National dialogues are: “nationally-owned political processes aimed at generating consensus among a broad range of national stakeholders in times of deep political crisis, in post-war situations
or during far-reaching political transitions” (Blunck et al., 2017, 21). They are typically accompanied by broader societal consultations, involving all sectors of society. Their objective can involve broad-based change processes (e.g. negotiating a new social contract) or more narrow objectives.
It has only been in the last couple of years that various guidance and case studies have been
published on national dialogues. These emerged in acknowledgement that there are many open questions and uncertainties regarding the concept of national dialogue; and that there are limited
resources that provide guidance and practical support for those who are exploring national dialogues (Blunck et al., 2017). While there is no blueprint for such dialogues, attention to lessons
learned can help actors involved to identify factors contributing to the success and failure of national dialogues and to key challenges.
The political context in which a national dialogue takes place can affect the likelihood of success or failure. Key factors include:
- Political will: the greater the level of political will and elite agreement on the way forward, the greater the likelihood of successful outcomes and implementation.
- Links to other transitional processes: national dialogues need to be embedded in larger change processes in order to promote real structural change. If disconnected to other political processes, such as constitution-making, they are likely to be counter-productive.
- The common ground among parties: the absence of diametrically opposed political camps can make it more likely to arrive at a common view or shared objectives in dialogue, allowing for the process to move forward. In contrast, drastically different views can exacerbate distrust and stall the process.
- Public buy-in: public support or lack thereof can enable or constrain progress in the national dialogue process. The degree of buy-in is influenced by the availability of public information, good communication, and media engagement – all of which affect the level of transparency and understanding of the process.
- Learning from past experience: national dialogues have benefitted from dialogue expertise and learning from past national dialogues.
- The role of external actors and national ownership: support (e.g. political, financial and technical support) or resistance of external actors can influence the degree of success of national dialogues. It is important to strike a balance between external support and national ownership. The latter can increase the likelihood of public buy-in, perceptions of legitimacy – and chances of implementation.
Alongside political context factors, design or process factors can influence the likelihood of reaching sustainable agreements. Key process factors include:
- The degree of inclusion and participation: the vast majority of literature emphasises that the transformative potential of national dialogues can only be realised if they are genuinely
inclusive of society. In order to be truly inclusive, it is necessary to help balance power asymmetries and ensure actual decision-making power. Highly inclusive and participatory national dialogues may render discussions unwieldy, however, and make it difficult to resolve key political questions. The success of national dialogues can depend in large part on finding the right equilibrium between efficiency and inclusiveness.
- Representation and selection criteria: established selection criteria and procedures for participants in national dialogues can support or hinder the broad representation of different social and political groups. Transparency in the criteria is significantly important.
- Objective and scope-setting: it is important to avoid overburdening mandates and agendas. It can be challenging to strike a balance between the breadth of the mandate, efficiency and independence. While a narrower mandate can be more manageable and efficient, it can limit the room for change and may contribute to the persistence of an elite-led process. Clarity and relevance to local populations are key characteristics to adopt in deriving a suitable mandate and agenda. Addressing development issues and peace dividends at the outset can be important to the success of national dialogues.
- Institutional framework and support structures: a comprehensive support structure of important actors close to competing parties can help participants to be prepared (with the necessary expertise and tools), to compromise and to build coalitions, allowing them time to agree on common positions. Such structures do not, however, necessarily improve the quality of participation or guarantee implementation.
- Role of authority figures: a credible, broadly accepted, independent, respected and charismatic convenor, mediator or facilitator can significantly affect the strength of the national dialogue, indicating seriousness and trust in the process.
- Decision-making procedures: these can enable or constrain the ability of national dialogues to reach an agreement and implement it. While consensus can help to expand agendas and to include often excluded voices, an inability to reach consensus can benefit the more established forces, as the absence of movement can mean preserving the status quo. Consensus-based decision-making needs to be complemented by other pragmatic mechanisms where deadlocks can be broken, such as the use of working groups.
- Confidence-building measures: national dialogues must be accompanied by a series of steps to attenuate tensions, in order to establish a level of “working trust” to engage in a meaningful dialogue. Trust-building is important throughout all phases in order to ensure that agreements are also implemented.
- Provision for implementation: it is necessary to ensure that sufficient funds for implementation, expertise and accountability mechanisms are in place, such that key actors may feel bound by what has been agreed. Transitional bodies and/or new institutions are often set up to implement the outcomes. Implementation can be tough if participants have made unrealistic decisions, if the political will is absent, or if external actors fail to provide the necessary support.