What is voice?

"Voice" refers to the ability to engage in meaningful conversation, to make a difference through what one says, and to have a say in key decisions. According to John Paul Lederach, voice centers on inclusive conversations that are grounded in "mutuality, understanding and accessibility". 

When parties have a voice, their viewpoints, thoughts, and feelings receive a "fair hearing" and are readily recognized by others.  They possess the capacity to make an impact, both on their own personal situation as well as the broader struggle, through their actions and words. This need to be heard and recognized is connected to people's sense of justice and their desire for validation.

This capacity to "have a say" may amount to having a seat at the negotiating table (or being adequately represented by someone who does), an opportunity to hold office, a chance to vote, or an opportunity to provide input into important decisions. At the local level, gaining a voice may mean serving as a representative on planning boards and committees within one's community.

Those whose voices are most often silenced include women, minority groups, indigenous peoples, and the poor.

Why is Voice Important?

Costs of Denying Voice:

In societies where there is protracted, violent conflict, the public sphere is typically divided along social, economic, and political lines and certain groups are excluded from opportunities to participate in political processes. When control of the state is captured by a small group of elites, many individuals' capacity for political influence is often undermined. In short, because members of the public cannot engage effectively in political dialogue or have input into decision-making, they lack a genuine voice.

If parties to a conflict are excluded from negotiations or other decision-making processes, or their voices are overlooked and ignored, they are likely to become dissatisfied with that process. This exacerbates public mistrust  undermines the legitimacy of any agreements reached, and may well hamper implementation of those agreements. Parties left out of the negotiations may challenge the decision in court (if one is available), or simply refuse to comply with the agreement. They may even oppose the agreement violently, acting as "spoilers." In addition, if the terms of peace are simply imposed on the population, this may perpetuate traditional power structures rather than bringing about social change.

Benefits of Granting Voice:

For those who are marginalized, excluded, and/or disenfranchised, voice is a source of empowerment. Having a voice is closely linked to notions of self-determinationand autonomy and the ability to have a say in important decisions. The capacity to influence important decisions restores one's sense that one is capable of handling life's problems and is able to transform detrimental social policies, structures, and surroundings. When all those most affected by the conflict have a voice in open and inclusive decision-making, this fosters conflict transformation and the consolidation of peace. Peacemaking and peacebuilding processes that are informed by diverse points of view may contribute to a more lasting and stable peace.

Representation as Voice:

Of course, it is impossible for hundreds or thousands of people to be directly involved in negotiations or key decisions. Being adequately represented in the decision-making process is typically sufficient to give parties a sense of voice. This requires that representatives keep their constituencies well informed about the negotiation process, collect dissenting views, and attempt to ensure that these diverse views are addressed during negotiations.  When this is done carefully, large groups of people can feel that they were involved and had a say in negotiations. As a result, they are more likely to support and facilitate the implementation of any decisions that have been made.

As a cautionary note, it is important to point out that some institutions have opened spaces for participation as a way to silence their critics. Although these efforts appear at first to give diverse individuals a chance to make themselves heard, in fact there may be little opportunity for parties to have a real influence on policy and decision-making processes. [5] Whether granting parties a seat at the negotiating table or allowing them to provide input truly give parties a voice depends on the nature of the participation involved. If participation is only for the purposes of consultation, without a clear idea of what will be done with the opinions and information gathered, parties' views may carry little weight. Simply participating is often not enough for marginalized parties to transform existing power relations. There must be genuine opportunities to influence the agenda and decision-making.

Increasing Parties' Voice

There are a variety of ways that marginalized and/or less powerful individuals can gain influence over important decisions.

First, people sometimes gain a greater voice in policy decisions through coalition formation and organization. An organization or coalition gives people a way of expressing their group needs in a way that alters power relations and may be harder to ignore. Forming coalitions is one of the central ways that disempowered parties can have a say in key decisions and advance their interests. Environmental groups in the United States, for example, have often formed coalitions to gain a political voice and influence policy making. Unions have used collective bargaining as a way to gain leverage in labor policies and contracts. Similarly, networking among civil society groups, NGOs, and community organizations may help citizens and communities to build their power base and influence important decisions.

