Paula Green and I just held a videoconference with Nepalese political leaders, together with our colleagues at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. This follows up on a trip I took to Nepal in February to facilitate a training and an intensive retreat. Our role is to support Nepal’s new Constituent Assembly with negotiation and collaborative leadership skills, in the hopes that Nepal can have a constitution by the current deadline of May 2011.
Until recently, we were not able to engage a key element: the Maoists, who hold 38% of seats in the multi-party parliament. This is far and away the largest proportion of any party, but complicated political reasons prevented any of them from participating in Karuna Center initiatives last summer and fall.
Nepal’s Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008 as the new republic’s first parliament, following a 10-year civil war between Maoist revolutionaries and the monarchy. Advocates for democracy allied with the Maoists to bring about the fall of the kingdom in 2006. Now that the war is over, Maoists party members represent the interests of many previously marginalized members of Nepali society, including ethnic minorities, excluded castes, and rural women. But the legacies of armed conflict, and a political culture steeped in authoritarianism, have made it difficult for political parties to cooperate enough to form a stable government and write a new constitution.
After months of trying and failing to incorporate Maoist participation in our workshops, we began to pursue a “Backchannel Group” that would meet parallel to our peacebuilding trainings and engage various party members more informally around their differences. In February, twelve people from the top rung of Maoist leadership joined 10 other high-level parliamentarians from other parties who were also new to our workshops.
It was difficult to get everyone to actually stop and listen to each other, but eventually they did, reaching past their usual stance of positional bargaining to a deeper understanding of each other’s real concerns and fears.
Four of the Maoists then joined the Backchannel Group for an intensive day and a half retreat, which also went surprisingly well. Somehow the moment seemed ripe, with the Maoists and others all recognizing that they need to move towards compromise if they don’t want to totally alienate the public who elected them with a high hopes for a new, democratic Nepal—a public now increasingly disillusioned with their politicians and impatient with a stalled process.
Through our three sets of trainings, funded by the U.S. State Department, we have now trained 75 leaders within the Constituent Assembly in interest- based (or “principled”) negotiations and collaborative (or “adaptive”) leadership.
The Backchannel Group delved into some deep, substantive issues, notably forms of federalism and the integration of Maoists cadres into the Nepalese army. They did an exercise in which they met in party groups and listed out what they thought the interests, concerns, and fears were behind the positions of each of the other parties. They then had to check with each party to see if they understood accurately and revise accordingly. It was a real exercise in listening. The subsequent understanding of each other’s fears was particularly revealing. A “systems analysis” of the kinds of self-reinforcing binds of mutual suspicion between parties led to a deep and honest dialogue.
There was a palpable, collective sense of a new dynamic occurring in real time, that the Backchannel Group, now comprised of all parties, was born as a body that could actually achieve something. Participants see the Backchannel as a space for reaching a deeper understanding of what lies behind each other’s positions, where they can generate a variety of new options on the tough, divisive issues to bring back to their respective parties and the “front channel,” or formal negotiations.
We hope that a follow up trip to Nepal in early April will bring new progress. The process has confirmed for us the immense value of creating safe space for relationship building between conflicting parties, whether in the halls of parliament or in local communities fractured by legacies of violence.
In September, I engaged in a marathon three weeks of peacebuilding in Nepal, where we are providing intensive training to members of the country’s Constitutional Assembly, (which is also the interim parliament) as well as to civil society organizations.
Our task—or opportunity—is to mentor and support members of this new parliament as they build the first democratic national government in the history of Nepal. When we began our work in Nepal in 1995, the country was a 240 year-old Hindu monarchy headed by King Gyanendra. Following a 10-year civil war between Maoist rebels and the government, the Nepalese people convened a Constitutional Assembly (CA) in 2008 tasked with the formidable challenges of drafting a new constitution, their first as a fledgling democracy.
This new CA is a broadly representative mosaic of ethnic, religious, and regional diversity represented through 25 different political parties and perhaps 50 ethnic groups. Our trainings have high-level Nepali leaders with graduate degrees mixed in with marginalized populations who are barely literate but were appointed to this Constitutional Assembly. The opportunities for true peacebuilding are unique, but the CA is haunted by a historically authoritarian political culture. Members of parliament often feel powerless, defer to their party bosses, and are reluctant to take risks.
Our training focused intensively on a small group of 35 CA members from most of the major parties. We worked in collaboration with the Institute for Conflict, Peace and Development (ICPD) in Nepal. We taught in a congenial team of 5 faculty members from our June 2010 Boston training: Poorna Adhikary and Bishnu Bushal from ICPD, Ted Morse from 40+ years at USAID, Tom Schaub from CMPartners and previously Harvard Program on Negotiation, and Hugh O’Doherty, a North Irish colleague from Kennedy School of Government. They brought significant expertise in leadership, negotiation, and DDR (demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of the Maoist armies). My tasks, in addition to managing the faculty team, the staff, and the overall program, included leading the peacebuilding and communication practices of the teaching.
Until now, for complicated political reasons, we have not had a Maoist CA presence in our training, but we hope to include members of the Maoist party in future CA programs—perhaps as soon as December. The Maoists are one of the leading parties in Nepal, along with the Congress Party, the Marxists-Leninists, and the Madhesi Party. Where else in the world are two major parties any longer Maoist or Marxist-Leninist?
We focused intently on leadership development, and the difference between leadership and authority. During Day 7 of our training together, Hugh O’Doherty shared this reflection with the group:
“Leadership is meaningless without a connection to purpose. The only reason to take risks with your career is because you care about something deeply. People will partner with you if they are connecting to a purpose. People will put themselves through discomfort to attain something meaningful.”
We challenged authoritarian models of leadership and following the leader, introducing new exercises in listening, communication, collaboration, and negotiation. By the end of the seminar, many participants were deeply engaged in these new ideas. Feedback from the evaluations included insights like:
- Leadership is not a post or status, but measured by action, rather than the person.
- Listening is the best way to start negotiation.
- Without trust, peacebuilding is not possible.
Another positive development was the engagement of new participants, some coming from Dalit or other marginalized backgrounds and many of them women. Holding back at first, and likely feeling inadequate in the face of highly educated CA group members, they began to participate in the large group and finally became very strong, and sometimes provocative, group participants. In the next few months, our work in Nepal will continue with the CA, including the development of a smaller CA backchannel group. We will also have a particular focus on strengthening women’s leadership in the new republic, both in civil society and the parliament.
As one participant wrote at the end of the training, Keep the ball rolling. This is just the beginning.
In June, Karuna Center brought a group of 20 political leaders from all major parties and party factions to Boston for ten days of intensive negotiations training to address contentious issues that are blocking the constitution-writing process and inter-party cooperation. The program was run in partnership with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the Institute for Conflict, Peace and Development of Nepal with funding from the U.S. State Department. The program was very well received and plans are in the making for follow up work in Nepal in September.