Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Negotiation is a Failed Tactic for Local Communities. Negotiation and Asymmetrical Power.

“If you are bargaining with somebody, you need to have equal footing for someone to listen to you.” Chea Vannath [1]

What happens in a situation when one group has no way to secure an equal footing against their opponent?

Consider the communities in Cambodia who today face the reality that private business, government and military interests will acquire their land and natural resources with little or no consultation or compensation. The situation seems a forgone conclusion to both the communities and many who support them, including the well connected proponents of economic development. This is what is referred to as an asymmetrical power system – one side has a disproportionate amount of 'threat power' compared to the other.

Asymmetric Power in Cambodia

Asymmetrical power systems arise for many reasons. In Cambodia a high-context [2] patron-client system strongly enforces a 'no-questions asked' culture by the masses regarding the actions of government , business, community and religious leaders. “It is the role of the leader to tell people what is the right way to do something”, “I consulted them by reading out the court verdict” and “I didn't go there to argue with them” are sentiments often held by patrons about their subjects.

It is the patron's role to provide protection from the threats of life, natural disasters, illness or military threats. It is the client's role to give unquestioning obedience to do whatever the patron asks (demands). Democratic and transparent organisational styles don't make sense and as a recent report concluded these goals are subsumed into the patron-client arsenal to further garner power, prestige and wealth. [3]

To illustrate the ineffectiveness of negotiation without equal footing, The Dey Krahorm community (or representatives of it) were given a one day training workshop in negotiation skills and went to negotiate with the 7NG Company the same evening. They went with high hopes in their new skills.

The experience was an abysmal failure. The community received a comprehensive tongue lashing by the company spokesperson and returned home with their tail between their legs. From a “Do No Harm” [4] perspective this experience could have derailed community resolve significantly by reinforcing the cultural expectations that those with no power should not attempt to question the plans of the powerful.

It may seem that what is lacking is the skill to stand up for oneself in the presence of a higher authority and training could obviously help redress this skill issue. But the core of the problem here is not skill for negotiation. Communities usually have at least one or two people quite skilled in standing up for themselves. The core issue is unequal power relations which was not addressed by the negotiation.

The Weaknesses of Negotiation in Asymmetric Power Systems

Negotiations in asymmetric power systems work well where there is an effective external source of threat power making the costs of non-negotiation outweigh negotiation, such as an independent, free and non-partisan justice system. Since institutional power in Cambodia is overwhelmingly in favour of those with wealth, power and political connections there is little or no threat power against the powerful.

Theoretically, the international community is a source of threat power (removal of donor funding, trade boycotts, publication of information – factual information of human rights abuses, international ratings scales on corruption or civil unrest), but their resolve to date has proven weak and the shifting global system gives greater influence to China where human, economic and social rights have little influence. Pressure must come from within.

A major concern for the use of negotiation by local communities is the reality of false promises and flat refusals. Flat refusals to demands and requests are easier to deal with as the answer is quite clear. False promises are much more insidious. Gene Sharp cautions us that the invitation to negotiation must be treated carefully as they are more likely designed to put the resisters into a passive mode.

Firstly, it takes a lot of courage, stamina and organisation for a Cambodian community to risk social mores in a high-context [2] environment and stand up against the powers-that-be [4]. Not only do they risk direct action against themselves, they risk sending the message that their goals are designed to damage the cultural base that all Cambodians take for granted and give deep credence to.

Secondly, if a community is finally granted a negotiation and promised compensation or “further investigation” a community may feel they have won the war, when the battle has not ever begun. These are beginning manoeuvrings that put the powerful are much more comfortable with.

“We have accepted their petition and ask the community to go back to their homes while we investigate their claims over the weekend” is not an uncommon statement to hear. What this does is put the onus of response back to the community. Culturally it is highly inappropriate to question or challenge authority. But by not doing so they prolong violence and oppression. While the authority is 'investigating' their claim, the violence continues unchecked. If a freeze to all provocative behaviours is enforced immediately that is one thing, to wait is quite another. And the community is not even at the negotiating table.

Thirdly, any action criticising or resisting the will of the powers-that-be [4] will be considered threatening and will provoke a response: from a mild tongue lashing in the media to the use of armed force as was seen in Kompong Thom this week.

Nonviolent Social Power

For all the advocacy efforts of NGO's, donor countries, and even the King, little external pressure balances the scales enough for a “true listening” in Cambodia. What can be done about it?

