Dialogue Approach

Dialogue and Peacebuilding

Dialogue isn't meant to end with the session itself – but making an impact on the community is a long, complicated journey. What's involved in that process, and what place can dialogue have in the wider peacebuilding agenda?
Sustainable results from a dialogue process often require long-term commitment, sometimes taking years or even decades to show 'reportable' results. Steinar Bryn shares with us about the progress seen by the Nansen Dialogue Network in the Balkans since the late 1990's.
Our group has been learning a number of things about the dialogue process this week at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD). Through it all, there's been a focus on creating space for groups to encounter each other even when they're divided by radically different narratives or ideologies.

But can dialogue make a wider impact on the community after people leave the table? What obstacles do participants face when they go back home? And what can facilitators and organizations do to support long-term, sustainable reconciliation in communities divided by conflict or war?

These were the questions facing our facilitator, Steinar Bryn, and his colleagues as they formed the Nansen Dialogue Network in the Balkans. They started developing the Nansen Dialogue Method in the period between the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the start of the Kosovo War. It was a moment when hatred, division and misunderstanding led to ethnic cleansing and even genocide. What can dialogue do against all that?

What's more, the Nansen Dialogue Method is not a straightforward process – it requires patience, readiness, openness and trust. All of which were damaged in the war. While the dialogue participants themselves were greatly impacted by what they encountered around the table, the question remained: could their experience contribute to rebuilding civil institutions and the social fabric at large?
Srebrenica Memorial | Wikicommons: Michael Büker
In the end, the NCPD committed to long-term engagement in the region. Based on two decades of experience they affirm that, yes, it's possible for dialogue to build a foundation for successful peacebuilding practices.

But Steinar tells us that this isn't a 'success story' – there are many problems that remain unsolved. The dead are still dead. New tensions emerge every year that complicate attempts at dialogue and mutual understanding. But what the Nansen Dialogue Network was able to do was answer an essential question: what next?

What follows is a number of suggestion for working long-term with divided communities, taken from an article written by Steinar called "Inter-Ethnic Dialogue Between Serbs and Albanians in Serbia/Kosovo, 1996—2008." While it deals with the Kosovar context in particular, the points Steinar makes can be applied to situations involving many kinds of social, cultural or armed conflicts.

Support the initial dialogue participants
In a dialogue process, things that seemed impossible can suddenly become very possible. People question media narratives. Neighbours speak to each other after years of resentment or hatred. Friendships form between people who, a year or two earlier, were shooting at each other. For some, this can seem like a kind of magic, and it can lead to the belief that dialogue can solve anything. That all you need to do is bring people to the table.

This leads to frustration when expectations meet reality. Many conflicts that people find themselves in are deeply-rooted and dependent on a number of complicated factors. Not all of them can be solved by mere conversation. While the breakthroughs experienced in a dialogue session can be extraordinary, it doesn't necessarily affect the outside world. Not immediately, at least.
"...dialogue and associated social activities establish ties between people on a new basis," but then [he] asks " do these ties last? How well do they hold up when people return to their home communities? If no one in your home community can relate to your experiences, or they are even hostile to your experience, then one may quickly fall back to previous relationships and patterns of behavior." This became [a] challenge.
The first task, no matter if you're working with social, cultural or post-war conflicts, is to invest in the people who themselves are invested in the dialogue process. Otherwise there's a high chance that they'll get frustrated, disillusioned or burned out.

When dialogue participants are hit with the realities back home, they can find themselves asking questions like Why doesn't everyone else see what obviously needs to happen? I'm the only one who's changed, how can I believe that dialogue can make a difference? Can I really trust the experience I had? Was I wasting my time?

Facilitators and dialogue organizers might be disheartened when participants express this kind frustration, but in its own way this is a positive sign. It means that the process was powerful, and people are looking for a way to expand its impact. It's incredibly important at this point to follow up and check in on how people are feeling.
A serious effort was made by the Nansen Coordinators to stay in touch with these participants between the seminars. This stems from the strong emphasis within Nansen Dialogue on [following up]. The follow-up work is often the most important part of any seminar. Even [travelling] to the region just to have some meetings in cafés, [making] oneself visible and available, is a good way to build confidence and trust. Some of the most meaningful visits were spent in this way.
Organizers may find themselves wanting to start building an expanded dialogue network as soon as possible. But doing this without taking the time to do the appropriate follow-up work can lead to resentment and a high participant turnover.

