Expert Interview: Jonathan Cohen on Holding Dialogue in Illiberal Spaces

Ottawa Dialogue’s Winter 2022 Newsletter features an interview with Mr. Jonathan Cohen, Executive Director of Conciliation Resources in London, UK. Our discussion covers risk mapping and mitigation when holding dialogues in illiberal spaces, building organizational capacity for such work, and the ethics of working in these contexts.

1. As an international mediator and Executive Director of Conciliation Resources, what is your organization’s first step in assessing possible risks (e.g., political, security, etc.) to a particular dialogue programme?

As you’ve noted, there are political and there are security risks. The starting point for me, and for Conciliation Resources as a peacebuilding organization, is recognizing that we’re often working in high-risk environments and so the number one priority is the life and safety of our staff and the people we work with. Whenever we work in a given context, we put emphasis on security scoping and ensure it aligns with our organization’s risk appetite. We have an organizational risk appetite statement, it’s something we discuss with our board and continue to reflect on with our senior management. The security scoping that we undertake takes into consideration the nature of the initiative we’re doing and what we’re seeking to achieve. For example, we look at how climate change impacts how we’re conducting our work and how it worsens conflict. In climate-related work, we are very conscious of the heightened risk of people caught in severe weather whenever we’re doing an event. Whereas in another context when we’re looking at armed groups, that carries a different set of risks. So, a lot of what we have to do is scoping out different security dimensions and dynamics of those risks and we think in terms of our organizational appetite for these risk profiles. And then, of course, we must think of the risks for the people we engage with and the political contexts. So, at the heart of what we do is good analysis. That analysis is multi-layered.

We’re doing conflict analysis but also peacebuilding opportunity analysis and, increasingly, we are cognizant of the need for good gender analysis of a context and how that informs the initiatives we become involved in. This is driven by a need to understand power dynamics of a given context and how, in the relationships with people we work with, power dynamics operate and what sort of risks people are being exposed to coming into processes. Something we’ve learned over the years, which was enriched by some work we did about ten ago with an initiative called “People’s Peacemaking Perspectives,” is that we’ve reconceived our understanding of conflict and peacebuilding analysis through the lens of people impacted by conflict, so that we aren’t doing the “parachuting in” analysis and that our analysis is deeply informed by the voices of those whose conflicts we’re working in, and, in particular, the people we are working with. So, we work closely with our partners in all of our contexts and, over time, work to develop close relationships that enable us to have rigorous and challenging conversations to analyse a context.

Then, I suppose at the root of it all, given all of these security and political risks, is triangulating the different perspectives you’re putting together, and combining all the different factors that inform that, and hopefully through this, you’re in a position to assess how this impacts the dialogue work you’re doing.

Two final elements: a recognition that analysis is an ongoing process and it is not a one-time endeavour. Our teams are constantly analysing, triangulating, re-triangulating, assessing risk, etc., and one of the challenges is that a lot of this is intuitive. In the work a lot of my colleagues are doing, they’ve been working in these contexts for five, ten, twenty years, and so it’s not all about a written analysis, but an analysis that’s accumulated over many years and that is intuitively refreshed after every visit, conversation, workshop, and it can sometimes be quite hard to bring new colleagues into this and to put this nuanced analysis into condensed forms of how you assess security risks. Getting that intuitive analysis into programmatic practice can be a real challenge, but it’s critically important.

2. Similarly, do you have any resources and/or insights into how international mediators can navigate the ethics of working in a given community while ensuring the safety of their participants?

Again, I’d like to start from my own staff because, as a starting point, we have a strong commitment to keeping people safe – both our own staff, because if you’re not attending to their needs then you’ll never get anywhere, and, critically, the people we work with. We recognize that in each context there can be different dynamics at work. We work hard with our partners to analyse the risk to different participants in events and processes. Those risks might be about getting to the event, around discrimination or exclusion in the event itself, or how it plays back in their own communities upon return. We try to develop contextualized mitigation efforts based on these factors. As part of our “keeping people safe” approach, over the next year we’re doing quite a bit of work on building participant-led mechanisms that give feedback and raise concerns for those taking part in our work. I suppose that is around ensuring that we are accountable for what we do, and it is crucial for community members that are involved to be able to give that feedback. There are a number of resources on how to design and manage community-based complaint mechanisms, for instance.

