If change requires both cooperation and conflict, can we really do both?

April 10, 2012 10 By admin

I’ve been thinking about my recent trip to Honduras, how change happens, and the discussions there (and with some other country teams since then) about what I am calling the ‘cooperation-conflict cycle’ (see pic). The default mode in Oxfam and most large NGOs is generally uncomfortable with conflict, but research by John Gaventa and others shows that conflict is an essential part of many processes of progressive social change.

conflict cooperation cycle

This cycle is drawn from Jonathan Fox’s work on ‘transitions to accountability’ in Mexico. Fox found that progress depended on a cycle cooperation-two-mulesof conflict and cooperation – a conflict would break out, and then a more progressive section of local state officials would talk to more approachable protest leaders and a period of reform would ensue. When those reforms ran out of steam, or new issues emerged, conflict would reemerge and the whole cycle would start again in a process of ‘interaction between the thickening of civil society and state reformist initiatives’.

If true, and assuming that NGOs see their role as subsidiary, (i.e. they are not the main actor in the drama) this theory of change poses some serious challenges. If they want to be present and playing a constructive role over the whole cycle, NGOs may need to use very different tactics and language in the conflict and cooperation phases, and forge different alliances and partnerships.

In the conflict phase, the language and tactics will probably need to be more polarised and confrontational (us and them, good guys and bad etc), and the alliances are likely to be more horizontal – pulling together a large network of civil society organizations around some common aims, perhaps with some support from alternative media and radical churches.

By contrast, in the cooperation phase, the language and tactics will need to be more constructive and propositional, and avoid alienating potential supporters in other camps. Alliances will need to be forged with actors in other spheres (local state officials, politicians, private sector). Even media and church alliances may need to be different, pulling in more mainstream, conservative fractions than in the conflict stage.

But can the same organization really do both, moving coherently from one to the other and back again? Staff tend to opt for one or the other, and find it hard to change gears. Loyalty to allies in one phase will inhibit moving to the next. And life is of course a lot messier than the ‘cycle’ suggests, with conflict and cooperation both present at most points in a change process. 

conflict GuatemalaWhat to do? In practice, I suspect a lot of NGOs and others tacitly opt for a division of labour – they either specialize in the conflict phase or the cooperative phase. But that may mean a lot of wasted effort when the cycle swings the other way.

Not sure if this is so abstract as to be virtually meaningless – do you recognize any of these issues from your own work?

Oops, just posted this by mistake. Sorry to post twice in a day – will take a day off tomorrow out of consideration for your inboxes.