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Democratic Dialogue: A Handbook for Practitioners

This 242-page handbook by Bettye Pruitt and Philip Thomas (2007) is a joint effort of CIDA, International IDEA, OAS and UNDP, receiving valuable input from a wider network of organizations (including NCDD). This handbook is the result of a joint initiative to provide decision-makers and practitioners with a practical guide on how to design, facilitate and implement dialogue processes. It combines conceptual and practical knowledge, while providing an overview of relevant tools and experiences. NCDD highly recommends this handbook, and the really good news is that the whole book is freely downloadable here.

The handbook was designed to reflect current practice in the field of dialogue and to draw on concrete experiences of practitioners in various regions and of various actors involved in these processes. It seeks to consolidate emerging learning – both in terms of the conceptual framework supporting dialogue, and practical experiences in the design, facilitation and assessment of such processes on the ground. It also offers a comprehensive mapping of the process tools that can be used to support dialogue initiatives, thereby expanding the toolbox currently available to practitioners.

In 2001, the UNDP Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean (RBLAC) established the Democratic Dialogue Regional Project based in Guatemala. Since then, this project constitutes an active service instrument to dialogue initiatives promoted by the country offices of Latin America and the Caribbean. It develops, disseminates and applies diverse social technologies to support conflict prevention and management efforts, as well as consensus-building initiatives in the region. It compiles and systematizes experiences, lessons learned and good practices, provides specific technical support and capacity-building to country needs, and establishes partnerships with other regional and world institutions committed to democratic dialogue.

In addition to downloading the PDF, you can order free print copies (you pay for shipping) at the link below. You may also want to look over the UNDP’s PowerPoint presentation that provides an overview of the book.

An excerpt from the Handbook:

Dialogue in general, and democratic dialogue in particular, face some challenges that any field must meet in the process of maturing. We see two as particularly important at present:

  1. The need to develop a language for communicating about dialogue outside the field itself, a language that is free of jargon and can convey the essence of the practice to people who are not experts in the field.
  2. The need to develop a clear understanding of how dialogue can complement other processes and approaches within a larger strategy for societal change.

In addition to these challenges, the field faces a number of issues for which there is no definitive answer or ‘solution’. We label these issues ‘dilemmas’, because they simply exist as tensions to be continually managed, with no expectation that they will ever be resolved. This is in contrast to what we call ‘challenges': those issues that the field as a whole must address as it strives for greater efficacy and broader impact.

Three of the current dilemmas in dialogue are:

Tangible vs. Intangible Outcomes

How do we focus on producing the tangible results that dialogue supporters and participants expect, while avoiding paying too little attention to producing the intangible outcomes upon which sustainability often depends?

Often, dialogue practitioners experience a tension between the pressure to produce concrete outcomes and the basic premise of dialogue that sustainable outcomes require change at deeper levels in relationships, mental models, feelings and perceptions. It can be debated whether transformed relationships lead to tangible changes or vice versa, but in the long run both are necessary. New-found trust and empathy that do not lead to results can lead instead to disillusionment. By the same token, agreements and action plans that are not rooted in mutual understanding, trust and commitment are more likely to be superficial and/or short-lived.

Managing this tension involves holding the position that means are as important as ends. In practice, it calls for working towards concrete outcomes while ensuring that the process for producing them remains ‘dialogic’ throughout. In monitoring and evaluation, practitioners must gather the kind of data that will help make visible the invisible, and that will link intangible changes to concrete outcomes.

Short-Term vs. Longer-Term Vision

How can we respond in a relevant way to a crisis situation and at the same time work towards addressing the deeper structures that, left unchanged, are likely to produce more of the same kind of crisis?

This dilemma captures the tension in the need to sustain the long-term perspective required to create time for deep change to occur, while being responsive to political and financial supporters’ urgent wish to see concrete results. It is closely related to the dilemma of tangible vrs intangible results.

To help manage this tension, practitioners can be rigorous in distinguishing between short-term and long-term objectives. They can avoid advancing dialogue as the best means to accomplish every goal. In addition, from the early stages of a dialogue process, they can identify what other initiatives or processes exist or need to be created in order to address the situation at hand and establish a link between the dialogue and those other processes.

Working with Representatives vs. Being More Broadly Inclusive

How can we remain respectful of the current system of representative democracy and at the same time address the exclusion of those who do not currently feel represented?

Dialogue practitioners aim to complement and strengthen the institutions of representative democracy such as legislatures, political parties and elected governments, not to circumvent or replace them. Even when they remain subsidiary, however, dialogue initiatives pose a challenge to established powers because it is fundamental to the nature of multi-stakeholder dialogue to give voice to the voiceless and to question the status quo. The tension lies in the need to bring both those who hold power in the current system and those who are powerless into conversations about how to change the system. This can be particularly delicate for the power-holders because the change is likely to involve a reformulation of their power, beginning with the conversation itself.

This dilemma presents difficulties at every step: in framing the purpose of the dialogue initiative to open the way to meaningful change that engages and includes existing institutions and their representatives; in assembling an inclusive dialogue group; and in designing and implementing the dialogue process in a way that effectively manages the issues that arise from bringing together people from very different positions in the existing power structure. Within the field, practical knowledge of how to handle these difficulties well remains underdeveloped, and the accumulated experience has yet to be compiled and codified in a form that can guide practice.

A Challenge: Moving beyond Dialogues of the Elite

Getting beyond dialogues of the elite to engage large numbers of ordinary citizens in the conversation presents a dilemma and also a challenge, especially for the field of practice we label ‘democratic dialogue’. In democratic dialogue, where an overarching purpose is to strengthen democratic governance, these choices carry particular significance. Efficacious as the key people approach might be in the short run, and difficult as it may be to engage significant numbers of ordinary citizens, building a culture of dialogue requires finding a way to do so.

The choice between convening a dialogue with elites representing stakeholder groups, on the one hand, and engaging ordinary citizens on the other, presents itself as a dilemma. Each option has a number of positive benefits. Each also carries some risks, and the pursuit of one approach only might have negative consequences-not managing the tension between them but favouring one side of the dilemma over the other.

In its current state, the practice of democratic dialogue is unbalanced in favour of dialogues of the elite that, in the words of one observer, ‘[fail] to reach beyond a limited audience of stakeholders-established political and business powers along with a collection of public interest groups’. Righting the balance is a challenge for the field. Part of the challenge is that these dialogues are effective in the short term but have the unintended consequence of undermining a longerterm commitment to strengthening democratic culture and governance.

– a joint effort of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Resource Link: www.democraticdialoguenetwork.org/documents/view.pl?s=13;ss=;t=;f_id=789

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