A lot of this work is around the security and comfort of individuals in processes, and there are also some ethical questions, as mentioned in the question of “navigating ethics.” I think the ethics of what we do as a peacebuilders and as mediation support workers and facilitators, is often underexplored. There are big issues around the fact that engaging in dialogue is inherently engaging in political processes, and often times, you find that the power politics in such processes gets dressed up in the guise of law or ethics, and that often raises a spectrum of hypocrisy, and raises a challenge of consistency. We are conscious that in the work we do, people take real political risks in order to take part in processes, and they can be exposed to danger. Sometimes the people we work with are insider mediators, and they are in a vulnerable position in their own communities, because they might have a strong position themselves as to the outcome of a conflict that they’re engaging with but might also be committed to dialogue processes that aren’t always popular in their communities. So, they have to navigate how to sustain their involvement without exposing themselves to political risks. Or they might recognize and know full well that they’re exposing themselves to political risk by working with outsiders in some of these situations and they need to make calculations about how far they are willing to go. I think in a lot of the places that we go people are social and political actors who are navigating what compromise can mean in the face of politics that doesn’t always accept that compromise is a way out of a conflict, and this puts people in a position where they are putting themselves on the line. The bravery and courage of the people involved is paramount. Tragically, one has seen people assassinated for their involvement in dialogue processes, and that is brutally painful to see, when courageous people who are prepared to push their communities and engage across divides but still be rooted in their communities and are exposed in this way. As an outsider actor, on the one hand you have to be led by a shared analysis with the people who are exposing themselves to this risk, and on the other hand, you’ll have to develop relationships where you can ask them tough questions and challenge them to think about the risks they’re exposing themselves to and balance the risks that are being created by the opportunities for peace presented by such processes.

3. How does your team at Conciliation Resources understand and approach risk reduction in their dialogue programming? Are there any resources and/or exercises that you would recommend for our broader community of convenors?

There’s not a set template for this but our teams do a lot of scenario planning. They do this with interlocutors from within contexts – partners, analysts, insider mediators. For us, these longstanding relationships and the accumulated understanding that comes from within them is critical. Thinking through these scenarios and how you can plan – detailed planning is critical for this work. In our community, we’re often pushed into situations – partly because of the politics where things are fluid, partly because of funding dynamics where donors know that dialogue and peacebuilding processes are long-term processes but they fund you in short-term projects – you’re often trying to maintain the work through a mosaic of funding, rather than long-term commitments, even when you know that long-term commitments are needed and enable you to build up analysis of the risks and build the reduction of the risks into your work. Having donors that are prepared to be adaptive is absolutely critical, so I think it’s important to choose your donors wisely and work with them. We’re lucky to have some donors who really “get it,” and the people we work with are also often having to navigate complex donor and bureaucratic procedures in order to bring adaptability into the work itself.

4. Conciliation Resources works across the globe, with programming across Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Caucuses, among others. In terms of operational support, how do you build a logistical framework applicable to each context? What are the factors that determine your ability to work in a certain area and how to go about coordinating this?

We do work in diverse places. In addition to the places mentioned we work quite a bit in the Pacific Islands and the Horn of Africa as well, so it definitely is complex. We’re not huge fans of log frames. But we do recognize the need to have clear templates and we have devised operational templates to support teams in planning travel, managing budgets, etc. In terms of safety and security, we have a minimum standard that applies across the organization. We are fortunate to have a conscientious board and have an excellent safeguarding committee on our board that works with us on how we apply these standards and holds us to account. We are also conscious as to how we apply these standards and take them into practice as it depends very much on the context. For example, in one context, a team may need to take a high visibility approach. We’re not an organization that likes to be flashy or own a vehicle, but in one or two contexts, we need a vehicle that has our logo on the side because that provides security. In other contexts, teams may strive to be less visible and are very conscious as to how they’re presenting themselves, with partners really taking precedence. You need to be careful because it can be damaging if it’s perceived that you’re pulling strings from behind the scenes (which is not what we are trying to do at all – but some might construe the work with partners in this light). But you do need to calculate how you approach visibility.

More recently, something we’re increasingly conscious of is cybersecurity, which is more and more complex in the work we do. So, it’s not really around logistical protocol but rather having sets of standards that inform how we navigate our involvement operationally and how we work efficiently, responsibly, and securely. It’s also about how we make sure we’re accountable both for the resources we’re using and to our donors, and to the communities we’re engaging with and in, and that isn’t something that’s straightforward or easy when you’re working in processes with political actors. Often, we’re working closely with civil society actors but at the same time, we might be facilitating or being supportive of a dialogue process or playing a mediation support role at the political level, so there’s an accountability relationship between us and civil society in those contexts as well. There are many different factors to be negotiated. We’re also asking ourselves all the time, what is the value that that we’re contributing through the engagement? There are issues around access in a lot of the places we work. There might be a dialogue where we can’t access the communities because of the politics and the nature of sanctions in the modern world, so a lot of our work is operational. A lot of the operations work is constantly navigating travel arrangements and getting people with particular passports to places where its permissible to get to meetings and this is really critical. I also mentioned earlier the ability to resource and stay the course, and that is fundamental operationally, but it’s also about taking the risk that you don’t have funding of sufficient durability, and you then have to weigh up how responsible it is to start processes if you don’t think you can continue them. So, there are a range of different factors that impact how we work operationally.

Time to time I talk to students interested in mediation and dialogue facilitation, and one of the first comments is that we – as dialogue conveners/facilitators/whatever you’d like to call it – we are bureaucrats. A lot of our work is incredibly bureaucratic and being good at bureaucracy is really important. Having teams with different skillsets that combine is really important. Endlessly one of the challenges is trying to resource the work so that you can spend enough time thinking on the substance and the context and the politics of what you’re doing, and not just the administrative bureaucracy about it.

