4 ways to support reconciliation: Lessons from Rwanda and Liberia

International Alert’s work supporting people to find peaceful solutions to conflict can be roughly divided into two strands. One strand involves working with communities to improve relations between people and the state. This often means bringing together communities with local and national authorities to discuss improving the accessibility and quality of public services.

The other strand is about supporting reconciliation within and between communities.

Reconciliation projects in Rwanda and Liberia that came to an end in recent years provide an opportunity to identify good practice in this area of International Alert’s work. Based on our experience in Rwanda, where the Healing fractured lives project ran between 2007 and 2016, and in Liberia, where the Strengthening civil society’s role in national reconciliation and dealing with the past project ran between 2012 and 2015, we can identify four elements of good practice in reconciliation programming, which are worth sharing more widely:

1. Creating local ownership

Reconciliation is fundamentally a personal process. Even at societal or national level it depends on changes in how people, individually and collectively, perceive others and issues that affect them. Therefore, it has to move at a speed and cover subjects determined by participants themselves - they know better than anyone what they want from the process and how far it can go.

In both Rwanda and Liberia, International Alert and its local partners supported local ownership by training community members to become organisers and facilitators of discussions on reconciliation themes. In Rwanda, this meant creating reconciliation specialists from both survivors and perpetrators of genocide. These specialists modelled good relationships for the dialogue participants and in turn were sustained in their efforts at reconciliation by witnessing improved relations amongst those taking part in dialogue.

2. Linking the local with the national

While the need for reconciliation is often most evident at the very local level amongst communities (think, for example, of Northern Ireland’s remaining ‘peace’ walls dividing distinct sectarian communities), the issues at stake are often indivisible from national politics and economics, or wider structural issues.

Acknowledging this in local reconciliation activities and linking these, in a way deemed appropriate to participants, to national concerns and national reconciliation agendas and processes therefore makes sense. In Liberia, International Alert explicitly linked the local and the national. This made the official national reconciliation agenda accessible to marginalised communities, and aimed to feed the views and priorities of these communities back to government agencies so that this process was influenced by what community members felt was important.

This was a challenging approach: in Liberia, as in many countries, the elites that control national policy are not easily influenced by NGOs, or the general public.

3. Providing psychological support

Some participants in both of the reconciliation projects had experienced acts of violence, dispossession and alienation from society. Many were left traumatised and with mental health problems as a result.

These experiences of conflict and their psychological impacts can be a barrier to people taking part in reconciliation processes and are likely to represent a significant risk of ‘doing harm’ during implementation.

In Rwanda, International Alert and its partners provided trauma healing to participants through therapy groups and individual counselling. A specialised psychosocial service provider supported this element and took referrals of those participants with greater psychological support needs. Participants were able to deal with their trauma, understand their emotions and reactions, and mentally prepare themselves to take part in dialogue sessions. A key learning from this experience is that participants who need psychological support are likely to benefit from receiving it before they take part in other activities.

4. Doing more than talking

While getting antagonistic or opposed groups talking is essential for the change in relationships at the heart of reconciliation, discussion does not necessarily create opportunities for changes in behaviour that can cement and sustain changed thinking.

Combining dialogue with practical activities that get diverse participants working together towards a shared goal creates this space, and allows for observable change in personal interaction that will signify transformed relationships.

In the Rwanda project, joint economic activities were undertaken by ‘solidarity groups’ made up of a mix of participants. These groups received micro-finance loans to undertake small economic activities together, creating 192 micro-businesses such as livestock husbandry, small-scale agribusiness and hairdressing, that generated income and savings.

In Liberia, some participants in dialogue sessions led by International Alert’s partners took it upon themselves to solve small-scale conflicts in their communities. In both cases these are powerful demonstrations of better relationships being built.

Photo: Patricia, a genocide survivor and participant in International Alert's dialogue workshop in Rwanda. © Carol Allen-Storey for International Alert