In the context of peacemaking, negotiators can meet with their constituency groups throughout the negotiation process to report on progress made, determine felt needs, and ascertain community support for potential provisions of an agreement. Efforts can and should be made to reach out to all constituency groups: the powerful and traditionally disempowered, the politically active constituents and the "bystanders." Possible ways to do this include consultation meetings at the community level and the placement of collection boxes in public spaces where people can contribute written suggestions. Some other mechanisms that seek to mobilize broad public engagement are national peace conferences, civil societyassemblies, and referendums.

In national conferences, for example, a broad cross-section of the population can help to formulate proposals and make decisions about constitutional changes or the content of peace agreements. In the long-term, establishing civil society assemblies and civic forums helps to enable ongoing public participation.

Third, it is crucial that there be wide public involvement in the peacebuilding process. In many instances, the viewpoints of local actors are marginalized during peacemaking processes. The design of agreements and implementation of solutions are simply imposed from the outside by external actors. One way to encourage public participation and grant local actors a greater voice in shaping peacebuilding processes is through grassroots process design. [10] This approach looks to people living in local settings to provide insight about how to identify and manage problems and formulate their own goals for the future. It emphasizes the importance of granting local actors a voice in the decision-making bodies that decide what course development will take. As active participants, people at the grassroots level gain ownership of peacebuilding processes and become "stakeholders" in the measures meant to assist them. In its most advanced form, grassroots process design aims to promote structures that increase the level of community participation in planning, managing, and supervising peacebuilding processes. This includes active engagement in needs assessment, project design and project evaluation. Two common community mobilization strategies that give local people a voice in the design and implementation of peacebuilding processes are community leaders' workshops and participatory planning. To a large extent, grassroots process design is rooted in an "elicitive" approach to conflict. This approach seeks to empower under-represented individuals to voice their cultural traditions and thereby provide external actors with in-depth local knowledge about the history and root causes of the conflict and the different actors involved.

Fourth, it is important to note that voice is linked to the principles of democracy and the establishment of democratic institutions. Various methods of inclusive governance and nation building can give diverse members of the population a chance to be heard. These include democratic processes of constitution making, elections, and political autonomy for local governments and councils. Increasing meaningful public participation, particularly among those from marginalized groups, is a powerful way to ensure that parties have input into important decisions. Genuine participation requires social inclusion and freedom of speech and assembly, both of which are grounded in a strong civil society and civic education.

One way to foster public participation is through a democratic constitution making process that allows citizens to play a role in setting the agenda, electing a constitutional convention, and ratifying constitutional text. In many instances, constitution making is confined exclusively to "negotiations among elites who draft texts behind closed doors." [13] Such processes make it difficult for new participants and ordinary citizens to have an equal voice in the democratic process. Allowing citizens to have a say in the writing of the constitution is important, in part, because it sets a precedent for an open and inclusive government over the long term. Ensuring that all those with views and grievances to express have an effective voice is also a significant means of conflict transformation. In general, it is important that representatives of civil society and non-combatant groups have some say in the design and implementation of peacemaking and peacebuilding agendas.

Fifth, there are various communication processes that seek to address the issue of voice. In dialogue processes, for example, participants sit in a circle so that they can communicate directly. It is crucial that all participants be heard and that they speak openly and listen attentively so that each participant can have an equal voice in the conversation. Dialogue "seeks to produce recognition of the opponents' legitimate interests, respect for their beliefs and experiences, and increase the understanding of both sides' underlying beliefs and values."  Respectful conversations help to ensure that people feel that their views have been adequately represented and considered and that their ideas have been recognized. It gives parties a chance to voice their feelings about each other and their conflict.

Listening plays a key role in fostering parties' sense of voice. By listening closely to what others say, parties recognize one another and acknowledge one another's interests and needs Through genuine listening, parties can validate each other's experience and create a sense that everyone's thoughts and feelings have been heard.

The central goals of transformative mediation are empowerment and recognition. Processes are meant to provide a forum where parties can talk about their problem with a neutral third party, present and clarify their concerns, and discuss how they want these concerns to be addressed. As they freely express their emotions and thoughts about past events, parties begin to see and understand one another's point of view. In some instances, being heard and recognized by the other side is all that is needed to reach mutual satisfaction. Success is not measured in terms of the settlement reached, but rather in terms of the degree to which mediation fosters parties' empowerment and transformation.

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.