Expert Interview: Dr. Susan Allen

Ottawa Dialogue’s Spring 2021 Newsletter features an interview with Dr. Susan Allen, Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the Director of the Center for Peacemaking Practice in the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Our discussion was spurred in response to her recent publication, entitled “Evolving Best Practices: Engaging the Strengths of Both External and Local Peacebuilders in Track Two Dialogues through Local Ownership,” published in International Negotiation’s 2020 Special Issue on Best Practices in Track Two. Our interview includes discussions on what is meant by insider/outsider mediators, how mediators can foster and support local ownership in peace processes, what a possible “fifth wave” of conflict resolution practice looks like, and her upcoming work at the Carter School. You may find the referenced publication here.

1. You are the Principal Investigator for the Better Evidence Project at George Mason University, where you are Director of the Center for Peacemaking Practice in the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, and an Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Would you like to share with us what this project is about, your motivation for creating such a project, and your vision(s) for the future?

The Better Evidence Project (BEP) aims to decrease warfare by encouraging peacemaking that is guided by knowledge of what works. BEP anchors a hub made up of numerous partners throughout the field that together identify what research is needed to address current problems, synthesize relevant research and, where necessary, conduct research directly, presenting the findings in accessible formats to provide useful guidance for practitioners, policy makers, donors, and scholars.

BEP is an initiative of the Center for Peacemaking Practice, where scholars, practitioners, and scholar-practitioners engage theory and practice together to strengthen peacemaking practice.

I envision a future in which peacemaking practice knowledge becomes popularly accessible, enabling life-saving efforts to be more efficient and effective. Dr. Kristina Hook is Executive Director of the Better Evidence Project; with her leadership, we’re making great progress with offering research syntheses for policy makers who need quick access to the cutting-edge evidence to make their policy decisions.

2. This article speaks to local ownership in Track Two, and the benefits of having a “combined teams” approach, in line with current scholarship on the “fourth wave” of conflict resolution research. Before we delve into further questions, would you discuss more about what you view as the characteristics of an outsider party versus an insider party?

Insiders know their home context well and have deep familial and life-long ties to others in that context. People waging conflict generally know who these insiders are, where they come from, and what they stand for in the conflict. In contrast, outsiders will never, even after decades, know the context quite as well as insiders who have lived it. Rather, outsiders tend to bring stories and ideas from other places, ask catalytic questions, and compare and contrast this context with other places they have worked. Peace processes can be strengthened when these outsider and insider strengths are combined.

3. You mention your previous scholarship with Rothbart that focusses on “conflict resolution as compassion practice” (p. 72). While the role of locals in fostering compassion is clear, what is the responsibility and role of external facilitators in fostering compassion? How can this be balanced with impartiality?

I see compassion and impartiality as separate concepts. Rothbart and I define compassion as involving both an awareness of another’s suffering and also a desire to alleviate that suffering. I define impartiality in this context as meaning a lack of any preference for specific political arrangements as outcomes of the conflict. I can be impartial about the final political settlement’s terms, while still being partial with my support for nonviolent or democratic or human rights norms.

You are asking about external facilitators and how they can be impartial when they work to foster compassion. The external facilitator tries to help all parties understand the suffering of the others, and then to find ways to alleviate everyone’s suffering. That is compassion. It does not involve taking sides, preferring one party over another, or weighing one party’s suffering as more extreme than another’s. There’s enough suffering to go around in most conflicts; we don’t judge who has suffered the most. With compassion, we seek to become aware of and address all the suffering.

4. You mention the risk of confusing insider insight into participant selection with gatekeeping. This would likely heavily overlap with meaningful inclusion and diversity in Track Two, which was a central topic in Ottawa Dialogue’s previous newsletter. Do you have any insight into how facilitators can recognize gatekeeping from helpful insight, and ways to circumvent this? How can facilitators ensure their participant selection represents accountable inclusion?

There’s no getting around the need for deep open collaboration between the insiders and outsiders working as a team. Team discussions can consider inclusion principles and how to operationalize them in their specific context. When an insider recommends including one particular person over another, the outsiders can ask why, seeking to understand. If the insider’s recommendation is based on knowing one person more than another, and trusting that known person, the team could decide to also get to know the other person, too, thus diversifying the range of possible participants. One of the great strengths of insiders is their local networks, and those can grow over time. The networks are not static.

5. You insightfully illustrate an example of local ownership and partnership using the case of the Georgian-South Ossetian Track Two experience. You explain that the local coordinator’s knowledge of local culture and personal commitments to peacebuilding even when there was minimal or no funding to support peace work were pivotal in this peace process. Are you able to clarify and explain what peacebuilding looks like in practice when there is very little or no funding?

There has been a dedicated group of Georgian and South Ossetian peacemakers who have stayed in touch with each other between “projects” of funded peacemaking. We have had many internet-based meetings with each other. Sometimes we meet to consider developments in the peace process, and look for opportunities for further developing the peace process. Planning an initiative between two communities really requires input from both communities, and our team meetings provide an opportunity for such input from both the Georgians and also the South Ossetians. And, sometimes, we simply meet to congratulate someone on their birthday, or to ask after a colleague who has been sick. After years working together, we develop personal relationships, too, and care about each other. Keeping connected is something we do whether there’s a formal “project” or not.