Dialogue, first and foremost, is built on relationships. Not paying enough attention to the relationships that already exist (even for the sake of expanding the project's impact) erodes community, undermines trust and can leave people feeling deeply hurt.

The dialogue process relies on the passion, ability and vision of local participants who are already embedded into the local context. Not only do they have unique perspectives and insights into the situation, but they themselves sometimes take great risks by advocating for communication with the other side. At the beginning of any long-term, cultural intervention, their well-being and needs take priority.
We would never have been able to start these seminars in Kosovo without the small Lillehammer group that had gone through certain processes themselves, which had sensitized them toward inter-ethnic thinking. They realized the need for improved communication. They put their own integrity on the line when recruiting the participants to the first seminar. By doing this they found a way to sustain their own Lillehammer experience in the midst of living in a country approaching a brutal war.

Plan to expand local dialogue networks first
The initial dialogue participants, high on the enthusiasm of a recent session, may come home intent on changing the world. This isn't bad, but it might be a good idea to point out that developing a local dialogue network may be a bigger priority to start with.

This for a number of reasons. It creates a group of people that can work towards dialogue and reconciliation together. Working with political rifts or historical traumas is hard enough as it is – doing it alone is a quick invitation to burnout. It can also create a more sustainable presence in a given community. These all lend the project more credibility, which is crucial when challenging local narratives or approaches to a given conflict.

These relationships will eventually form the basis for extended cultural interventions, ones that will attempt to create connections between radically divided groups. In the case of the NCPD's work in the former Yugoslavia, their original Lillehammer sessions (detailed in this post) were designed with this goal in mind. The whole point was to reach a point where the dialogue process would eventually be transferred from Norway to the Western Balkans.
The intention was to create an educational program motivating and strengthening the participants to work for peace and reconciliation upon returning [to the Western Balkans]...The first challenge for Nansen Dialogue was to take the dialogue from the more exclusive long-term setting in Lillehammer to a more intense short-term setting closer to home
One of the biggest factors in increasing a community's openness to the dialogue process is the amount of people active in that community who have themselves participated in such sessions. Making the dialogue seminars accessible to more people was a crucial next step.

For the NCPD this was a problem. The initial Lillehammer sessions were, in Steinar's words, "rather exclusive." They involved spending three months in Norway, where participants would work with a curriculum involving cultural history, conflict theory and comparing narratives. On the one hand, this in-depth immersion was necessary at the beginning of the project as it produce a group of experienced dialogue advocates who had a strong grasp of the region's complex history.

But on the other hand, this was not a friendly format for those who had responsibilities at home. Obligations at work or in the community made it impossible to participate in the program as it was originally designed. In order to launch a sustainable dialogue process, one where ongoing sessions would introduce more people to the approach, a new format would have to be created.
The lack of any kind of network support, and the lack of any arena of action made several of the Serbian and Albanian participants from Priština gather back home as a Lillehammer-group in Kosovo. They initiated the first Herzeg Novi [ed: a town in nearby Montenegro] seminar in November 1997. Now it was not three months; it was a three-day seminar. What could one accomplish in such short time? The Lillehammer participants put their own trustworthiness on the line when recruiting their friends and colleagues. The participants travelled 10 hours by bus from Priština to Herzeg Novi. Luckily this first seminar succeeded in such a way that it became easier to recruit people to the next seminars. Seven dialogue buses drove out of Priština [over] the next 14 months.
For the NCPD, the solution was for locals to work with the trained facilitators in designing a format that worked for them. Having three-day trainings closer to home lowered the threshold for participation and allowed more people to become involved in the process. Accordingly, the growing, dialogue-based communities would have more resources, energy and credibility to work with relevant issues in their localities.

