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

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.

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10 Responses to “If change requires both cooperation and conflict, can we really do both?”
  1. I suppose Unions in general do both: you have your set of principles on which you don’t compromise, and thus are prepared to go in conflict for. You have some strategic activities, like a fight for better wages and there you do compromise.

    This post is very disconcerting to me. I do suspect that some NGOs are brought to the table in consensus building efforts because they are more malleable to power than the real representatives of the poor. Et tu, Oxfam?

    A working democracy is nearly in all countries based on choices and conflict. I know there is in politically correct development a lot of holistic, consensus building, Ujamaa, Kumbaya and Country driven development, but nobody who has ever been treated unfairly in kindergarten believes that stuff, do you?

    Power and rights are never given, they are in the real world won through struggle.

  2. Ed Cairns

    Hi Duncan, it’s worth noting that this doesn’t suggest that violent conflict is necessarily part of that progressive conflict-cooperation cycle. I’d argue that it seldom – though sometimes – is. But perhaps that’s another debate…

  3. Caroline Sweetman

    Interesting stuff Duncan – to we gender and development specialists, co-operation and conflict were first linked by Amartya Sen way back in the 1980s when he studied intra-household economics and conceptualised marital relationships as relationships of co-operation and conflict – the bargaining model which resulted from this work discusses social change in terms of one’s perceived and actual contribution and worth, one’s relative strength in bargaining and decision-making depending on the relative strength of one’s fall-back position – there’s an interesting afternoon to be spent relating your insights from this very different literature to the sphere of intra-household relations between the sexes and linking them to Sen’s earlier insights… sadly not MY afternoon today though it’s sorely tempting. See Sen, A, (1990), ‘Gender and Co-Operative Conflicts’, in Tinker, I, (ed), Persistent Inequalities, Oxford University Press: Oxford… cheers

  4. Alex

    If the period of conflict is for an extended time- like Nigeria under Abacha- it can be especially difficult for NGOs to make the movement towards a more collaborative approach once change happens. This saw the demise of some of the more successful oppositional movements in Nigeria- such as the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO).

    An interesting test case is Malawi right now, with the move from one (authoritarian?) President to another (more liberal?) one. Opportunities for reform and positive change are there for those who are able to forge new alliances, but these windows of opportunity can be limited, and if NGOs cannot adapt quickly, then there is a risk they will miss them.

    Probably this is a very simplistic model, but it does reflect the need for NGOs to be adaptable and consider what the best way to achieve their end is in different circumstances, rather than be fixated on one means of getting there.

  5. Tracey

    This model also fits well with the U-process of change (Chapter 5 of The Barefoot Guide to Organisations & Social Change http://www.barefootguide.org) Conflict can be transformative and we have lots to learn from organisations working in conflict transformation and peacebuilding in working in this context. I think being aware of where you are in the cycle and that you need different behaviours is enormously helpful – but sadly organisational systems and standards often emphasise one ‘good practice model’.

  6. jickemp

    What are the indicators that the next stage is more or less likely to happen? How can CSOs fuel progress towards more cooperative dynamics as well as identify when the influence we can bring is negligible (and maybe a waste of resources)?

    If we can anticipate shifts we might be better placed to manage organisational and personal changes required for effective positive changes. There must be a good set of organisations like International Crisis Group who could provide data to help develop a useful tool?

  7. P Baker

    I’m a bit surprised by this – as if something new has been discovered. Hegel and Marx have quite a lot to say about this, as does Schumpeter with his ‘perennial gale of creative destruction as the essential fact about capitalism. ‘It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. ‘

    Indeed you could say that it’s a fundamental theme of ecological resilience theory too, with the omega phase of reconstruction being the resolution of a conflict – e.g. an ecosystem being overwhelmed by a destructive event.

    So it’s back to complex systems again! You have to look at any situation as a system, then you can hopefully see the problems coming, decrease the feedback delays, and put in extra ones to stabilize it so that the risk of catastrophic conflict is reduced. In fact you show a diagram of a system, but it’s hopelessly vague; so ditch the dev-speak and dig out Beinhocker’s book.

    It’s all sturm und drang really Duncan – and yes some NGOs are far too passive, they unwittingly pander to what donors and governments want to hear so that the funds keep rolling in…

    • Duncan

      all true, and I often think about creative destruction, and how NGOs can handle the first word, but not the second – future post on infrastructure will delve into that a bit more. As for complex systems, had a fascinating conversation about that yesterday – will try and write it up for tomorrow

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