Montag, 28. September 2009

it takes two

It takes two for tango. It takes at least two for a peaceful settlement.

Because,as we all know, each side needs a strong pillar, a personality firmly anchored in its constituency and highly regarded for his/her unifying power, the charisma and credibility. Without such a beacon of identification and encouragement on both sides there can be no true negotiation, no lasting solution. If, in addition to his/her "domestic strength", each pillar also has the capacity to change perspectives and to develop an understanding for the other side, then the mediation process is really off for a good start.

It takes two. Sometimes we need to be reminded of such basics. For me the theme got reactivated last week when the russian president dmitri medwedew was in berne for a two day state visit on his way to the UN general assembly and to the meeting of the G8. He made a beautiful gift to our city. He brought along a couple of young bears, misha and masha (see the picture above). The bear being one of the archaic symbols of berne, this gift was a charming gesture, and the bernese were delighted.

Beyond symbolism, I was attentive to the political messages of medwedew. Just a few days before the visit, president barack obama had announced that the US would not persue their plans to build a missile shield in eastern europe any further. So in one of the interviews president medwedew gave to the swiss media, he was asked how russia would respond to the american move. This is what he replied: "with barack obama we really would like to construct new relationships". And he went on to explain:"when our partners listen to our concerns then we will also meet their concerns more attentively ".

The power of listenting. It takes two.

We can find many examples of this basic prerequisite, all around the globe. Take turkey, the quest for a peaceful solution with the curds. There are signs of opening now due to new initiatives being fostered by the two pillars. In a recent speech, prime minister erdogan expressed his feelings for the suffering of the mothers who lost their sons in the conflict. He showed empathy for the mothers on both sides. It appears that the imprisoned leader of the curds, abdullah öcalan, is also preparing a new move.

The power of empathy.

Or take zimbabwe, where the two pillars, mugabe and tsvangirai, have finally agreed to cooperate in a highly risky arrangement of power sharing. How is this possible after all the atrocities? How can tsvangirai recognize the importance of his opponent as a "stabilizor"? He speaks of the fragile beginnings of a personal relationship. "As you know I have gone through some personal tragedies in recent times. And this man has shown empathy. So I realized that there is a personal factor...".

Fragile beginnings. It takes two. As mediators we must always be aware that both sides must be empowered. As our baobab motto says: responding to conflict through empowerment and recognition.

Many thanks to dmitri medwedew for his wonderful gift. Let's hope that our grandchildren when they go and see the two bears will also be told the story of the two pillars and that it takes two for peace.

Yours in mediation

geri baobab

Mittwoch, 17. Juni 2009

a fresh new green

Dear friends,

long time no message on this blog. Today I would like to greet you with this picture of Iranian women demonstrating for a democratic opening.

How does it make you feel?

I feel encouraged. Envigorated. Ready to continue the journey.

Some of you might object.
As mediators we do not take sides. Our job is to develop empathy for all sides and to facilitate the search for common ground. Yes, and our job is also to see the early signs of opening, to make them more visible, sometimes even to highlight them.

In his book "Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution" (2001), Kenneth Cloke offers a list of alternative definitions of conflict. I quote one such definition which I consider particularly relevant in this context:

"Conflict is often a result of secrets, concealments, confusions, conflicting messages, cover-ups, and what we have failed to communicate. Conflict hides in the shadows. When one of the parties throws a light on it, it disappears." (p.7)

I see the fresh new green of the Iranian movement bringing in more light on a dark landscape. It will help us in the search for a better dialogue that we all need so badly, at home and in the world.

geri baobab

Dienstag, 20. Januar 2009

search for common ground

My friend Noa gave a party yesterday, on January 20, 2009. She wanted to celebrate that auspicious day. She is convinced that with the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States we are entering a new era of cultural development.
Noa is a senior mediator. She also writes political science fiction as a means for stimulating peoples imagination to engage in constructive dialogue. When during his election campaign Obama promised that he would also talk to the enemy, Noa felt encouraged to draft "The First Conversation between President Obama and President Ahmadinejad". (see her website on )
I share Noa's conviction. I did my own reading of Barack Obama. Both his books became a deep source of inspiration to me. In his first book, "Dreams from my Father", written in his early thirties, he describes how he grew up as a nomad between different cultures, how the many different exposures have formed his character, his search for identity, the need for community and social engagement. He also tells the story of his first visit to his father's homeland, Kenya. (That's where I found the beautiful baobab quote which we adopted for our New Year's greetings on this blog). In Obama's second book, "The Audacity of Hope", he focuses more on political themes as encountered during his first years as a US senator. The book contains a chapter on "values" and that's where I came across a passage that is most relevant to our concern as mediators. In a moving hommage to his mother, he tells how she showed him the value of empathy. Let me take the full quote:
"Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother. She disdained any kind of cruelty or thoughtlessness or abuse of power, whether it expressed itself in the form of racial prejudice or bullying in the schoolyard or workers being underpaid. Whenever she saw even a hint of such behavior in me she would look me square in the eyes and ask, 'How do you think that would make you feel?' (...) It is not a question we ask ourselves enough, I think; as a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit. (...) I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves. (...) That's what empathy does - it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision. No one is exempt from the call to find common ground." (p.66-68)
That's mediation culture, indeed. The development of empathy. The changing of perspectives. The search for what we have in common. And finally, in the best case, win-win solutions. To know that such values are now anchored in the top leadership is really good reason to celebrate.
I know an American NGO that has named itself "Search for Common Ground" . The name is the programme. All they want to achieve is in that name. When I first heard the name I felt a strong attraction. It was during the nineties when I worked with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). I was then in charge of its humanitarian aid division for Africa, confronted with the sufferings caused by complex emergencies in many parts of the continent. I often felt that in such crisis people were searching for more than just relief goods. So when I heard of "Search for Common Ground" I wanted to meet them to see if we could join hands for more meaningful relief and development work. We discovered a lot of common ground, and we combined our resources in various programs in Liberia, Burundi, Angola. We worked with young media professionals and artists to build bridges through inter-ethnic communications.

One key teaching that I learned from this partnership is the principle "understand the differences- act on the commonalities". It is guiding my mediation work.
If you would like to know more about "Search for Common Ground" go to their website on
So much for this auspicious day. Let's seize the new opportunities and carry on the search.

geri baobab

Freitag, 2. Januar 2009

baobab quote of the year

"Eventually, the rain stopped, and we found ourselves looking on a barren landscape of gravel and shrub and the occasional baobab tree, its naked, searching branches decorated with the weaver bird's spherical nests. I remembered reading somewhere that the baobab could go for years without flowering, surviving on the sparsest of rainfall; and seeing the trees there in the hazy afternoon light, I understood why men believed they possessed a special power - that they housed ancestral spirits and demons, that humankind first appeared under such a tree. It wasn't merely the oddness of their shape, their almost prehistoric outline against the stripped down sky. 'They look as if each one could tell a story,' Auma said, and it was true, each tree seemed to possess a character, a character neither benevolent nor cruel but simply enduring, with secrets whose depths I would never plumb, a wisdom I would never pierce. They both disturbed and comforted me, those trees that looked as if they might uproot themselves and simply walk away, were it not for the knowledge that on this earth one place is not so different from another - the knowledge that one moment carries within it all that's gone on before."

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father (p.436)

baobab mediation wishes you a happy and peaceful New Year. A year of empowerment and recognition.