But getting the initial participants on those buses was no easy thing, Steinar recounts, and the local volunteers "put their own trustworthiness on the line when recruiting their friends and colleagues." Even the participants of the first seminar came to Norway wondering if "they had been fooled into a propaganda trap."

Bringing people to the table turned out to be one of the the trickiest, and most important, parts of the whole process.

Bringing skeptics to the table
Dialogue can only go so far, especially if you want to impact your community, if it only involves people who are already bought into the process. For real change to happen, you have to learn how to engage with the people who don't want to talk or listen.

This is one of the most difficult parts of the whole process, and for reasons that aren't always obvious. There could be a number of factors involved: historical grievances, economic circumstances, having something to lose. A lack of communication (and so not knowing what the other side's real needs are) between communities in conflict is all too common. That, and there can be larger interests invested in a given conflict (political, economical, religious) than a particular community might be aware of.

That and sometimes, as was in the case of the NCPD's work in Kosovo, one must deal with the very real consequences of war.
At this point, it was very unlikely that local Serbs and local Albanians would have initiated such seminars . They lived in a divided world, where even communication with each other was a suspicious activity. The parallel systems had developed over time in Kosovo, and created a deep divide, not only in institutional and social life, but also in their perceptions of reality. Given this starting point, the difficulties with even recruiting participants must be appreciated. Why should anyone spend a whole weekend with the "Other" that has destroyed one's possibilities to live a good life?
That said, experience has shown that it is indeed possible. And it often comes down to a combination of building relationships, looking to understand the reasons behind a group's reluctance to come to the table, and showing what a group has to gain from the process.

In his article, and when speaking to us this week, Steinar returns to a few key reasons why some people may be not be interested in speaking to the other side.

One of these is the existence, even if only the perceived existence, of existing power structures and inequalities.

If someone organizes a sustained dialogue process between two or more groups, they have to be aware that not all groups are equal and that power structures exist, even if only implicitly. This is sometimes a stumbling point for dialogue facilitators and advocates because dialogue, in principle, tries to place everyone on equal footing in a way that might not reflect conditions beyond the discussion table. While this is something that's important to keep in mind while facilitating dialogue, it's especially crucial during the recruitment process.

Recruiters often emphasize the need to humanize, overcome our stereotypes and start perceiving the other side as more than oppressors or obstacles. This might sound noble to facilitators, mediators or foreign partners, but to a person actually involved in the conflict, one who deeply sees the other group as dangerous, this can sound like danger, compromise, defeat or betrayal.

It's often the case that one of the groups feels they have something to lose by coming to the table. Whether a group feels this way isn't necessarily dependent on their political, social or cultural capital – a marginalized group can be afraid of powerful groups using the dialogue process to maintain a disadvantageous status quo, or a powerful group may not want use dialogue to legitimize or give a platform to marginalized groups.

Steinar describes how these impacted dialogue sessions before and after the Kosovo War, with Serbs and Albanians being dominant groups at different times.

...it was easier to recruit Serbs to the seminars. One might [...] argue that they had the most to gain if the problems could be solved through dialogue. On the other hand, it was obvious that the participating Serbs heard stories they had never heard before; so the Albanians had an obvious gain from at least being listened to. At this time, it was Albanians who would cancel out in the last moment.


One could argue that now it was the Albanians who would gain the most from showing inter-ethnic tolerance and from participating in these seminars, but also Serbs would gain through informing Albanians under which conditions Serbs in enclaves were living. But without doubt the Albanian side was easier to mobilize for participation, and if someone cancelled in the last minute, it would now be a Serb.

Another reason some people might not want to engage in dialogue with the other side is out of a desire for justice, or sometimes revenge. Dialogue is often perceived as a way of legitimizing the other side's perspective and needs, and in cases where a person or group has real grievances against another (which could include historical oppression, systemic injustice or even genocide) the need for justice may be more important than the need to talk.

While justice and dialogue are not mutually exclusive (many processes leading to justice are improved by rigorous dialogue sessions), the perception that they are is not entirely unfounded. Similar to the paradigm of transitional justice, the aim of dialogue is mutual understanding and, ultimately, peace – making sure that a particular group is punished for certain misdeeds is not the highest priority.

