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Local Mediation: A Transformative Approach to Conflict in Nepal

June 25, 2010

By John Paul Lederach, Preeti Thapa

Often, when the prospect of peace is moving forward at the national level, citizens continue to experience the impacts of conflict, particularly at the local level. This is very much the case in Nepal today – emerging from nearly a decade-long open civil war – as the Constituent Assembly struggles toward a peace process at the national level. These trying and tragic local-level impacts  range from the resettlement of displaced people, disputes over private property, and recovery from trauma, to an increase in the culture of violence and vengeance. And given that even the most successful national efforts to peace can easily be derailed by local outbursts of discontent, chaos, and violence, a holistic and durable approach to peacebuilding must respond to post-conflict crises at the local level in order to consolidate peace at the national level. This requires a simultaneous and multifaceted focus on preventing, resolving, and containing conflict, as well as trauma recovery and a process for reconciliation.

Recognizing this need, the community mediation program in Nepal, pioneered by The Asia Foundation, has provided a platform for local people to respond to local conflicts and address their underlying causes.

Nepal community mediation

Nepali lawmakers recently averted a constitutional crisis by extending the Constituent Assembly’s tenure by one year. But it’s unclear when political parties will resolve their differences and focus on drafting the new constitution. In fragile, post-war climates, community mediation, like this reconciliation between divided neighbors (at right), is critical. Photo: Rob Strong

Since its inception, the program has contributed significantly toward ameliorating conflicts in the 118 localities where it has been implemented. One indicator of its success has been the surge in the number of cases referred to mediation, which can be attributed to the fact that this is a community-based program and the ownership has largely been realized by the locals. Its characteristics of being a facilitative, interest-based mediation and problem-solving processes has also supported and strengthened peoples’ capacity to analyze situations, to consider the perspectives of others, and to make effective decisions on their own. Mediation sessions often transform adversarial tensions among neighbors and families into cordial relationships based on values of equality, mutual respect, and participation. During the mediation process, disputants learn how to listen to each other’s experiences and how to respect the other person’s point of view. Furthermore, the mediation program has witnessed enhanced participation from women and members of marginalized communities, both as beneficiaries as well as providers of mediation service.

With eight years of experience, those involved in the mediator network – an association of mediators, organizations, and local coordinators practicing mediation at the village or local level – recently finalized a strategy to make mediation initiatives more coherent across the country. Foundation staff and local partners working on mediation have learned to respond effectively to a variety of emerging peacebuilding needs at the local level and devise effective, local strategies in response to changing needs. In line with this approach, the Foundation has also begun to share knowledge and experiences of community mediation with formal local-level peacebuilding structures, such as the Local Peace Committees, to contribute toward long-term peace at the local level.

Community mediators, trained in basic peacebuilding concepts and methods, are uniquely positioned to undertake the delicate work of reconciliation, recovery, and rebuilding of respect and cooperative relationships at the local level. Over time, these mediators have won the trust of locals, as evidenced by how at ease local people clearly feel in approaching mediators with their personal problems. As a result, disputants are now able to better define their problems, to recognize their own interests, and more importantly, to find solutions that they can eventually put into practice long-term. At the mediation locations, there is growing recognition that justice is not delivered through confrontation but instead through discussions and negotiations.

Community mediation provides far more than just the resolution of cases. This fact requires a shift in thinking from a narrow view of “resolving cases” and “access to justice” to a wider view of how this initiative and approach actually impacts local communities. In the past few years, a participatory action research approach with local mediators and trainers has expanded the understanding of the impact that community mediation programs can have and have had on local communities, primarily by examining four aspects of changes suggested by conflict transformation: personal, relational, structural, and cultural. The purpose of this approach was not a rigorous academic or evaluation study: the purpose was discovery. It demonstrated important insights into both how and why mediation practices were effective, which then led to significant changes in future training materials and methods, and illustrated the potential of participatory action research as a tool of conflict transformation.

The research from these community mediations also revealed improved relationships across castes and ethnic divisions, greater civic participation from traditionally excluded groups, and a growing platform for trust well beyond the narrow definition of resolving disputes. It’s worth noting that these positive findings emerged in and after a period of open civil war that lasted nearly a decade. Based on real-life practice, we have now re-written the original mediation training materials, produced an in-depth resource overview of mediation in Nepal, and re-developed our training approach to encourage local participation. A new Nepali-based training group will work with the mediator’s network to deepen and expand the practice of mediation across the country. This village-level application of conflict transformation has been formally recognized in new national legislation that credits both the unique character and the important contribution that local mediation can have in the context of a country emerging from open war and still facing deeply-rooted sources of conflict.

Preeti Thapa is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer for Community Mediation, Conflict Transformation, and Peace Building. She can be reached at [email protected]. John Paul Lederach facilitated the participatory action research as part of the McConnell Foundation’s support of community mediation and serves as a consultant to The Asia Foundation’s accompaniment of the National Transition to Peace initiative.


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