Partners for Democratic Change Centers Around the World

Ray Shonholtz

Director, Partners for Democratic Change

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Let's talk about Partners. What's the origin of Partners?

A: Partners. I stepped down from running Community Boards in '88, and in '89 was asked by the United States Institute of Peace to be a principle investigator on a program to introduce mediating concepts into the former Soviet Union. I did that work with a few colleagues, and we did a series of seminars in November of '89, both in Moscow and then I had contacts and solidarity. I went to Poland in November of '89 and gave a series of seminars also on mediating concepts as strengthening democratic processes. That grant had a training program in it. In March of 1990 we came back to Moscow, seven trainers, some of whom you've interviewed. Chris Moore was one of them, Bill Lincoln, and Gail Sedala were just a wonderful group of people. We trained 100 Soviets in a residential training program. We had four parallel groups with 25 people each, teachers, environmentalists, academics, and labor people. It was just an incredible setting.

It was also the same week that Gorbachev got elected to be president of the Supreme Soviet in March of 1990, and four of the trainers came with me to Warsaw. We trained 65 members of Solidarity Labor, ministry of labor and the ministry of education, and that was really the early origin, because after that work, which went very well. There was a great opportunity there.

You could train people with Americans forever, and have hardly any impact. If we are really going to do this, we need domestic trainers; we need people in the country to do the training. The other part to that was that on the American side, we have enormous knowledge about methods and processes, but if you're going to go to another country, you do what I call, "fall off the cliff" because you have no cultural base in that country. So you can do the best training in the world, and if you don't have a feel for the culture and you can't acculturate the material, I think you can only go so far.

So the idea was to start creating centers, and to start training people in the country as trainers. That was the early idea. My wife and I and my family moved to Poland in 1991 to set up centers in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, but setup a center on the Slovak and Czech side at the time - two centers in that country - and then one in Moscow, in Russia.


There are 11 national centers, Georgia in the South Caucasus, throughout central and Eastern Europe, and then one in Argentina, which is the first of several centers in Latin America. All the centers have been built around the notion that there are no Americans in these centers. There have never been Americans in the centers. The idea has been to train people in an American model with their job to be to acculturate the model and adapt and change it.


Q: What kinds of changes are you hoping that Partners will make to the communities that it works with?


My vision of it is that Partners and organizations like it that is promoting this work, and it is not just in the arena of post-conflict. That really is the major work, that's an important area. It's in the area of transitional democracies. Countries that are moving in this direction what you find is that they don't have any oil between the gears. They don't know how to manage differences. They don't know how to negotiate in a way that two people who don't like one another or two political groups have to realize that today they're going to negotiate a compromise, because tomorrow they're going to have to live with each other in the Parliament. The days of enemy psychology, and "I'd prefer you die than I work with you," those days in a developing democracy have to go. There's just no way that that psychology should function, should have any space.

If you're really trying to build a sound, democratic institution, democratic psychology and market structures, that psychology has to change to be a democratic oriented psychology. This means you need people who can manage change, manage differences, settle disputes; this is what I call the oil between the gears. There needs to be many, many more people and countries that can do this work. So, I think we've just seen the beginning - we're just at the iceberg stage of it. I think there's a huge amount of work to be done that is essential to make the democracies viable;to make them work better.

Q: Do Partners affiliates do interventions, or do they primarily do trainings?

A: A lot of both. If you see on our website, we have about 45 case studies that are focused only on the second-generation skills, which we call the change management skills. These change management skills are oriented around multi-stakeholder processes such as environmental issues, community-police relations, decentralization of municipal budgets, housing, and welfare reform.

We're doing a huge project with the World Bank and UNDP in Romania to look at developing social policies that relate to Roma and the implementation of health, schools, sanitation, etc. You need a lot of very skilled people to manage these large group processes - not just to facilitate a meeting, not a one-time shot, but how do you design a whole process that will get you a decentralized health service, that will get you a decentralized budget that the municipality and NGOs will buy into? How do you do that? You need do have people who know how to do it, and who are operating professionally in the sense that they're neutral.

They are not there because there's one political party or one corporation that somehow brought them in; they're there because their professional ethics, no matter who brought them in. Like it is in this country, no matter who brought them in their professional ethics are such that they can manage, in a neutral way, a multi-stakeholder process to reach a social or social justice end, or market sector end. So these centers are doing direct application. They're training trainers. They are training people. They are running programs. They are infusing within these programs core competencies in change and conflict management. They are doing all of it. They are also doing public policy work.

There is nothing like that center to my knowledge in the United States. The reason for that is that we have divided up the work in a professional way in the United States. So you are a professional mediator that does environmental work, therefore you are not going to be hired to do labor. Labor mediators won't be hired to do family mediation. The range of work is to narrow in developing democracies. You want to give people a range of expertise and skills across a lot of these different sectors. A center now will do all of it over time. You already see it in Poland and Hungary. You see it as a professionalization of sectors.

Labor is the first to go, so you have labor mediators meeting special criteria generally set by legislation. You are now going to see in the next stage, family mediators. Then you will start seeing the initial professionalization of the field. In the initial first 5-10 years of a developing democracy, not only do you not see it, you should not see it. You want to house all of that expertise in a place where people can learn from one another lessons. Learn, exchange knowledge, expertise, build on who is good in certain areas and learn from them, train new trainers, young people.