One final thought – the bureaucracy issue has a different tone to it in the post-COVID environment, because of course, several things have been able to be moved online, and that becomes very different, while some things can’t be done online, so we have to think on that. We’ve seen some interlocutors being prepared to engage online who we had really not imagined would be prepared to, and others who are not willing to engage online because of security concerns.

5. When political ebbs occur and/or conflict flares, trust between local and international communities can be shaken. Is this something that you often witness, and, if so, how do you navigate this?

Trust is a fundamental dimension to dialogue process. We’ve just worked on a piece with the United States Institute of Peace on the role of trust in mediation. We’ve also been involved in an initiative with the Swiss Embassy here in London called the States of Mind in Conflict which is looking at the psychological dimensions of mediation. We brought the two together at the CCOP because the relationship between trust and psychological appreciation is really critical. At the heart of much of our work is how we get representatives of communities, states, and armed groups, who have been through violent conflict and may continue to go through armed conflict, with all the brutality and hatred that involves, how do you get them to a point at which there is some trust so that the process can have a chance to move forward? We try to get people to dialogue processes while being fully aware of the devastation that lies behind them as interlocutors and where they’ve come from, and you hope you can create a space that can provide a modicum of trust and empathy for them to move the process forward. Sometimes, I think it takes a leap of faith to hope for that to happen, because people are understandably wary of each other. One of the things that is challenging is that people in conflicts will sometimes come together in meetings and socially get along very well, but that doesn’t necessarily translate when they get into political dialogue, so we must do a lot of thinking about how that works.

Have there been situations where, say, a regime changes, a conflict changes, and Conciliation Resources is doubted by partners on the ground that once trusted you, for reasons that perhaps aren’t your fault, but rather a change in context?

Yes, this is something that happens quite a lot. Here, either space for dialogue is constrained or new space for dialogue arises. Patience is critical here. I often say that doing what we do, you have to navigate patience and impatience – you couldn’t do this if you aren’t patient through endless problems, and you couldn’t do this if you aren’t impatient enough to see change happen. So, you have to navigate this. In our teams, I see that you have to build relationships recognising that communities are not homogenous. So, you might be building relationships with people in or close to power, and you might be navigating relationships with people on the outside who might be in power in the future. You have to be sensitive doing that, because for people that are in power, you need to appear to not be supporting those who are internal opposition. So, you’re triangulating relationships in doing that. It does raise a question of impartiality because I think it’s important to demonstrate that what we’re doing is not “taking sides,” it’s not promoting one party or constituency in a process. It’s about promoting the credibility of the process and the ability of different people and parties to be part of a process so that if a regime changes, you’re not perceived as being partial to one another party or internal player. This can difficult because you will often be associated with one or other party. If you’re working in a context with an armed group or unrecognized entity and you have access to them that others don’t, then if you’re sharing an analysis of what they say, you may be perceived as supporting what they say, even if you’re sharing the analysis to say “this is what they’re saying, how are you engaging with it?” People might just construe this as you’re supporting that position. So, you have to be careful with how you’re framing it. So much of this is dealing with the motivations and fears and aspirations of different conflict parties.

6. At what point do you say “no,” and end work in a given context due to precarity and/or risk?

We’re constantly monitoring risks and how they change in the contexts in which we work. Our teams are constantly monitoring risk and reporting incidents – even small incidents – to try and follow how things evolve and keep track of trends. We try and set out hard security red lines and adjust our approach as those red lines are approached or crossed. I think if you don’t have red lines, it is easy to accept gradually increasing risks without realizing it. I think one needs to look at the differences and relationships between the political and security risks when doing this. They’re both difficult to assess. Our commitment is to work long-term in the contexts in which we work and with the partners we work with, so we withdraw with great caution. When things get difficult for people in the contexts themselves, they’re faced with even greater dangers and risks and if people pull out and don’t stay the course then you have to ask if you’ve been giving people false expectations – even if you can’t meet their expectations, have you been giving false expectations by becoming involved then not being prepared to stay the course? It’s a really difficult question, balancing the security of your own staff and those of your partners.

Also, sometimes you must strategically retreat in order to sustain your involvement in the long-term. I do think the ability to have more online access can help with this in some regard, but we also need to recognize that an awful lot of contexts have no online capacity, so people get even more excluded. Part of our commitment is to inclusive approaches and bringing in those who might be politically marginalized. So, it’s a process of triangulating different factors, which is never easy. You don’t want to say no because you’re committed to the people, but you’re sustaining involvement in the face of security and political risks and, increasingly, the ability to keep funding involvement.


Jonathan Cohen

Jonathan Cohen was appointed Executive Director of Conciliation Resources in May 2016. He joined Conciliation Resources in 1997 and developed the Caucasus programme focusing on dialogue and confidence building initiatives to promote peacebuilding in the Caucasus. In September 2008 he became Director of Programmes overseeing Conciliation Resources’s regional programmes in the Caucasus, Colombia, West Africa, East and Central Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, Fiji and India/Pakistan in relation to Kashmir.