Consensus Building in the International Context

Larry Susskind

Co-Director of the Public Disputes Program, Inter-University Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

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 ???).

In the international arena, the front-end obstacles are the most formidable. People don't know what the hell this is and they confuse mediation with arbitration. They think someone's coming from outside to tell them what to do and they don't want that. The whole conception of a democratic process seeking to produce an informed consensus takes an immense amount of time and energy to explain it and nobody is covering your costs when you're out there trying to explain that. Then you got to build partner organizations and their capacity, so you can tailor things to fit the cultural and institutional setting. That takes more time and resources before there's even any decision to go forward. The big institutional obstacles and difficulties is getting this stuff off the ground still.


But in general in the places we've been able to move dispute resolution forward is almost exclusively in the democratic context. There's a legal system that works and people are fed up that the legal system or the political system is not producing any answer. Having no answer is not great for a lot of the parties and we come and describe the process of dispute resolution. Of course, it's very hard to fathom because there's no tradition of public participation, no tradition of public dialogue, no tradition of collaborative problem solving. They want to know what this is, and so we don't ever bring an American model to another place and expect them to do this following the model here.

What we do is we usually have a partner or a partner organization and through them we interpolate. We try to come up with something like a convener, something like a conflict assessment, something like a team of neutrals, something like a collaborative process and something like an ad hoc procedure for implementation. But it's very highly tailored to the circumstances and on any of the pieces I described it could look very different from what people are used to seeing in the US. That's why we almost only work with partners and then backstop those partners. That is why the process looks so different and takes different amounts of time. In general if you step back far enough and squint, it'll look like some kind of collaborative problem solving with ad hoc representation of all the stakeholders and something like a neutral or a team of neutrals producing a written document that takes the form of advice or recommendation, but it doesn't substitute for formal governmental decision-making. So in one respect you could say we don't change the model. Yet in another respect we can say we highly tailor the way the model is developed and applied in each context, and we get the help we need to do that in each place.