Due to the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the country experiences a high number of internally displaced people (IDPs). Ukrainian Red Cross (URCS) is assisting the IDPs with psychosocial and limited material support in their new areas of settlement. Many IDPs are traumatised by the conflict, desperate due to their difficult life situation and not always content with the support they get from the government and URCS.
Conflicts arise between the IDPs and URCS volunteers who are often young and relatively inexperienced, and between locals and the IDPs. Additionally, the volunteers at times experience conflicts in their own teams about decision-making, prioritisation of support-activities etc. As a result, Danish and Ukrainian Red Cross contacted the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution (DCCR) in order to improve the conflict resolution skills of the volunteers.
The initial approach taken was simply to train groups of volunteers for four days in conflict resolution and then leave them to implement the new knowledge. The content was developed in close dialogue between Red Cross and DCCR, and it included two overall subjects. Firstly, “understanding and analysing conflicts” which entailed subjects such as identifying the key components of conflicts, understanding how conflicts escalate, understanding your own and other people’s reactions in conflict, and learn how to avoid doing harm (unwillingly enhancing conflicts) when intervening in a conflict zone. Secondly, “dealing with interpersonal conflict” which encompassed a) how to communicate in order to prevent or deescalate conflicts via mirroring, active listening and Nonviolent Communication, and b) how to facilitate inclusive decision-making processes. A substantial number of volunteers from different regions were trained in these subjects over a three-year period. Both during and after each course the training content and didactics were evaluated and improved in order to better meet the participants’ needs and level of competences. Evaluations were highly positive regarding relevance and quality of the training. However, it became clear that many participants found it extraordinarily difficult to practise the tool “Nonviolent Communication”, which was a central element in the course.
Through a dialogue between participants, Red Cross and the trainers a culturally rooted learning barrier was identified: The historically very hierarchical structure of Ukrainian political and family life clashed with a very dialogical and non-hierarchical communication tool. It was hard for many participants to abandon the existing rather confrontational and argument-based way of communicating and substitute it with a very empathic and question centred way of communicating. To minimise this challenge, it was decided to simplify the tool somewhat, to boost the trainers’ demonstration of how to use the tool, to increase the time spend on the subject, and to make the clash of approaches more explicit.
Another equally important outcome of the on going course evaluation was a realisation that the initial approach with its sole focus on training was too narrow in order to create sustainable change. It became clear that the participants found it difficult to continue to use and to deepen their new skills after the trainings – as is the case in many training projects. Therefore, regional and national URCS coordinators were assigned to help the volunteers keep the new skills alive by facilitating the practising of skills both in the field with the IDPs and during internal Red Cross meetings. They became a kind of ambassadors for the project.
Furthermore, to avoid an everlasting dependency on foreign (expensive) trainers local conflict resolution experts were identified and trained to take over the training and to supplement the coordinators assistance with occasional supervision of volunteers. The local trainers were introduced to the training via oral orientations and reading of relevant material, but they also contributed with new ideas to the didactics of the trainings. More importantly, they participated during one of the four days trainings mainly as observers and as assistant facilitators during group exercises in order to prepare themselves for “the take-over.”
During a second volunteers training, the Danish trainer took the observer role and the local trainers took the role as trainers under the supervision of the Danish trainer. Breaks and evenings were used for feedback sessions between the trainers. In order for the facing-in of local trainers to become a success a comprehensive training manual or road map including slides, explanations of the trainers’ role and how to facilitate presentations, dialogues, reflections and excises were developed. Finally, a programme and methodology for the local trainers’ supervision of the volunteers’ conflict resolution practises were developed.
Today, the local trainers are successfully continuing the trainings and supervision in close cooperation with URCS, and positive feedback is received from many volunteers. URCS is also considering initiating a new department focusing on humanitarian education for the general public, which include conflict resolution skills with Nonviolent Communication as a key element.
For the project to fully impact the work of the volunteers and eventually the IDPs and their neighbours more can definitely be done – had resources been available. This would include closer supervision of the volunteers’ conflict resolution activities including both their “do-no-harm” analysis, which are to be undertaken before interventions in an area, and their interpersonal communicative efforts. Furthermore, identification of more participatory and demand driven approaches to URCS IDP related activities could probably be helpful in order to minimise conflicts between volunteers and IDPs and other.
In summary, for a more professional culture of conflict resolution to emerge in and around the work of URCS volunteers training (executed by external experts) is inadequate. Firstly, the training content and didactics have to be adapted to or rooted in the local culture and not copy-pasted from a Western context. Secondly, relatively close follow-up supervision of the participants is a prerequisite for a successful outcome, which equals changed conflict behaviour and not just new knowledge. Thirdly, it is important to work not only on interpersonal level (improved communication and understanding) but also on organisational level (here: a more demand driven approach to IDP related activities) to transform the conflicts “on the ground.” Fourthly, sustainability can be achieved if local “ambassadors” and conflict resolution experts – in good time – are assisted to take over and deepen the work started by external experts.
Bjørn Nygaard, August 2019