As the global Ebola crisis casts its net wider, reaching North America and Europe, one might think that political officials would be doing anything in their power to ensure its immediate halt, taking all necessary precautions to prevent its further spread. And yet as of Monday, a shipping crate containing almost $150,000 USD of medical equipment to continue the fight against Ebola has been sitting at the port in Sierra Leone for almost two months, stuck in a gridlocked negotiation between well-meaning donors and a sticky situation between government parties. It is hard to imagine how, in a declared state of emergency, that potentially life-saving supplies could be held in limbo for $6,500 USD (the fee demanded by the shipping company which the state refuses to pay because it fears that it would land in the hands of the opposition), but it does reflect an interesting and all-too-real aspect of negotiations: what’s to be done when there are visible conflicts of interests in a negotiation?

Negotiations take place between two parties, or perhaps more, with the goal of reaching a consensus of a certain situation. This is a process that might be visualized in the shape of a sideways hourglass: each party starts at either end, in the wide parts, and slowly comes to narrow down their perspective, meeting at the centre point. In essence, each party has something that the other party wants or needs, and together they must consolidate these desires in a manner acceptable to both. On its own, a negotiation is difficult enough to handle. However when a conflict of interests makes itself visible, the situation becomes even more difficult to handle and to solve in a manner fair to all parties.

It is therefore interesting to consider this situation, in which Mr Chernoh Alpha Bahthe organiser of the shipment  is asking for a shipping fee of $6,500, also is a member of the opposition party. Negotiations and agreements are built on trust, and given the tensions between Mr Bah and the current President Ernest Bai Koroma, it might be the case that there is not enough trust between the two parties to allow for them to find a solution that satisfies them both. Trust is difficult to build in the first place, and even more so when there is a conflict of interests within one party or the other.

It is clear that this issue becomes even more difficult when the stakes of this negotiation are taken into consideration. It is one thing when a difficult negotiation simply involves a disputed contract or a miscommunication, and another entirely when the dispute could potentially impact on the wellbeing of many lives. Conflicts of interest are simply another potential element of negotiation that must be part of the conversations in reaching a consensus between parties. In this case, it would seem that the sooner both parties can get to a mediation table, where a neutral might help reshape and focus the discussion, the better for everyone involved.

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By Leah Oppenheimer