What is dialogue and how can it respond to the need for wider participation in the public sphere? The first section of this handbook from CIDA, International IDEA, OAS and the UNDP outlines the need for dialogue and how it can make a difference in pursuit of peace, development and democratic governance. The number of dialogue processes taking place around the world has increased, as has the need for a greater understanding of effective dialogue.
Tackling global problems means addressing root causes and engaging local, national and international institutions managing different interests and aspirations. In this context, the demand for dialogue has increased. Dialogue is the process of people coming together to build mutual understanding and trust across their differences and create positive outcomes through conversation. South Africa, Poland, the Czech Republic and Chile provide examples of transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes. Bosnia, Guatemala and Northern Ireland have laid the foundations for peaceful futures after violent conflict. These experiences provide hope that difficult issues can be dealt with without resorting to force.
The need for dialogue has two main components. One is the need for a culture of democracy. The other is a need for effective governance.
- Where there is a history or threat of violent conflict, developing capacity to avoid violence is a high priority. This means addressing the underlying conditions that generate conflict.
- Politicians must find a way to cooperate across party lines for the benefit of all. They also need the will and skills to develop an inclusive agenda that addresses the needs of society as a whole.
- Capacity for citizen participation is needed not just in extraordinary circumstances or when setting agendas, but on a routine basis.
- Complex issues require responses that take account of their complexity. This calls for participatory processes that bring together diverse groups of people.
- Societies are turning to dialogue because government processes are not adequately addressing problems. Many governments have welcomed this, recognising a need for innovation. Societal changes also require deliberation: making tough decisions and trade-offs.
- Solutions emerging from crisis responses are usually short-lived. Sustainable results demand a longer-term perspective and the involvement of a full spectrum of stakeholders.
With these needs in mind, dialogue processes should be characterised by:
- Inclusiveness: Everyone who is part of a problem can be represented in a dialogue process. For change to be sustainable, people need a sense of ownership.
- Joint ownership: The dialogue process should not be a superficial consultation or a way for one actor to buy time or accomplish a government agenda. Dialogue is an exchange in which everyone should be involved equally.
- Learning: Participants open themselves to reflecting on what they and others have to say and to new insights. This distinguishes legitimate dialogue from one-way communication.
- Humanity: Relating to each other in dialogue involves empathy and authenticity. The best dialogue is a process of genuine interaction in which people listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn.
- A long-term perspective: Practitioners recognise the limitations of one off, quick-fix solutions. Deeper, sustainable changes take time.