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U.S.: NGO Finds Niche In Conflict Resolution

By Terry Willey

An American nongovernmental organization has found a niche for itself in helping citizens of formerly communist countries to resolve disputes. The agency, Partners for Democratic Change, has 10 offices in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union to help locals develop skills for managing disagreements.

San Francisco, 19 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A recent physical confrontation involving three people in a coffee bar in the Kosovar city of Mitrovica threatened to escalate into violence that endangered the lives of some 60 people in two extended families. Nobody called the police, but the dispute was defused after one family member turned to the local office of a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.

The peacemakers were mediators from Partners for Democratic Change, a U.S.-based group that works with local governments, communities, and nongovernmental organizations to resolve disputes and build consensus on legal, social, and economic issues.

Partners for Democratic Change (PDC) was set up in 1989 after the revolutions that ended communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe. Besides Kosovo, among formerly communist countries, the organization has centers in Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

Jennifer Lofing, the associate director of the organization's international division, has spent the past year setting up PDC's newest centers in Kosovo and Albania. She said the incident in Mitrovica was typical of the disputes PDC deals with in Kosovo. She said minor disputes often escalate very quickly into violence involving threats against large extended families. "Many people don't trust the government enough to allow it to be the exclusive arbiter of justice and that's why they turn to Partners for Democratic Change for help."

Lofing told RFE/RL that PDC addresses issues and emotions that courts usually cannot handle: "Partners hopes that by providing people with an alternative to a decision between the courts or vigilante justice, its mediation service can be an integral part of the development of rule of law in Kosovo and also create space for the development of a respect for the official justice system over time."

In its 13 years of operation, PDC has expanded its role to provide services not only in mediating conflicts, but also in strengthening other nongovernmental organizations, and creating programs promoting ethnic conciliation, environmental awareness, and women's and children's rights.

Raymond Shonholtz, the founder and president of PDC, says the organization works well because it is not centrally controlled. He told RFE/RL that after initial training provided by experts from the United States, each center is managed and staffed by local professionals from their countries' legal, business, and social sectors. Therefore, he says, each center has developed its own specialized programs that reflect the unique needs of the country in which it operates.

Shonholtz, speaking at PDC headquarters in San Francisco, said each center maintains its own independence. All the centers share, he said, is a common set of values and methodologies for work and training: "Partners realizes that there is no single model of development which will achieve democracy. Instead we have to communicate what work and adapt strategies that support civic participation and institutional structures."

Shonholtz said he was inspired to create PDC by a series of seminars on dispute mediation that he organized in Moscow and Warsaw in 1989 and 1990 under a grant from the United States Institute of Peace, a private center funded by the U.S. Congress to promote peace worldwide.

The interest generated by these seminars was so great that he returned to Moscow in 1991 with a team of American experts to lead a training program for environmentalists, academics, teachers, and local managers. This initiative provided models and methodology for the resolution of differences.

Because Soviet governmental structures were proving too narrow to deal with the larger issues arising under the policy of glasnost, Shonholtz said, there was great interest in learning Western ideas about managing these issues.

Shonholtz then went to Poland to conduct a similar training program for members of the Solidarity leadership, many of whom were already assuming government posts. And it was there that the idea of creating PDC took concrete form. He moved to Warsaw with his family in 1991 and used it as a base to set up the centers. Originally they were affiliated with universities in the various countries; now they are independent nongovernmental organizations.

By 1994, Shonholtz said, PDC had trained several thousand people in negotiation, communication, and mediation skills. In that year, it expanded its program to introduce training in ethnic and minority issues, and established a program to train trainers. In other words, local leaders trained by American experts were now themselves providing that training to fellow countrymen. This allowed for a multiplier effect of skills dissemination.

"Further, if we're going to build indigenous structures, only people knowledgeable about the whole society would be able to do the acculturation of the models and the methodologies," Shonholtz said.

In 2000, PDC's decentralized organization of national centers, with a total staff of 125, trained or worked with nearly 35,000 people. Its organizational structure allows it easily to exchange expertise between centers. "This approach enables [PDC] to take a trainer from Poland, team him up with a trainer from Kosovo and send them to the Ukraine, and they will have the same methodology, terminology, process orientation and the same battery of skills. This means that you can conduct international training programs for people from many different countries because you have a core methodology."

Partners for Democratic Change is funded by several private foundations, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, and by the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development, as well as the Dutch Foreign Ministry.