Looking at words: visualising dialogue in Ukraine to support its contribution to peace

In Ukraine, several initiatives are using dialogue to build options to address some of the country’s most difficult challenges. Visualising them may help strengthen their impact and learn from each other.

This week I was invited to give input at a meeting on Innovative Thinking on Strategic Approaches to Conflict Management in The Hague, next to four other people working in this fascinating world. Their experience: years of work in policy advise, years of work on business and development, and connecting thousands of people in one of the most beautiful peace initiatives I have seen. My experience: making doodles to represent dialogue. Surely I had way more to learn than to say, but this is roughly what I presented.

My name is Miguel Varela, and I come from an organization called mediatEUr. We are a small team in Brussels supported by a group of experts on mediation and dialogue around the world. Most recently we set up a team in Ukraine after we came up with the idea of building a Dialogue Support Platform, a project that we think can help support the contribution of dialogue to peace in one of Europe’s most urgent conflicts.

Our engagement in Ukraine started formally in 2013 (informally, at least two decades ago), when we began developing a presence in the country thanks to our CEO, then a member of the Standby Team for Mediation Experts of the UN. At the time, the urgency of the conflict focused the attention on crisis management, but our interest was on the contribution dialogue could make to strengthening the social fabric in Ukraine and eventually helping resolve the conflict. In 2014 we travelled to Ukraine again to find out what was being done regarding dialogue in the country. I would say we made two key findings:

1. A great wealth of dialogue initiatives (and capacity). In nearly all regions of Ukraine, people are exploring ideas to address Ukraine’s most pressing challenge, with the help from professional facilitators.

2. An opportunity to strengthen the connections between these initiatives, as well as their capacity to communicate their findings to the people making the calls and international organisations.

On the one hand, we observed a group of community dialogues producing ideas and opportunities; on the other hand, Ukrainian policy-makers (the people making the calls) sought to build a reform agenda that could bring the country back to stability and prosperity. But we did not find a “bridge” between the two of them: those working on policy were unaware of the value and, often, of the existence of dialogue in Ukraine, while dialogue practitioners reflected on the difficulty to inform reforms or even connect with other dialogue initiatives. You would think making reforms that have popular support would be easier if you had a way to connect with people in the communities.

We saw another dimension to this disconnect. When discussing our findings with international organisations working on dialogue, we noticed not all of them were aware of the existence of dialogue processes in Ukraine, or what exactly they were doing. Granted, several foreign organisations had been working hard to support a number of dialogue initiatives there, but the support remained largely punctual. They stood ready to support dialogue for peace in Ukraine, but they struggled to identify the initiatives working on it. All the meanwhile, the OSCE, which was then leading a National Dialogue process, was coming under pressure for its very difficult task to promote dialogue among the political elite, and a dialogue fatigue was rising on the horizon.

You could say we came back to Brussels with a map of initiatives that were working to build opportunities to resolve some of Ukraine’s most pressing challenges. They had potential and capacity to promote dialogue and understanding in Ukraine. But the map was incomplete.

Enter the Dialogue Support Platform

Here is where we saw potential. We saw an opportunity to develop a system that could connect all these actors while showcasing the contribution of dialogue and promoting reflective learning, without building yet another initiative. We wanted to ‘connect the dots’ in that map we brought home. The key, in mediatEUr’s view, was in the combination of modern media and in-country work to generate an interactive image of dialogue in Ukraine, a “dialogue map”. The idea of our Dialogue Support Platform is simple:

  1. To build a space for reflection and learning between dialogue actors
  2. To promote good dialogue practice and showcase its impact
  3. To strengthen collaboration between dialogue actors

How? Essentially, the platform is built of two main components:

In-country work: dialogue is already taking place in Ukraine. Connecting initiatives to one another will help promote reflective learning, capture needs, and discuss ways to promote their results. mediatEUr’s field officer travels to the regions and visits the different organisations and facilitators, participates in their meetings, and identifies areas of support with them.
Every two months, the different initiatives come together for a reflection on their work, share their ideas and concerns, and chart the next steps.

Online work: the information from the ground is fed into an online platform where it can be mapped, analysed and expanded. Participants in the platform get access to a set of tools where they can represent the results from their work in a clear and interactive map.

Ultimately, these “dialogue maps” can serve a series of purposes.

  • Provide information from the communities to policy-makers
  • Demonstrate the value of dialogue to help build a “culture of dialogue” and understanding
  • Inform ongoing needs assessments and reform agendas
  • Provide a picture of the different areas of need to donors, so they may allocate their funds effectively
  • Provide resources and knowledge to those who wish to engage in dialogue.

A word of caution

The use of an online component is important to our project, but it is not the sole focus; instead, it is the “frontend” of the work done in the different communities. Providing this virtual space can help bridge the gaps between people and build an image of the efforts and results, but the richness of dialogue cannot be limited to an online space.

Furthermore, the platform does not seek to replace the work being done by dialogue organisations (local and foreign) in Ukraine; on the contrary, it seeks to provide them with a space to share and reflect on their work and methods, without implanting a new dialogue approach.

mediatEUr and the UNDP have scratched the surface on this process, and a number of challenges are clear: identification of initiatives, reaching the most conflict-affected areas, and including actors that are not prone on dialogue are some of them. With the support of the international community, the team hopes to optimise the contribution of the platform and ultimately support dialogue towards a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Ukraine.

You can learn more at www.themediateur.eu and www.dialoguesupport.org

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Miguel Varela Rodríguez

Author Miguel Varela Rodríguez

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