In cases where one or both sides maintain deeply-entrenched victim narratives, this can be unacceptable.
This is well described by my colleague and partner in most of the dialogue groups between 1996 and 2001, Dan Smith, then director of PRIO, now Secretary General of International Alert. Smith told NRK [ed: a Balkan-based news network], "I am not so focused on who is right and who is wrong, but more on how we got here and how we can get out of here."


Smith has described one of the main challenges in these situations to be the relationship between intellect and emotion, "while many of them had a sincere wish for dialogue, mutual understanding and an end to the violence and bloodshed, many also, not surprisingly, had deeply held views and feelings about right and wrong in the wars – on which side justice lay and who had perpetrated the worst crimes."
Sometimes an obstacle to participating in a dialogue session might not come from the person themselves so much as from pressure from their community.

In a conflict situation, there are often individuals who take it upon themselves to, independently or collectively, defend their group, culture, religion or legacy. A common defense strategy is maintaining a divide between 'us' and 'them', usually justified with a victim narrative that portrays the other side as a dangerous oppressor who will, given the chance, expose the victim group to gaslighting, alternative facts or dangerous views that should not be legitimized. In this case, fraternizing with the enemy poses a risk to one's own group.

In many situations this is an entirely justified approach. There can be very real oppressors who use points of contact to destabilize their neighbours. In some cases, however, this can be an inaccurate portrayal of the other side and their interests.

This poses a major dilemma for dialogue practitioners as it can be difficult to create a safe enough space for dialogue in this kind of context. To make things worse, they might not be sufficiently aware of these dynamics to begin with. That, or they can be incorrectly perceived as abetting aggressors by encouraging contact and dialogue in the first place.

In cases where one group feels contact with the other group is dangerous, and they therefore perceive contact (and therefore dialogue) as a threat, certain individuals can take on the role of bridge-watchers, self-appointed guardians of the 'bridges' between divided communities. They pressure other members of their group to refuse to take part in dialogue, or sometimes ensure that negative consequences will befall those who do. While a given person might not themselves be against the dialogue process, fear of being targeted by bridge-watchers may prevent them from participating.
The bridge-watchers are not only watching to see if the enemy is attacking, they are also watching who of their own people are crossing the bridge to the other side – crossing the bridge means "crossing over" and becoming exposed to alternative explanations, alternative frameworks for interpreting events – and more importantly; crossing the bridge means humanizing the "other" through direct interaction.
While it is less an issue of skepticism, dialogue recruiters do well to remember that the communities they are working with are often deeply affected by trauma. Certain potential dialogue participants may be in need of professional help before being able to responsibly take part in prolonged engagement with the other side.
Damaged buildings in Kosovo | Wikipedia: Marietta Amarcord
But though there are many obstacles to bringing skeptics to the table, Steinar also writes about certain factors that help motivate people who are otherwise hostile to dialogue to open up to the possibility of discussion.

One of these is the promise of neutral space. This was discussed at length in another post from this week's summer school, but for the purposes of dialogue recruitment it suffices to say that its a way to escape certain pressures in the community.

For some, there might be a desire to talk about complicated issues away from the people, media outlets or cultural forces that tell them what to think. For others, it's an opportunity to travel on the dime of some international organization. Providing a set venue, particularly one outside the community, can also provide a sense of legitimacy and urgency to the meeting.
But the underlying goal was of course that the Serbian and Albanian delegations that were to visit Norway would do so together – with plenty of space to continue their own political dialogue in a safer, and for them, more free environment. The main purpose of the visit was not to learn from "Norwegian ways" but for this inter-ethnic group to explore Norway together. Bujanovac and Preševo are small municipalities. Most people know each other. Most people know who did what during the violent uprising in 2000. It is difficult to hide behind lies and evasions. This visit was a breakthrough in the local reconciliation work. To sit on the white benches outside the Nansen Academy at midnight provided space for conversations that would have been almost impossible in Bujanovac. A new level of honesty was reached.The bridge-watchers are not only watching to see if the enemy is attacking, they are also watching who of their own people are crossing the bridge to the other side – crossing the bridge means "crossing over" and becoming exposed to alternative explanations, alternative frameworks for interpreting events – and more importantly; crossing the bridge means humanizing the "other" through direct interaction.
Returning to the issue of trauma, there may be members in the community who do want to talk about what happened but find themselves unable to do so without digging up painful memories or bringing hurt to themselves and others. They recognize, perhaps only intuitively, that healing needs to happen but they don't know how to start.

