Advocacy Advisors and the The Neutrality/Empowerment Problem

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Guy Burgess, Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess, Ph.D. -- Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium

Copyright 1996 by Conflict Research Consortium

One of the most difficult challenges facing the conflict resolution and peacemaking fields is the justice problem. This problem arises because the ultimate objective of our efforts is wise and just decision-making--not merely the resolution of conflicts for the sake of resolution. If the power distribution between contending parties is nearly equal, then conflict resolution processes are generally just. However, in cases where power is inequitably distributed, neutral intervention often simply sugar-coats the domination of one group by another, leading to an unjust result. In response to this problem, the dispute resolution field has struggled to find a way to add empower ment responsibilities to the role of the neutral intervenor. Unfortunately, as the neutral's empowerment efforts expand, his or her ability to successfully carry out the neutral role dimin ishes.

As part of an effort to better deal with this problem, the Consortium is exploring a strategy which we call enlightened advocacy. Similar to the concept of enlightened self-interest, enlight ened advocates work for their own cause more effectively than other advocates by better understanding conflict processes and ways to manipulate those processes to their own advantage. This is done by combining the techniques of advocacy with the skills of effective communication and dispute resolution. Using all three strategies together, enlightened advocates can present themselves and their proposals in ways that are more likely to be acceptable to their opponents, while at the same time, getting their own needs and interests met. Enlightened advocacy does not require conflicting parties to compromise their deeply-held values or give up their demands for getting their needs met; it does however require an understanding and avoidance of destructive conflict processes, such as unnecessary escalation or rumor mongering.

While parties to a conflict can adopt an enlightened advocacy approach on their own, traditionally low-power groups often do not have the skills, knowledge, or resources to do so effectively. They can often benefit substantially from the help of an advisor or trainer who can help them assess the conflict, their options, the likely costs and benefits of each option, what resources they might need to pursue each option, and how to obtain such resources. While mediators and other neutrals at times take on such responsibilities, doing so can compromise their neutral role. Therefore we suggest the field identify a separate group of people who could act as advocacy advisors--people who are just as knowledgeable about effective representation, communication, and dispute resolution processes, but who would work on behalf of one side, not both.

Thus, while neutral mediators or arbitrators help disputants more effectively negotiate compromises based upon existing power relationships, enlightened advocacy advisors and trainers would apply the same understanding of conflict processes to the task of empowering the low- power party by helping them develop and implement more enlightened and effective strategies for advancing their interests. Unlike the neutral, whose goal must be attaining an outcome that is acceptable to both sides, the advocacy advisor would focus much more directly on the issue of justice and the effective representation of one party's case in a variety of settings (mediation, litigation, electoral politics advocacy, nonviolent direct action, etc.). By creating a separate mechanism to empower the weaker party, this approach allows the neutral to stay neutral and focus solely on the mediation or arbitration process.