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 are mutually exclusive. We will answer at two levels, one of which we hope will be pertinent to 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 good teachers, so if we are wrong, let us know). Major conflicts there are fueled by factors such as huge inequalities in social, political, and economic status; historic ethnic conflicts that were based in a competition for essential food and goods at one time, but which now just reflect historic dislike for one another; conflicts about borders imposed by colonial powers who lacked cultural sensitivity; economic problems based on ruined natural resources, famine, desertification, or exploitation by a ruling class; poor resolution of past conflicts; 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 corruption.

Yyour question is how community development organizations can help resolve these conflicts. Organizations can be great at creating group support for conflict-reducing ideas if they don’t tackle too many different ideas at once. For example, if historic ethnic conflicts are a factor, the organization can mount 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 where possible. Create many opportunities for the groups to socialize on each other’s territory and in neutral places. Plan events jointly to emphasize each group’s strong points. Further along in the conflict resolution process, competing groups can try to understand one another's history. 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 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, those problems can be addressed. Some major scarcity issues, notably food scarcity, can be addressed at the level of the community development organization through researching and then educating local population on 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 work, is the key in today's world.

When a community development organization wants real reduction in conflicts such as border disputes, which clearly are beyond the scope of most community 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 attract higher-income renters.

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 and we want the new, 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 shopping nearby and entry-level jobs. Worse yet, we will have to pay more taxes in the long run because we will not have the business tax base.

A second conflict is about both culture and personalities. People tend to identify with the person 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. More established residents may feel threatened by what they see as a possibility of too many loud young people, too tolerant of diversity. They also may fear that they will be priced out of the neighborhood.

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

In the third example a community development organization such as a neighborhood group usually cannot address that issue effectively 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 league.

In sum, community development organizations can and should help prevent conflict. They must be realistic about which causes of conflict they can address, work hard to research possible solutions, and learn about organizations that mediate disputes.

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