Archive | January, 2014

Geneva II: Two cheers for conflict management

27 Jan

Most observers (including myself) were extremely skeptical of the prospects of the Geneva II talks on Syria. The combatants and their supporters seem locked in a war of attrition. Neither side can deliver a knock-out blow, and they seem convinced that the battlefield (that is, towns, villages, schools) offers opportunities for advancement. Moreover, the Geneva II talks looked set for a bad start after the ‘un-invitation’ of Iran. As the adage says, you make peace with your enemies, not your friends, and so it seemed nonsensical to exclude from talks the significant backer of the Assad regime. And finally, the Islamic fundamentalists were not at the talks (not invited but unlikely to accept an invitation if one was offered). Instead, the ‘Syrian opposition’ was represented by a pretty unrepresentative bunch of discontents: acceptable to the US and its allies, but with limited credibility among those at the coalface of opposition to Assad.

So the prospects for the talks were poor. The various sides spent the run up to the talks setting down preconditions that seemed designed to ensure that the talks would fail. But something interesting has happened. While there has been no major breakthrough on the fundamental issue at the heart of the conflict, it does seem as though agreement has been reached to allow safe passage for civilians to escape Homs. There has also been talk of an exchange of prisoners (or more precisely, hostages). Of course, it is wise to be circumspect about this. Reaching an agreement is not the same as respecting it, and we have seen plenty of bad faith on all sides. But the principle that the conflict is to be regulated for the protection of civilians is an important one. If lives are saved and improved then we can say that Geneva II has been a success.

It bears reiterating that any praise for the Geneva II talks must be swathed in caveats. Follow-through is required to turn words into deeds. Yet, it could be that agreement on Homs paves the way for other agreements, perhaps on the types of weapons deployed or safe passage for the injured. It could be that the process of negotiation allows the negotiators to develop working relationships that bear fruit down the line. All of this is highly conditional, but without optimism and the notion that humans can develop a better way of doing things, then it is difficult to see how any conflict can reach a negotiated settlement.

It is common to criticize conflict management as being limited when compared with conflict transformation. And it is limited – aiming to merely manage (and thus accept) conflict rather than challenge and transform it. Conflict transformation is by far a superior approach to conflict. But it may be the case that circumstances only allow for the most limited of changes. The outcome of Geneva II leaves the tyrannical Assad in place. It does not address the structural issues at the heart of the conflict and the wider regional sickness. Maybe we should be thankful for small mercies, while hoping that larger ones will come along in the future.

Don’t care: Why opinion polls should have a ‘don’t care’ option.

21 Jan

Despite the protestations of politicians, opinion polls matter. If they did not matter political parties would not invest so much money and energy into testing out policy stances via polls and focus groups. But there is a curious aspect of opinion polls that seems to be lacking: the ‘don’t care’ option. Many polls have a ‘don’t know’ option. This is understandable. People may not have made up their minds on which party to vote for, or which side of an argument they prefer. Or they may feel that they do not have enough information and so cannot make a choice.

Indeed, the ‘don’t knows’ are particularly sought after at election time. Evidence from a number of states in the global north shows that electioneering makes little difference: most voters have decided who to vote for long before election day and will not change their minds regardless of whatever campaign promises/stunts made by politicians. This means that campaign managers often concentrate on a relatively small group of ‘don’t knows’. These swing voters can decide elections.

But it is simply wrong for opinion pollsters to record respondents as being comprised of people who have an opinion and people who have yet to make up their minds. There is another category that deserves recognition in opinion surveys: the don’t cares. It might be surprising to political junkies, but many people are simply not interested in public issues. This constituency is not necessarily apathetic and uncaring. Its members may be occupied by other things. After all, there is a limit to the range of issues that we can have an interest in or an opinion on. People may reach the ‘don’t care’ option after much consideration. For example, they may regard the political system as being structurally deficient and see the range of choices (political parties and leaders) as being much the same. In such a scenario, the survey respondent might ‘not care’ who is elected in that they are unconvinced how they vote will make any difference.

There is, of course, good reason why many of those who commission polls do not want the ‘don’t care’ option to be made available to survey respondents: it might be very embarrassing. It would reinforce the evidence that there is a substantial constituency who are uninspired by political, economic and cultural leaders and policies. For example, if a survey were to ask: ‘Who would you like to be prime minister/president?’ and a sizeable portion of respondents said ‘don’t care’, what does this tell us about political leaders and their ability to inspire? Yet, the respondents who opted for ‘don’t care’ may have reached that position after much thought. They are basically saying ‘a plague on all your houses’.