Conflict Transformation

Sustainability meets conflict

As we have seen with the Triple Nexus, sustainability and conflict transformation are strongly interrelated.

Or we are working in areas or countries that have been facing violent conflict episodes during years or even decades.

Or we need to involve stakeholders who have different positions, interests or needs.

Introducing and promoting sensitive sustainable development topics might even generate new tensions and conflicts.

Thus, it is important to develop our own competencies regarding conflict transformation; and, in addition, the competencies of the target group to establish peaceful and constructive negotiations and dialogues in order to move towards sustainability.

In addition to the inter-national and intra-national conflicts, during the past decade, the limitation of civic space and the increase of repression of citizen and civil society organizations has been observed. It has being monitored and corroborated with data as you can see in the following graph.

This reflects another challenge, civil society organizations have to face while trying to advance towards sustainability.

It is not possible to address this topic during this course, but it is highly recommended to integrate this approach in your work.

In the case of climate justice, a deeper and more specific understanding is needed.

Positive peace

However, peace is more than the mere absence of violence, just as couples are unlikely to be happy only in the absence of physical and verbal violence.

According to Galtung [2] peace consists of at least six components: “To the absence of direct violence must be added cooperation, the absence of structural violence must be complemented by equality and social justice, and peace requires a culture of peace in addition to the absence of cultural violence.”

The Institute for Economics and Peace identified 8 pillars of positive peace with their respective indicators. Their measurement forms the basis for the annual Global Peace Index.

How do we move towards positive peace?

The question now is: how can we move beyond negative peace and sustainably move towards positive peace?

Origins of conflict transformation

In the 1980s, John Paul Lederach was involved in several mediation processes in Central America, among them also in Nicaragua.

At that time, he worked with the approach of conflict resolution, but this term rather caused mistrust because the participants of the different conflicts saw it as a strategy for calming tempers and appeasement, but without addressing the root causes such as social injustice, i.e. structural violence.

“Quick fixes to deep socio-political problems usually mean a lot of fine words, but no real change. Is this idea of resolution just another way of covering up the changes that are really needed?” (reflections of Central American participants in workshops facilitated by Lederach in the 1980s).

From this experience, Lederach began to develop what we know today as the conflict transformation approach.

Conflict transformation concepts

Let us then look at Lederach’s initial concept:

Conflict transformation is… 

visualising and responding to the ebb and flow of social conflicts as vital opportunities, to create processes of constructive change that reduce violence and increase justice in direct interaction and social structures, and respond to real-life problems in human relations.

John Paul Lederach (2009)

Since then, this initial concept has been taken up and further developed by various authors. For example, the Berghof Foundation defines conflict transformation as…

“…a complex process of constructive change of relationships, attitudes, behaviours, interests and discourses in conflict situations that are prone to violence.

It is important that conflict transformation addresses underlying structures, cultures and institutions in order to change those that foster and condition violent political and social conflicts in the long term.”

Berghof Foundation (2020, p. 163)

Some characteristics of conflict transformation
  • Conflict is a normal and continuous dynamic in human relationships.
  • Conflict is an engine of change.
  • Peace is intrinsic to justice.
  • It emphasises the importance of building right relationships and social structures through unrestricted respect for human rights and life.
  • It advocates non-violence as a way of life and work.
  • It involves constructive change efforts that encompass and transcend the resolution of specific problems.
  • The concept of transformation offers a clear and important vision because it brings into focus the horizon towards which we want to move – the building of healthy relationships and communities both locally and globally.
  • It is a holistic orientation or framework that ultimately demands a fundamental shift in our thinking.
  • It suggests a set of lenses through which we view social conflict.
  • The transformative approach is not satisfied with quick fixes that respond to the immediate problem, but seeks to create a framework that addresses the content, context and structure of the relationship.
  • Transformation, as an approach, aims to create processes of constructive change through conflict. These processes provide the opportunity to learn about our patterns of behaviour and address relational structures, while providing us with concrete solutions to emerging problems.
  • Conflict transformation is seeing and responding to the ebbs and flows of social conflict as vital opportunities to create processes of constructive change that reduce violence and increase justice in direct interaction and social structures, and respond to real-life problems in human relationships. 
  • Rather than seeing peace as a static ‘end state’, conflict transformation conceives of peace as a continuously evolving and developing quality of relationships.
  • The transformative vision involves two paradoxes concerning where action is pursued and raises the following questions:
  • How do we deal with conflict in ways that reduce violence and increase justice in human relationships?
  • How do we develop the capacity for constructive, direct, face-to-face interrelationships and, at the same time, address systemic and structural changes?
  • Dialogue is necessary, both to create and to address the social and public spheres where institutions, structures, and patterns of human relations are built. Processes and spaces must be created so that people can engage and shape the structures that govern their community life, broadly defined.
  • Dialogue is necessary to give access, voice and constructive interaction in the formalisation of our relationships, and in the way our organisations and structures are built, behave and respond.  John-Paul Lederach, 2003

Conflict transformation… a systemic and long-term process

As we can see in the graph below, the process of conflict transformation goes through different phases, addressing different aspects, systems and levels of intervention.

It is a non-linear process because there are always ebbs and flows, new outbursts of conflict, etc.

This course that we are facilitating now is an important step in the preparation and training phase. On the one hand, it prepares us in terms of approaches, methods and tools to be able to intervene and at the same time relationships are built and rebuilt to move towards the design of the future. Of course, there are overlaps between the phases and the time periods may be longer or shorter in each case.

For further reading (optional)

If you would like to explore a little bit more about conflict transformation, here some documents: