MONDAY INTERVIEW IN THE KATHMANDU POST
2 September 2013
Chris Spies is a mediation practitioner who specialises in the facilitation of dialogue processes in conflict and post-conflict scenarios. A pastor for 10 long years, Spies is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and has worked in diverse settings, from Kenya to Guyana and his own South Africa, helping societies come together and hold dialogue. He makes a point of distinguishing dialogue as a very different process from negotiation and emphasises the need for safe spaces where people and issues are heard, instead of just talked about. Here in Nepal under a UNDP programme, Spies has held workshops, consultations and meetings with political leaders, leading editors and civil society leaders on facilitation and dialogue. Akhilesh Upadhyay and Pranaya SJB Rana spoke to Spies in his personal capacity (not as a UNDP personnel) about the need for dialogue in Nepal, the creation of safe spaces and the lessons from post-apartheid South Africa.
What exactly is dialogue and do you see us as a nation that is lacking in dialogue?
People have engaged in dialogue for centuries but somehow we have lost the true meaning of deep listening. In Nepal, when we started exploring the concepts of dialogue, people heard the word barta, which is negotiation. Sometimes, they would even mix up the word badbibad (debate) with dialogue, which is a completely different concept. Both barta and badbibad operate in a context where somebody needs to win and others need to lose. So when we started digging deeper around the word sambad, people said that word is almost dropping out of the vocabulary. In every country, there are two spaces. One is the competition space, which is politics. The rules of that space are that you need to win and often, when you win, somebody else loses. You don’t bring your argument in such a way that others truly listen. So when you provide an alternative space where people can listen with an intent to understand, then you talk with an attitude of inquisitiveness and discovery.
For a nation as fragmented as ours, where do you start this process of sambad, dialogue?
The sad thing is that such processes are often not started unless blood is flowing in the streets. Dialogue is often the last option when things fall apart. One definite point is for key, credible people to stand up and say there is an alternative way that can be explored. Those people, which could also include the media, need to raise the consciousness that we are unable to get out of the trap we are in because we bathe in our pain all the time. An alternative is to create a type of prototype for the future that is different from the others. But as long as people have negative experiences of di-alogue and of feeling humiliated, then your chances of valuing dialogue are not good. In our workshops with politicians, the media, youth leaders and community-level facilitators, what they say is that we have never had a space like this, that this space is special. When we explore why it is special, it comes back to the issue of good process.
International conflict experts more often than not look at a society from a Western political science framework. Do you think this adequately explains the nuances inherent in another nation, such as ours?
I will always be grateful to a Nepali collegue of mine who has been very helpful in reminding me that we are outsiders and do not understand even the first layer of complexity in Nepali society. My knowledge of political science will not get me very far. There is much more of a human element that we could be working with. I was helped in this, ironically, by a book by a political scientist from France, called The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Emotions of Hope, Fear and Humiliation are Shaping World Politics. If you want to look at humiliation, take the former Russian federation or the Muslim world today, which was once a huge influence in the world with culture and moral values. Look at how they are being treated today. If you want to look at hope, you can look at China, India or Malaysia. Things are not perfect but they are picking up, at least there is progress. Their emotion of hope determines the way they do business and interact with the global world. If you want to look at the impact of fear, look at the West and how fear is driving their politics. Coming back to Nepal, you were never colonised but what Nepalis are asking now is: are we being humiliated by our own politicians or by our own neglect? What gives us hope as a nation and how can we generate hope? What are we afraid of and how is fear driving our politics?
Where do you see the mass media fitting into this whole process—of dialogue—if you may?
The media is one of the few places in the country where dialogue can be assisted in a big way. You have the university but that is a very small component. The political field is a winner-take-all system. You have your protest movement but that is an activist voice. So the media is the best mechanism to step into the middle ground and shine a light on different perspectives. If the media can succeed in amplifying voices that are silent then it can serve the wh-ole nation. The media can elevate mudslinging and tit-for-tat debate to a level where people can engage with key driving forces. In Nepal, I have seen thoughtful practitioners and a media that has a tremendous awareness of its role and wants to take the country forward.
Easier said than done, how do create this safe space for dialogue where everyone’s views are listened to?
The first thing to do is to try to achieve the political will to create that space. The secret lies in ongoing conversations with credible people that the politicians will listen to. These type of conversations can help us explore scenarios for the future. Civil society, business and academics need to come together and think process, not so much content. Let me give you an example of what happened in Guyana. There were deep differences between people of African descent and people of Indian descent. But we formed a multi-party process committee whose task was to just think process. They were briefed on the kinds of conversations we had, not what was discussed. After many months, parties agreed to a conflict transformation workshop. Up to the last moment, there was some hesitation because they thought it was a negotiation. But we sat in a circle; there were no opening statements and no speeches. We saw that they rediscovered the ways of being together that they had when they were children and students. They lost this when they became politicians and opponents. They said they wanted this kind of conversation to happen across the country. So in about four months, we had about 141 conversations, which then became a national conversation. Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustained and the programme ended. But think about the potential when the conversation grows from the bottom up, where people can get together about issues that are more pressing than politics—water, climate, violence against women, development and education. The flow of the conversation must be reversed, instead of politicians telling people what they will do, the people themselves must say this is what we want to see happening in the country.
How do you reverse this hierarchy between the people and the politicians?
Politicians worldwide think that they know best. The tool to change this hierarchy lies in citizens finding their own voice in a practical way by organising themselves so that they can call politicians to their meetings instead of only going to meetings that politicians are calling. Another lesson we’ve learned is that it does not help to hammer politicians all the time. The louder you shout, the deafer people become. It is important to understand that in politics, not everyone is a devil and not everyone is an angel. It is not helpful to paint every politician with the same brush.
South Africa has become an international model for truth and reconciliation. How well has it handled the reconciliation component?
The TRC was an important event and the hope was that truth would lead to reconciliation and that justice would prevail. Mandela himself set an example of not hanging on to the past but he has been criticised that he sacrificed economic and social justice on the plate of reconciliation. I’m not sure we could have done it in any other way. If we had not emphasised reconciliation during the early 90s, I think we would’ve fallen apart. My black colleagues and friends would say that there cannot be reconciliation without social and economic justice and I agree with that. Our country is the second most unequal country in the world, next to Brazil. So if you have a majority of people who are still poor and suffering, you cannot talk about reconciliation. They will always look at who has the most, who are the rich and question why are they are still suffering.
Despite all the tremendous progress on electricity, water and healthcare, in terms of poverty and the quality of education, we are not making it. We are in a deep crisis. I think the African National Congress is at a very interesting stage. The tendency to blame apartheid for everything is still there but they can’t be doing that for too long.
Can our political class continue to blame history for long?
They should never have blamed anything on the past. You cannot change anything in the past. You can only learn from it and make things better. Blame tends to put guilt on one side and innocence on the other. It’s more helpful to say we are in this thing together so what can we do as a nation to get out of it. Justice has to be served, you cannot get away with impunity but sometimes there are tough calls to make. Even though what happened was atrocious and mistakes were made, what about our children and grandchildren 15 years from now? What will they blame us for?
Posted on: 2013-09-02 09:22
Posted on: 2013-09-02 09:22