Strategies for consensus-building and decision-making

Sabrina Bruno and Eric Blay

This is the fourth in a series on the use of Somalia in Crisis role play in a law school course on International Humanitarian Law. Read the Introduction.

The goal of the Somalia simulation was to help bring an end to the Somalia famine quickly without compromising American national security. There were numerous disagreements between opposing interest groups that necessitated consensus-building. While members of each of the parties were behaving as rational actors, individuals’ differing objectives led them to become quickly entrenched in their assigned positions. This tended to make them lose sight of the overall goal of the meeting, which was to develop a strategy for ending the famine in Somalia.

Our team played the advisory role of the intelligence agency. Striving to help build consensus with others while serving in an advisory role was challenging. It was imperative to remain in character—advocating the priorities of the intelligence agency—throughout the simulation. Differentiating between personal opinions and the insights that our assigned character was likely to espouse was challenging, but vital. In an advisory role, it is important to be aware of the seemingly incompatible agendas held by different parties. Equally necessary is to work with participants to identify underlying interests that might provide grounds for formulating solutions that meet everyone’s objectives to some extent. While each party held different principal priorities, their overarching goals seemed to converge. For instance, a central aim of all parties was to ensure the safety of American citizens, though each group differed as to how that safety could be achieved.

Reaching consensus among the groups was a difficult task. They became immersed in their assigned character roles and tended to focus on the issues that divided them rather than emphasizing what they had in common. It seemed that all parties felt that, despite being ordered to end the famine quickly, their specific interests (i.e. legal, security, humanitarian, etc.) had to take up equal space at the bargaining table. In actual negotiations of this type one would hope that objective criteria, such as feasibility, would govern the final decisions, instead of having the final word going to the most forceful individuals who took the strictest hard-lined positions.

Allowing time for discussions amongst the representatives of the various teams was an effective strategy; it allowed multiple conversations to occur simultaneously, and created space for groups to identify similar interests as well as obstacles to reaching consensus. In comparison with the time spent having all participants met as one group, it seemed that the more chaotic intermingling of groups was much more efficient. Considerable decision-making work was done by group representatives who liaised with other interest groups to garner support for their position, or to collaborate on ideas for mutually acceptable solutions. This allowed them to present a united front to other, more ideologically opposed groups. A breakthrough came when groups accepted that compromises would have to be made by all parties. When given sufficient time to discuss amongst themselves, groups were able to create a unified plan, with the exception of concerns about fungible aid and the payment of access fees to FTOs. The result was a semi-secure and partially effective solution.

This simulation was a useful exercise for learning how human character and subjectivity influence policy-making processes. All aspects of strategy for the response to the Somalia famine were heavily influenced by the personalities and proclivities of the individuals who participated in the negotiation. The most significant thing we learned was that, in practice, the negotiation process is not ruled by objective criteria so much as the subjective views of participants. No matter what the nature of the factual scenario at hand is, it is clear that negotiation, mediation, and conciliation skills are crucial to navigating the entrenched positions of various stakeholders. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Written by law school students Sabrina Bruno and Eric Blay as part of the Re-Imagining International Humanitarian Law course at University of Western Ontario Law School.

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