From protest to power


October 17, 2012

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    Mercy Corps-trained leaders in conflict resolution led negotiations between protesters and local government to help the people of Basra get more electricity during the height of the summer heat. Photo: Mercy Corps

Our program saved lives this past August. It was one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen in Iraq in the last 10 years. It’s hard to believe that, sometimes, just helping leaders better manage conflict is all it takes to prevent violent fighting between ethnic groups — even when everyone thought the violence would never end.

I’m writing about a recent story here in Basra, when everyone believed that protests, which would probably turn violent, were the only way to solve an electricity crisis. A crisis so awful that millions were left suffering without air conditioning in 60 C (140 F) degree heat.

In fact, we all feared a repeat of last summer, when the 2011 “Electricity Revolution” began in Basra and ended with dozens dead countrywide and many others injured. The violence was reprehensible, but people were rightly angry. Many had just a few hours a day of electricity and no way to run air conditioners or fans — during a summer so hot that temperatures above 50 C (120 F) degrees were not even announced.

This year, though, when the protests began, the leaders that our Iraqi Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation (ICRR) team had trained in conflict management did as they were taught. They intervened to mediate and use the negotiation skills we taught them. They excelled.

Starting the dialogue

After the first few nights of protests, Dr. Qusay, one of the ICRR leaders, was invited to attend the protestor’s meeting and discuss alternatives. He sat down with the protestors to get a better idea of their underlying interests and asked them frankly, “Are you just protesting to protest? Or do you really want this problem solved?” They took his surprisingly direct and probing question with good faith, as Dr. Qusay is a member of the Iraq Center for Negotiation Skills and Conflict Management, which is becoming increasingly well known in Iraq.

Mercy Corps helped our network of 150 ICRR leaders establish the Center earlier this year. These members represent nearly every group in Iraq: women and men, Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Kurds, tribal elders, religious leaders, government officials, politicians and community representatives from every region. They work together across regional, political and sectarian lines to resolve major conflicts, including tribal fighting over land, disputes over elections, and — like these Basra protests — tension between citizens and government over services.

The protesters response to Dr. Qusay is a common sentiment among frustrated citizens: “What are our options? The government doesn’t listen, so our only tool is protest!” Dr. Qusay replied that they could engage government in peaceful negotiations, and that he and his colleagues from the Center would help facilitate them. Even before mediating, he offered to train their negotiation team and get them ready to approach the government constructively to find a solution. The leaders of the protest graciously accepted and got a four-hour crash course in conflict management.

While this was an impromptu training, the Center has quickly become a go-to resource for workshops on conflict resolution. Groups as varied as the youth ministry, unions, universities, and even the Iraqi Parliament have asked the Center members to train them on negotiation skills.

Reaching agreement

On August 16, the Center team in Basra took the lead to facilitate the negotiation session between protesters and local government authorities. They all sat down and each group had time to express their concerns, their interests and their requests and alternatives. They began to see their shared ties and common needs for the community and reached a solution.

Everyone was in agreement that violence was to be avoided; that the electricity coverage needed to be improved; and that at the end of the day they were all trying to look out for the common good. With that foundation, they proceeded to explore and outline an agreement that would meet the interests of the government (avoid violence) and the interests of the protestors (get better electrical coverage).

Three hours of negotiations led to a settlement that cycled electricity on three-hour blocks, with an agreed-upon timeline to move to four hours on, two hours off. An investigative committee would weed out negligent employees in the electricity distribution department, and a joint committee (including members of the Center) would be formed to follow up on the implementation of these actions.

It was just one example of how our Center leaders are resolving more disputes and reaching more agreements than before they joined the ICRR program. Most importantly, they are able to point to clear examples of where their interventions truly prevented violence. The ICRR network’s diversity, their ability to solve problems and their willingness to put aside aside difference to build a better future show me the type of leadership that is poised for success in Iraq.

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