One advantage of facilitated dialogue work is that trained professionals can help create safe environments where controversial issues can be presented in ways that aren't triggering, manipulative or insensitive to feelings of hurt, grievance or injustice.

For many dialogue participants, one of the highlights of the whole process was learning how to talk about deeply affecting issues in ways that weren't inherently personal, guilt-inducing or blame-gaming.
Smith himself expressed some surprise that such a neat theoretical model actually could work in a "conflict-group", but that is his main point – it worked. It functioned as a smoke screen between the participants and the narratives they were sharing and events they were discussing. It simply opened the door to talk about what happened and why, without stirring up the strongest emotions. The participants experienced first hand that it is possible to talk about the hard stuff.
Another, arguably more powerful motivation is the opportunity to feel seen by the other side.

While there may be a number of psychological, social or political barriers to seeing opposing groups as having their own legitimate positions or grievances (or even, in some cases, seeing them as human beings), most groups are still motivated by the chance to present their stories and grievances to those who wronged them.

This motivation may not entirely be in keeping with the spirit of dialogue, it may be enough to get someone to the table where, hopefully, they will encounter stories as profound and poignant as their own.

Given this starting point, the difficulties with even recruiting participants must be appreciated. Why should anyone spend a whole weekend with the "Other" that has destroyed one's possibilities to live a good life? Well, a good answer is "To make the Other aware of exactly that."
Why should anyone spend a whole weekend with the "Other" that has destroyed one's possibilities to live a good life? Well, a good answer is "To make the Other aware of exactly that."

Solidify connections between divided communities
Once dialogue practices have taken root within a given community, and once the number of dialogue participants has grown, it might be time to start solidifying connections between members of divided communities.

This is a process that usually has already started, at least on small scale – when it happens, it's often between people who participated in a dialogue seminar together. This usually happens during the breaks and spaces when participants are not actually at the table. Meals, excursions and general down-time help people relax and let down their masks, which can be difficult to do when engaged in a prolonged meeting with members of the other side. Earlier this week, Steinar drew attention to this aspect of the dialogue process.

Making these connections stronger (and, in some cases, institutionalized) is crucial background before moving on to establish concrete peacebuilding initiatives in your region or community.

During the initial NCPD dialogue sessions in the Balkans, this meant going beyond the original Bosnian context (where the project originated) and opening up the process to members of the different states of the former Yugoslavia.
In the first group, the participants were mainly recruited from Bosnia-Herzegovina. But we realized early on how things were intertwined with each other, and the seminar in the spring of 1996 had participants from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
It's important to keep in mind that dialogue participants, even those who have every intention of working together for nonviolent solutions, can still have different interests or political opinions when it comes to what concrete changes should be implemented. When working to create ties between groups with different interests and approaches, it may be necessary to define what it is that you're wanting to achieve together (otherwise the participants remain at risk of disillusionment, disappointment or 'dialogue-fatigue').

Steinar draws attention to how, after taking part in dialogue, what changed wasn't so much a person's political opinion as their relationship to other groups. This in and of itself is a major success, and forms the first step to sustainable cooperation.
I have over the years seldom experienced that the participants changed their fundamental political beliefs or their political goals, but I have often seen that they change their perception of "the other". Their understanding of the world was simply becoming more inclusive.
Even in the absence of immediate solutions to some of the more pressing issues facing a region or community, the solidarity formed between members of divided groups can grow into a network of dedicated individuals working for peace and understanding.

