Talking It Out: Findings on Planning and Adaptive Management in Peacebuilding Dialogue Projects

Aug 10, 2017 by Michael Zanchelli Comments (0)

Colombian women mediators taking part in a dialogue.

Image: Colombian women mediators taking part in a dialogue. USIP.

Michael Zanchelli is a Program Officer for Learning, Evaluation, and Research at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Findings from an extensive evaluation of more than 100 grant-funded dialogue projects supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) underscore the importance of planning for change, adaptive management, and the dynamic contexts within which these peacebuilding projects are implemented. These findings are captured in USIP’s new Special Report: What Works in Facilitated Dialogue Projects.

Over the last 25 years “facilitated dialogue” has been a common fixture in the toolkit of peacebuilding organizations seeking to mend broken relationships and create the conditions necessary for a durable peace. At USIP alone –where I work supporting M&E across our programs – we have made 105 grants since 1990 for organizations to use facilitated dialogue in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Tanzania, Nepal, Iraq, among other countries.

Definition of Facilitated Dialogue: A facilitated, conflict intervention process that brings together various stakeholders in a conflict, or around a problem/concern, to express, listen to, explore and better understand diverse views in order to transform individual, relational, and/or structural drivers of conflict.

In 2015, we embarked on a study to better understand what we could learn about what makes for an effective facilitated dialogue projects. To make sure this evaluation had credibility and independence, we partnered with two external evaluators, Nike Carstarphen and Ilana Shapiro and their team of graduate student researchers. The evaluation team looked at projects where dialogue was the only tool used, as well as projects where dialogue was coupled with other activities such as joint problem-solving and collaboration between groups, advocacy for policy change, or skills building.

The evaluators reviewed project reports and documents, coding each project according to 47 different characteristics, supplemented by fieldwork to three conflict and post-conflict settings; Colombia, Pakistan, and Israel and Palestinian Territories. In those locations they interviewed 129 project staff, participants in dialogue projects, and community members to add depth and nuance to their findings. In the process, they uncovered trends in the grant projects, findings about what has worked and has not worked, and different characteristics of conflict settings that can impact dialogue projects. In the end, some of the findings supported the conventional wisdom of dialogue experts, while others were more surprising.

In this post, I’m going to talk specifically about a few findings related to planning, adaptive management, and the dynamic contexts within which dialogue projects are often implemented.

Security and Violence: The evaluation found that among the most frequently mentioned challenges with project implementation, concerns over security and escalating violent were most frequently mentioned, referenced in 36% of the projects. Among the least successful projects reviewed, roughly 40% faced problems with violence and security, while only 12% of the most successful projects faced similar challenges. Violence and insecurity impacted whether, when, and how activities were implemented. Escalating violence also increased the personal risk to participants of the dialogue, who found themselves in increasing danger if seen interacting with adversarial groups.

Adaptive Management: Given the relationship between fluid and dynamic contexts, security, and project success, it was not surprising that the review found that more successful projects tended to use adaptive management practices during implementation. These practices included being able to shift physical locations of activities, leveraging connections within communities, local knowledge about norms and customs, iterative decision-making and flexibility in the design of dialogue processes. This capacity to reflect, learn, and change course was ultimately a key factor for project success.

Planning for Change: While much ink has been spilled about the possible tension between project planning and adaptive management, our study found that the two were not in contradiction, and that doing both well was key to project success. The most successful dialogue projects in this study had a clearly articulated plan for how the outcomes within the dialogue would impact broader communities and institutions (what we called “transfer”). Planning for this “transfer” at the outset led to more tangible results by the end of the project. In addition, projects that had clear sustainability plans were more likely to achieve sustainability, perhaps not surprisingly.  

Given these findings, the evaluators recommended that funders build in the necessary flexibility for implementers to manage their projects adaptively, change course when it makes sense, and ensure implementers have the tools to do so effectively.

Taken together, these findings make a strong case for well-thought out planning, a clear articulation of the change you want to see, and building in space and time to learn and adapt during project implementation, particularly in fragile and conflict settings.

To read the USIP Special Report, click here.

To read the Full Evaluation Report, click here.