What is Convening?
Convening is the first stage in conflict intervention. Its role, as the name implies, is to bring disputants to a preliminary meeting where they will discuss the issues of a conflict and consider options for its resolution. Its goal is to pave the way for an actual conflict resolution process such as mediation, negotiation, or consensus building.
It is the convener's (organizer's) responsibility to carry out tasks that ensure the chosen resolution process proceeds smoothly, such as: assess the conflict situation, identify key stakeholders and participants, introduce options for a resolution process, distinguish resource needs and funding sources, and choose an appropriate venue. If these convening processes are carried out carefully and skillfully, the chances of successfully implementing an agreement are increased.
Additional insights into convening processes are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.
The convener of an initial meeting may or may not be a stakeholder in the problem. The convener's main role is to identify and bring all legitimate stakeholders to the table. Since it is up to the convener to persuade them to participate in the resolution process, he/she must be seen as credible, unbiased, and trustworthy. This is particularly important in seemingly intractable conflicts, where the issues are contentious and the parties distrustful of each other. It also helps if the convener is knowledgeable about the issue at hand. Thus, at the community level, a local leader, an organization or a steering committee made up of different groups may all serve as conveners. At the state and federal levels, government agencies or officials may serve as conveners. However, stakeholders are often distrustful of government officials so agencies may hire a neutral third party to convene stakeholders.
"Conveners help start a process but do not necessarily assume responsibility for conducting it." Once an initial meeting is arranged, the convener's job is usually over. However, conveners sometimes take on the role of facilitator in the actual negotiation phase. This only occurs when the convener is objective and is trusted by all sides. The bottom line is that the convener (as well as the subsequent neutral) must have legitimacy in the eyes of key stakeholders. The convener must be able to "bring parties together in a positive and productive frame of mind, and if someone other than the convener takes over the process, it is important that the stakeholders play an integral role in choosing the new neutral."
Convening at Different Scales
Convening is a necessary first step before any mediation or consensus-building process, be it interpersonal, community, or international. The general principles of convening apply to all of these levels, though they tend to be similar in smaller conflicts and at lower levels. One key difference, however, is that in large and complex public policy cases, as well as international cases, the legitimacy of stakeholder representatives is a more critical issue; thus, the convening process takes longer. At the local level it is fairly easy to identify respected leaders, whereas, with larger conflicts, the convener must take the time to ensure that participants are legitimate in the eyes of those they represent and in the eyes of other negotiating stakeholders.
The ongoing intractable conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians provides a perfect example of the importance of representative legitimacy. From the beginnings of the conflict, Israeli officials have debated which Palestinian leaders to negotiate with. In the early 1980s they hoped that Palestinian leaders from the West Bank would be chosen as the true representatives of the Palestinian people. However, by the end of the 1980s the Palestine Liberation Organization, with Yassir Arafat at its head, had developed control over Palestinian affairs. Finally, in 1993, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin negotiated a peace accord with PLO leaders, including Arafat, in Oslo. That it took almost a quarter century for the two sides to reach the negotiating table shows how difficult it can be to convene negotiations in an international conflict. It is highly unlikely that the same delay would occur at the local or national level.
Four Steps of the Convening Process
The first major step is to assess the situation. This requires carrying out a number of specific tasks, the first of which is to determine precisely what the convener seeks to accomplish. What are his/her goals? Is it to solicit information? To provide information? To de-escalate a situation, consult on an issue, or seek advice? Or is it to suggest and initiate a specific conflict resolution process such as mediation or consensus building?
Assessment also requires that, at the outset of the convening effort, the convener identifies and clearly defines the issues, taking into consideration the differing views of various stakeholders. S/he then frames the issues in such a way that all parties understand them and are open to working with the convener. Accomplishing this helps the group work more efficiently. If issues are not clarified well, time is wasted due to confusion and frustration. The convener should also carefully examine the context of the dispute. He should know the limits of his authority and also who is supposed to formalize and implement any agreement that may be reached by the convened group. The convener must know whether the decision-making organization or agency will support decisions reached through alternative processes such as mediation or consensus building.
Identifying all interested (key) stakeholders is probably the most important aspect of the assessment process. The convener's top concern in identifying and inviting stakeholders to a meeting is to make sure everyone who should be involved is so. S/he must ask questions such as: "Who is affected by the issues?" "Who will implement agreements?" "Who could possibly block an agreement?" "What is the past history between stakeholders?" "What are the power dynamics between them and how can they be effectively managed to ensure a balanced process?"
The convener must also determine what potential resource needs will arise during the actual negotiation process. For example, the group may require certain types of expert or specialized information, or a professional facilitator may be needed as well as support staff. Next, the convener must determine if and how these needs can be met. The conclusion to this inquiry obviously effects the ultimate decision of whether or not to actually convene the stakeholders: an ill-equipped negotiation process jeopardizes the hopes for agreement. However, resource needs are only one potential obstacle to negotiation. The process may also be aborted if key stakeholders refuse to participate in the process.
Once key stakeholders and stakeholder groups are identified, the convener must then work with them to decide who will actually participate in the meeting. They must decide on their representatives, but it is up to the convener to make sure that these individuals truly represent the members of their group. The convener is responsible for ensuring that key parties are sufficiently and legitimately represented and have the resources and capacity to participate effectively in the decision making process.
The third major step is to locate the necessary resources to carry out the convening. In other words, the convener is charged with developing a funding strategy. The convener's first move may be to research philanthropic or governmental agencies in order to find sources of funding. If the convener is a government official or agency there may already be funds available to carry out a decision making process. At the international level convening may be sponsored by a state government or even the United Nations. Most small scale situations demand that the convener locate and apply for funding, usually in the form of grants.
The final step of the convening process is to organize and plan the dispute resolution process which will begin with the initial meeting the convener has organized. Ground rules must be established and agreed upon, and agenda set, and a strategic plan developed. A key to this part of the convener's job is to make sure that the agreements reached will be linked or incorporated into official decision-making structures (e.g. government). For example, many consensus-building processes take place outside of such formal decision-making structures. Therefore, the convener must make sure that formal decision making mechanisms are linked to the more informal process. That is the only way for the work of the consensus process to reach formal and legitimate implementation. Of course, in the case of more formal conflict resolution negotiations, for example reaching a peace accord, it is likely that the proper structure of governance will be readily identifiable and maybe even involved in the convening process itself.