Working together in this way, information will be able to flow, resources can be used more effectively and community members will be able to resist certain effects of local propaganda campaigns. Inter-regional coordination will also open up doors that were previously closed.
Through staying together for three months relationships and friendships developed across ethnic divide. These relationships were later utilized in building up the Nansen Dialogue Network that established dialogue centres in 10 different cities in ex-Yugoslavia (Osijek, Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Mostar, Podgorica, Pristina, Mitrovica, Belgrade, Bujanovac and Skopje).
Not only does having a greater presence across different communities increase the likelihood of having a better understanding of the issues you're dealing with, but it can also increase your legitimacy in the eyes of locals as well as foreign partners and stakeholders.

That, and if the situation develops unexpectedly within one of the regions where your initiative has people on the ground, you'll already have a chance to better understand (from the inside) what's happening and why.

This is particularly important because many dialogue initiatives are often perceived as 'foreigners.' Here, being a 'foreigner' doesn't have to mean coming from another country – being a member of a different cultural group, even if you live in the same neighbourhood, can still place you as an outsider.

Outsiders, while they can provide status and a sense of neutrality to the proceedings, may never have the same access or sense of legitimacy as someone who lives and belongs to a particular community. Not having a native presence slows down your response and is less effective at de-escalating situations when they flare up.
Can we apply our experience from Kosovo and Macedonia in a useful way in South Serbia? The problem was that the previous strategy of Nansen Dialogue was to work only in areas where previous participants in Lillehammer could prepare the ground, recruit new participants to dialogue seminars and in other ways pave the way for meaningful work. They were barefoot soldiers on the ground. In the case of South Serbia we had no connections of this kind, which explains why we were somewhat slow in responding to the escalating inter-ethnic conflict in that region.
But once the dialogue communities are operating and sustainable, and once stable relations across the given divide are established, then can you start working to bring people to the table that will have influence in the region.

Invite strategic participants to the dialogue sessions
Much of what was written above about bringing skeptics to the table is also true about inviting prominent members of the community to a dialogue session. Much has been said about building a given project's legitimacy in a region, and the payoff comes when people with a certain amount of influence start seeing you as a potential partner and not as a circle of amateurs or, worse, foreigners looking to pad their CV.
...as we built our experience we also built our reputation, particularly as a network focusing on inter-ethnic dialogue in deeply divided communities. Nansen started to symbolize dialogue, integration, openness, tolerance in communities like Vukovar, Prijedor, Srebrenica, Bratunac, Sarajevo, Mostar, Stolac, Mitrovica, Kosovo Polje, Obiliq, Sandžak, South-Serbia, and Jegunovce, for those involved in our activities. Our patience, stamina and the fact that we were setting up local registered centres staffed by locals, and not perceived as foreigners, gave us more credibility.
At the beginning of a process, you don't always have the luxury of thinking of who to invite. You work with who comes, or with who is generally interested. But once the network is sufficiently developed, a question tends to emerge: who should be directly invited to participate?

Influence and legitimacy aren't the only questions to think of when creating a list of ideal dialogue participants in a community. Openness to communication, an ability to listen with patience, the willingness to see things from the other side – these are just as important when starting to work with officials or community leaders. Also, there's the question of their ability to advocate for the effectiveness of dialogue among actors who are not merely skeptics but actively resist the dialogue process.

In many cases, a formal invitation to join the discussion table is prefaced by weeks, months or even years of building relationships.
Nansen coordinators from NDC Serbia used their contacts in OSCE and the NGOs to identify the important people, through travelling to the region, spending time, individual talks, many cups of coffee, they slowly succeeded in convincing important actors on both sides, that time was long overdue for gathering both Serbs and Albanians for political dialogue. The first seminar was planned in Vrjnska Banja in March 2002. The same process as in Kosovo and Macedonia was observed, while the participants showed quite some reluctance and defensiveness in the beginning, the experience of the dialogue space and the opportunities it gave to discuss meaningful political issues in a safe and supportive setting changed their attitude toward the dialogue itself.
Attractive participants aren't only politicians, religious leaders or social figures. The ability to implement change and development expresses itself among people from many different spheres and walks of life.
The challenge became to recruit participants that had an arena of action upon return home; participants that belonged to institutions in society that could implement change. A much stronger criterion was then developed for the recruitment of participants (that was hardly possible in the beginning when we looked like a horse with no name)...So when we started to invite strategically important people in the local community: they accepted the invitation. Like the mayor, chief of the municipal administration, president of the municipal assembly, director of the local high school, editor of the local newspaper et al.

