behind closed doors. Zyck suggested more technical decisions can be made out of the public eye.

2. Have a clear but flexible mandate.

At the beginning of a conflict resolution process, Zyck recommended that professionals focus on building relationships before establishing program parameters.

“Avoid getting too legalistic early on, and too clearly delineating what the mediator will or will not do,” he said. “Long-term processes or standing conflict resolution functions have a need at first to be flexible, then clarify, instead of setting limits.”

3. Choose the team with a skill set, rather than one charismatic mediator.

“So many people are wedded to the notion it’s about a charismatic mediator wading in — that isn’t the case,” Zyck argued. “You have to go way beyond that. Conflict resolution is not an art; it’s a skill that can be taught.”

Citing U.N. Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar and former U.N. High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Paddy Ashdown, who is now the president of UNICEF in the United Kingdom, as “lions” of conflict resolution, Zyck said that while it’s good to have a strong mediator, they cannot be expected to perform all the roles required.

“You really need three people in one: someone to oversee and motivate the group, a bureaucrat or manager to implement and organize, and a skillful communicator,” he suggested. “You don’t want the mediator to be the same as the bureaucratic person. You need a manager — an organizational whiz.”

A manager is important to ensure decisions are implemented at a local level, in particular after conflict resolution discussions have ended. Zyck said it’s common for people to disrespect agreements, so having someone in place to ensure implementation is a strong strategy.

Ensuring the team has leverage with the stakeholders can also be achieved by considering cultural differences. In his report, Zyck described how Benomar, a Moroccan, won popularity from key Yemeni factions who saw him as a fellow Muslim. But acting as an outsider also has benefits.

“There isn’t a hard and fast rule about having someone from the same culture to act as a mediator,” Zyck said. “In some cases it can be useful to build trust, but we’ve also seen examples where someone independent — an ignorant outsider — can ask more questions. This can help open up new opportunities for conflict management.”

Benomar, Zyck noted, played both the Muslim brother and the U.N. bureaucrat. This was particularly useful when Benomar argued, as a U.N. representative, for inclusion of women within the NDC.

Organizations can cover all of these bases by sharing different roles between mediation team members. Zyck only cautioned that anyone with a cultural affiliation to the country must not lean more to one of the groups involved in the conflict.

4. Get the right people around the table.

Equally important to successful conflict resolution is having the right stakeholders. Zyck suggested that organizations can feel pressure to represent all groups, particularly the marginalized. But he said only people who have a “viable opportunity to ensure credibility of the outcome” should be invited.

In Yemen, Benomar ensured 30 percent of participants were women and 20 percent were young people. These people, however, were affiliated with particular parties or factions with a stake in the discussions.

5. Provide negotiation skills training and mentors.

Different parties involved in conflict resolution discussions have varying styles of communication and expectations about the process. In Yemen, Zyck said some groups were led by Harvard legal scholars, while other leaders did not have primary education. Equally, some came to the discussion thinking results would be legalistic, while others believed the negotiations were informal concessions.

To ensure a fair and effective process, Zyck recommended providing training for participants before discussions begin.

“It’s good to provide some nonpartisan training on how to negotiate, explain the difference between mediation, arbitration and negotiation, and teach how to negotiate, communicate and build concessions,” he said.

Zyck also recommended organizations provide mentors throughout negotiations.

“One-off training won’t do the trick — there should be someone to turn to during the process,” he said, citing Benomar’s exemplary practice of providing mentors and coaching in a way that is not patronizing or condescending. “This helped them discuss informally things such as how to frame their demands.”

Development professionals should build time and cost for such training into programs before they start. Zyck said the approach can be particularly helpful for regular, small-scale conflict resolution interventions as training builds capacity for future negotiations.

6. Arm your staff with the knowledge to make cross-context comparisons.

During the Yemen NDC, specialists who could present examples of conflict resolution approaches adopted in other countries were viewed as “rock stars,” according to Zyck.

“Everyone wanted their input,” he said. “They had this ability to draw on examples, which was blowing people’s minds.”

While it is not always possible to have experienced practitioners at hand, Zyck said organizations should provide staff with materials and training to refer to when delivering discussions. These examples could be provided in iPads or booklets. He stressed the approach can work on an international or local scale, as lessons from both help shape solutions.

“It comes back to the question of conflict resolution being an art versus a basket of skills,” he said. “People who haven’t worked around the world can also deliver this approach — you don’t have to rely on the lions.”

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About the author

  • Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.