6. To what degree should outsider facilitators be encouraging, supporting, facilitating dialogue and peacemaking efforts when there is minimal funding?

My approach has been on the one hand to encourage insiders to do as much as they can, regardless of how much funding there is. The peace process is more sustainable when it is locally led as much as possible. On the other hand, in the case of Georgian-South Ossetian dialogues, the Georgians and South Ossetians have told me they find it easier to meet if I convene them, so for that I do as much as I can to support their vision, keeping my role as limited as possible to supporting their vision. I do have a job that requires that I teach, and children that require that I mother them. So, I can’t do peacemaking all the time. However, I can do it a lot, as my job includes doing peacemaking and learning from it and then sharing that knowledge with students and the broader conflict resolution field.

7. You also mention the use of evaluation as a part of the elicitive engagement with Georgians and South Ossetians during the peace process. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is a growing field within Track Two. Do you have any advice and/or resources that you would recommend M&E officers and scholars use to improve their evaluations?

There’s a great handbook available free online by John Paul Lederach, Reina Neufeldt and Hal Culbertson. It’s called “Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Toolkit. ” (available here). That book provides clear guidance for people doing evaluations on both the importance of and the ways to work with local communities to develop indicators that are locally relevant. While practitioners have been working with communities to develop locally relevant indicators for decades, that 2007 publication by Lederach, Neufeldt, and Culbertson is the first comprehensive guide I’ve seen that offers support to practitioners trying to do that. That’s one place to start with improving evaluations.

Another way to go with improving evaluations is to make them locally useful. Ask community partners what they would find useful to learn about, and encourage them to structure the evaluation around the locally useful questions.

8. You mention in your article the idea of technology offering new practices for Track Two mediators, particularly the idea of video chatting, which is very relevant in this pandemic era! While video chatting offers new ways to communicate remotely; in terms of involving local actors, have you noticed unintended effects (e.g. increased accessibility issues and/or even isolation) when technology is integrated or relied upon for dialogue?

Yes! Several of us conveners of track two and track one and a half dialogues (from George Mason University, Conciliation Resources, USIP, and Ottawa Dialogue) convened a discussion with dozens of facilitators of such dialogues a few months into the pandemic to share our experiences with convening online dialogues. Many shared stories of ways the technology is working, and also ways it is not as effective as in person discussions. One of the worries with technology is for those dialogues that want to have confidential conversations, there’s always a fear that the internet conversations could be insecure.

9. Do you think of these new forms of digitally mediated conflict resolution will be a part of a possible fifth wave of conflict resolution practice?

Yes! This pandemic has changed society in so many ways, and conflict resolution practice shifts are significant. I do see this ushering in more online communication in conflict resolution practice. I’m working with colleagues at the Carter School and with partners doing pandemic-era dialogue convening to assess what’s working and to imagine and consciously shape the coming era of conflict resolution practice post-pandemic. This is an exciting time for innovation. The fifth wave of conflict resolution will definitely be shaped by our recent experience with online connections. The Carter School has a Peace Engineering Lab, directed by our Dean, Dr. Alpaslan Özerdem, that is a partner in these efforts to envision the future of track two dialogue convening.

10. Are there any important points that I may have missed, or notes that you would like to discuss?

I’m writing a book now on peacemaking, and I’m emphasizing the centrality of people in peacemaking. I want to make that point. Realtors may tell you there are three things that matter in real estate: location, location, and location. I’ll tell you there are three things that matter in peacemaking: people, people, and people. That’s an extreme statement, but I just want to counter-balance all the focus on power, narrative, institutions, structures, etc. Conflict resolution is complex, and we can’t leave the people out of it.

Resources/Articles Mentioned:

Allen, Susan H. ” Evolving Best Practices: Engaging the Strengths of Both External and Local Peacebuilders in Track Two Dialogues through Local Ownership.” International Negotiation 26.1 (2020): 67-84.

Rothbart, Daniel, and Susan H. Allen. “Building Peace through Systemic Compassion.” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 36.4 (2019): 373–86,


Susan Allen

Dr. Susan H. Allen is Associate Professor, Director of the Center for Peacemaking Practice, and Principal Investigator for the Better Evidence Project at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. She has been a convener of track two and track one and a half initiatives around the world for over two decades, with particularly deep engagement in the South Caucasus region. She is a scholar-practitioner, engaging in conflict resolution practice from her position in academia, and bringing practice experience into the university. Her research emphasizes learning from conflict resolution practice through engaged scholarship, action research, reflective practice, evaluation, and related approaches. She is the co-editor of Peacemaking: From Practice to Theory (2011), and most recently Confronting Peace: Local Peacebuilding in the Wake of a National Peace Agreement (2021).