These individuals were chosen because of their connection to local institutions and because they therefore had an arena where they could implement change.
The initial relationship-building process is not only crutial for eventually getting someone to the table, but it also affirms that you're not just using them for their position, or to further your own interest in dialogue. Building mutual understanding often goes hand in hand with the growth of friendship, trust, vulnerability and intimacy. They become one's friends, or at least one's close colleagues.

And, when faced with pressures to cancel or refuse to come to the table, it's often the relationship that can make or break an invitation.
The recruitment process is tough, and direct contact must be kept with the participants every day to counter potential cancellation arguments.

Use this network as a base for peacebuilding efforts
Once there are potential change-makers involved in the dialogue process, larger-scale peacebuilding projects can start appearing.

This, first and foremost, is an excellent development for a community. This is where the fruits of the search for common understanding start translating into what some would call more 'concrete' results. Of course, the 'result' of having a strengthened community is already reason enough for the project's existence, but when you have foreign funders or stakeholders involved they may want to see something quantifiable.
...donors and other critics wanted to see more concrete results. It is nice when people come together to dialogue, but then – what? Also the coordinators in the Nansen Centers started to become more ambitious, as their position in their respective local communities was strengthened. Is it possible to mobilize dialogue participants to take part in social change at large?
This "social change at large" can take a variety of forms. Some think about legislative changes, political reform or increased representation, while others thing about integrated schools, bipartisan media outlets or fewer instances of cultural segretation.

The kinds of projects pursued depends on the needs of a given community, as well as the resources, expertise and willingness of locals to get involved. There are a number of different examples of projects supported by the NCPD that came as a direct result of their dialogue initiatives.

One example was a visit to Lillehammer by a mixed group of Serbian and Albanian participants that eventually led to a full delegation of officials from the town of Bujanovac.
...local contacts were made in Lillehammer municipality, that triggered a return visit in October same year. The mayor of Lillehammer, the Deputy Mayor of Oppland county, the Deputy Chief of Administration and 4 other delegates developed during this visit personal relations with local Bujanovac politicians. Lillehammer municipality visited Bujanovac again one year later and interviewed around 50 people in the administration. Based on these interviews, Lillehammer came with 64 different recommendations to Bujanovac.

Through discussions with the Bujanovac mayor and the local administration, Lillehammer and Bujanovac agreed to focus on five areas: business development, further development of the local service center, training of the head of departments, strengthening of local politicians and the development of a city manager position. In addition, a separate school project was developed.
Schools are a particular area of focus, with major efforts going into integrating school systems in communities with a high degree of segregation (such as Croatia after the war). Designing textbooks (history, in particular) that can be shared by members of different communities can help the next generation have a shared set of narratives to work with that can resist the development of partisan, parallel communities.
The most prominent of such dialogue arenas is the new Fridtjof Nansen bilingual school that just opened in Jegunovce, Macedonia. Through long-term dialogue work with village leaders, teachers, parents, students, and municipal leaders, four villages that were in violent confrontation in the summer of 2001 have turned confrontation to cooperation. NDC Osijek hopes to initiate the start of a Serb-Croatian school in Vukovar in the fall of 2009. A similar long-term effort has taken place, including heavy lobbying toward both local and national politicians. In Bosnia-Herzegovina there are 52 divided schools. NDC Sarajevo has been involved on a large scale to work for a more unified school system.
On a lighter note, dialogue can also inspire cultural initiatives.
Dialogue work among students and youth was followed by a unique theater performance. They identified 20 scenes from everyday life, among them corruption in schools and in the health care center, inefficiency in the post office and a remarkable scene when an Albanian boy is taking a Serb girlfriend home to his family. The actors were amateurs, but performed for a mixed audience of 700. This was the largest multiethnic event in Bujanovac, probably ever.

