November 27 - Successful training of company-community mediators in complex environments

ACCESS, in cooperation with the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business and the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement, held the first advanced training for company-community mediation in complex environments. The training was held in Cape Town, South Africa. There were 95 applicants from 36 countries, with the pilot course representing 18 outstanding candidates from 15 countries. Most of these candidates live and work in the global south, in environments that may be conflict prone, fragile or have pronounced levels of corruption, weak rule of law, or other challenges. The purpose of the training was to develop highly skilled mediators specializing in rights-compatible, interest-based problem solving.

The course grew out of a recognition that companies have the potential to enhance stability and economic development in the areas in which they operate. They can facilitate employment growth and skills development. But at the same time large scale operations such as mining and infrastructure are conflict prone, particularly in fragile environments lacking sufficient legal, social, or political infrastructure to manage them. Investments intended to do good can create new conflicts- for example, over water use – or exacerbate old ones – for example, over indigenous rights.

With its focus on helping parties find common ground and a collective vision for moving forward, mediation can offer companies and communities a sustainable and mutually beneficial way of resolving conflict and planning for the future. Yet the highly complex nature and scale of mediation between companies and communities requires a specialized set of skills that go beyond those of classical mediation.

Company-community mediation often involves a wide power imbalance, heightened levels of conflict and grievance, and pronounced mistrust among the parties. Mediators in complex environments must therefore think like peace builders, developing an understanding of the full range of tensions and stress factors within complex conflict systems. They must be authorities on rights and responsibilities, facilitating conversations among parties towards agreements that not only meet the parties’ interests, but are also compatible with their rights. They must be capable of settling both today’s dispute, and helping to set in place a system to uncover problems and develop solutions for future disputes. It is this profile of mediator that the training developed.

During the training, participants were immersed in the learning universe of Equatania. Drawing from real-world histories and common social, political, economic and conflict dynamics, Equatania can easily be imagined on the South American, African or Asian continents. The participants proceeded through various stages of a simulated mediation of a company-community conflict in Equatania.

Faculty Director for the course, Professor Brian Ganson, was impressed by the commitment of the participants. He noted that they “were deeply engaged in the simulations, and became committed to finding solutions even in the context of the role play. At one point, facilitators called time on an exercise, only to be told by students that they needed to continue, because all the interests and concerns of the parties had not yet been addressed!”

In addition to building skills, the training offered the participants and faculty the opportunity to engage with each other at a personal level, speaking friend to friend, colleague to colleague about the frustrations and challenges of their work in the face of grave social challenges and injustices – but also about the joy and hope they experienced playing a role in social transformation.

The course sparked a high level of enthusiasm from the participants. One participant stated that: “It takes a lot of insight, creativity, energy and commitment to craft and deliver such a program”. Another shared: “Rarely does one participate in a course which is so thoughtfully and carefully structured and designed, with every detail anticipated and taken care of.”

Due to the success of the training, the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business already has plans to offer the course again, both for mediators and for others who use mediation skills in their work, such as community relations officers and community advocates. Committed to improving access to highly-qualified company-community mediators, ACCESS is in conversations with other mediation training organizations to help establish similar competence to deliver company-community mediation training in Asia and Latin America. ACCESS will make the model curriculum for the training publicly available so it can be used by other mediation training organizations anywhere in the world.

For more information about the training, please contact Brian Ganson at bganson@accessfacility.org

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