Solving conflicts has become increasingly difficult in recent years. But despite the emergence of modern challenges, and a wealth of research on how tackle them, little has changed in terms of how mediation is conducted. There is a gap between mediation guidelines and the actual work carried out in the field. How can we develop the support for mediation practitioners? In short, how can we strengthen the quality of mediation? By Stine Lehmann-Larsen

Solving conflicts has become increasingly difficult in recent years. The conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen have evolved into protracted, complex crises with a multitude of armed actors whose objectives and motivations are notoriously rigid, elusive or even nihilistic. The resulting societal breakdowns have displaced people on an almost unprecedented scale despite the international community’s long and costly efforts to reach negotiated settlements. The mediation community however is scrambling to respond sufficiently to these types of modern conflicts. In fact, little has changed in terms of how mediation is carried out in conflict zones. The question for us is simple: How can we better support and equip mediators? How can we strengthen the quality of mediation?

A continued professionalization of the field of mediation is vital to challenge existing practices. We need to identify good practices and find new and better ways of operating in the field. Most importantly, it is necessary to set standards for more systematic practice - both when conflict is merely looming and when it is peaking. We need to think about how and when external actors should engage but also how mediators approach and structure their interventions.

A booming mediation sector

Over time, many professions such as law, medicine, and teaching have evolved from informal bodies of knowledge and skills, into recognized vocations. Through this evolution, the different professions introduced the means to test practitioners’ knowledge, their adherence to certain criteria, standards and policies, and their ability to demonstrate relevant skills.

The resolution of conflict - as practiced over time - has by its very nature been a political activity carried out by diplomats, politicians or other representatives of governments, most of whom had a stake in the outcome of the conflict. Other actors, such as religious groups or other parts of civil society, have often played the role of trusted intermediaries between conflict groups.

However, over the past two decades we have also seen a significant increase in the number and variety of actors involved in conflict prevention and resolution. Today, a plethora of mediation options and services are available for conflict parties. But ‘beneficiaries’ of mediation, unlike those of teaching, law and medicine, rarely have contact with those that practice mediation on their behalf. Such lack of contact raises difficult questions of accountability and quality given the issues at stake – those of life and death and of future generations. Thus, while mediation is now a common practice – indeed some consider it almost a profession – much remains to be done to improve and safeguard the quality of it.

A gap between theory and practice

Significant efforts have been made to formalise the practice of mediation, including the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation or guidelines on good mediation practice such as the UN Peacemaker Library.

Despite plenty of research, a problematic gap between policy and practice remains that prevents the field from evolving. Some argue that the guidelines developed are too detached from the field. Policy researchers have been encouraged to fine-tune their output to the specific needs of mediators. A disconnect between analysis and practice remains widespread.

Another gap between theoretical guidelines and the actual practice of mediation is linked to behavioral change. Mediation support specialists struggle to make practitioners embrace new guidelines. This may be a question of how people learn new skills but it also may be linked to the 'ownership' of said guidelines. If mediation practitioners were to develop guidelines for issues they encounter, mediation guidelines could become more relevant and applicable. In short, they would be guidelines for practitioners by practitioners.

To address these challenges, the EIP is launching its Mediation Quality Programme (MQP). The aim is to strengthen the quality of mediation and provide practitioners and the broader mediation community with good practices for mediation. We will do this by putting experienced mediation practitioners at the very centre of the process, drawing on their wisdom to bring mediation into the 21st century.

You can read more about this new EIP programme here. Also, make sure to follow this blog over the coming weeks and months to learn more about mediation - and how to improve it.