Another group of youth and students travelled to the Acropolis to experience the reconciliatory effect of their common cultural heritage just south of the border. These groups of youth are together challenging the divided structures of Bujanovac and are currently working for an integrated youth centre.

There are times when a given project can actually work towards reviving abandoned villages or reintroducing cultural groups into areas where they were forced to flee during a conflict.
The community-based peacebuilding approach in Kosovo focused on two municipalities where Norwegian KFOR had been present: Kosovo Polje and Obiliq. Kosovo Polje is a municipality only five kilometres from Pristina [ed. the Kosovan capital]. The villages Lismir/Dubri Dub and Nakarade were abandoned by the Serb community as a consequence of the conflict, and their houses were burned down.

The houses were rebuilt [in a joint project by the] UNDP, European Perspective and the Kosovar government.

Kosovan Nansen Dialogue was responsible for the dialogue between the returning Serb community and the receiving Albanian community. During the first meeting in 2005, return was not discussed...Dialogue is a slow process, so is reconciliation.

But UNDP decided to go ahead with 34 houses, and on the 12th of December 2007 all houses in Dubri Dub had a family member returning...we hope to start the return process to a third village in the same manner, in cooperation with Kosovo Polje municipality and UNDP.

What next?
These projects were the result of concrete people analyzing a specific context and working towards well-defined changes that could help the community. What happens in each case is completely different, and it doesn't erase the complex legacy of war or other forms of conflict.

One thing that Steinar emphasized was that this wasn't 'happy ever after.' But it does push developments in an important direction.
This is not a success story, but we moved beyond the pure dialogue work and answered, what next? What next became small successes in the field of repatriation to mixed villages, integrated education and ethnic cooperation in divided municipalities. When internationals claim that Serbs and Albanians don't want to talk to each other, our records show that they are simply wrong. I have spent the best part of my last 13 years listening to them doing exactly that. It is my firm conviction that more could have been accomplished over these years had dialogue and reconciliation had a higher priority in the peace building effort in the region, in Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as in Serbia and Kosovo.
Again and again, Steinar comes back to the power of relationships – not only as a way to increase the reach of one's project, but as a fundamental aspect of what makes us human. Dialogue, general speaking, is a space that makes possible the act of seeing each other as human.

Losing sight of this strips a project of its meaning and power. This is why there's so much emphasis in the NCPD not only on building relationships while planning a project, but also investing in them as time goes on.

These relationships can remain in place even after major obstacles to dialogue and peacebuilding arise – for example, when conflict intensifies and the process seems to start, once again, from zero.

But even when it seems like everything's ground to a halt, those relationships aren't forgotten, nor are the networks that were built for years.
No operative goals were developed during these seminars [due to emerging regional instability], but there are Nansen alumni in Mitrovica who can be mobilized if the situation on the ground changes. The current situation is so locked that no official dialogue seminar can be organized without risks for some of the participants. To work in a political climate full of far more powerful events than dialogue seminars requires patience and generational thinking (change does not happen overnight, but maybe over a generation) becomes necessary. Probably the most important effect of Nansen Dialogue is that a symbol of integration, openness, tolerance, non-violent communication and a more inclusive way of thinking has been present and coexisted with nationalistic propaganda and the building of hatred on both sides in some of the most war torn areas of Europe since World War Two.
The traits needed for sustained peacebuilding engagement in a region are similar to the traits of a dialogue facilitator her/himself: patience. Creativity. Flexibility. The ability to see the needs and feelings underneath stated positions. Faith that underneath every deadlocked situation is the desire to move forward.

And, given time, healing and concrete preparation, the way forward just might open itself up again.
Steinar Bryn is a dialogue practitioner with extensive experience working in the former Yugoslavia and other post-conflict societies. He, along with the NCPD, have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Josh Nadeau is a writer and dialogue practitioner. In June 2018 he participated in the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue summer school.