Certainly this is not a new experience, and many have learned that you don't need guns to gain equal footing. Over the last century, since the dawn of the satyagraha [5] in South Africa, individuals and people movements have been experimenting with a different form of power, one that doesn't rely on position, status or the barrels of many guns. This is nonviolent social power [7] used successfully against brutality and violence in countries such as: India, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Guatemala, USA, Argentina, Poland, South Africa, Philippines, and many more. [7]

Nonviolent social power [7] rests on the understanding that power is not innately present in a person of status, but is acquired by the consent of the masses below him or her. This consent leads to unquestioning civil obedience. However, if the masses withdraw their consent the power base of the powerful is removed or severely weakened and change can occur.

It's certainly not as easy as it sounds as the consent to authority may range across an array of interest groups, communities and even countries. Nonviolent social power [7] has to engage the support of many of those who currently support the status quo. Failing to do this will lead to a failure to achieve nonviolent social change, and losing the 'equal footing' so needed simply to be heard.

In most cases that we see in Cambodia communities are eager to negotiate with companies and government officials only to find themselves being thrown out of board rooms and provincial offices and thrown into prison or 'relocation' camps. This is because there is no equal footing. No matter how legally sound and water-tight a community's case may be it simply doesn't matter in a country where it is the 'right' of the rulers to rule.

Should communities stop trying to negotiate? Currently, attempts at negotiation raises a community's plight to the national and international sphere of attention. But rarely goes further. As such communities should not see negotiation as their means to a just compensation package or court decision. The theory of nonviolent social power [7] requires local communities to find ways of withholding consent to the power they have been giving to businesses and authorities who refuse to give a fair listening to their cause.

In short, negotiation with little or no strategic thought to power asymmetries will not succeed.

How could a community ensure a negotiated agreement will be honoured?

Gene Sharp [8] counsels nonviolent activists to not enter into negotiation. However, realising that change takes time, what can communities do if they continue using negotiation? A community will need to plan to maintain nonviolent pressure before, during and following a negotiation until any and all agreements are implemented in full. This may require daily activities of nonviolent social power [7] to display ongoing commitment, such as sit-ins, media campaigns, demonstrations, peace walks and vigils, fasts and blockades (see Gene Sharp for a full discussion on tactical options).

Both the agreement and a timeline of implementation should be clearly written and witnessed by third parties, and if possible, made public in media statements. The written documentation enshrines that any agreements or time lines that are broken are cause for an immediate resumption or escalation of nonviolent social power [7].

This is the most dangerous phase of negotiation as all the hard work may yet be lost, resulting in loss of morale within the community, and a temptation to give in. It is also possible for the opponent to use a failed negotiation as a weapon: “we entered into good faith negotiations with the community yet they still complain ...”. The period from negotiated agreement to full implementation of the agreement should be as short as possible to maintain pressure and community mobilisation.

Without nonviolent social power [7] there is little reason for a powerful opponent to give into community demands, nor even to enter into negotiations. This, of course, will take time to catch on. Communities are not fully equipped in the range of tactics and strategies of nonviolent social power [7], and community leadership continue to be prey to direct sanctions and violence. The powers-that-be continue to believe that they can use direct and structural violence to ensure their plans proceed on time. They will need to see unrelenting commitment by not just one community, but by all.

End Notes:

[1] Ms Chea Vannath, political observer, Cambodia Daily October 27, 2009, p2.

[2] “high-context” refers to cultures where communication is conducted through symbolic actions and accepted assumptions rather than direct verbalised statements. The use of direct communication can often be a cause for conflict, rather than a way to resolve it.

[3] Nee, M. & McCallum, W. (2009). Roads to Development. Insights from Sre Ambel District, South West Cambodia. AFSC, Phnom Penh.

[4] “Do No Harm” is the Hypocratic Oath of peace workers. In short, be conscious that any given intervention may exacerbate, not reduce, a conflict. Anderson, M & Olsen, L. (2003). Confronting War. Critical Lessons for Peace Practitioners. Collaborative Learning Products.

[5] “powers-that-be” a common phrase to describe the individuals and institutions which maintain and enforce socially agreed behavioural, moral and economic standards. These often include politicians and government insitutions, wealthy individuals and classes, businesses, religious leaders and institutions, etc.

[6] “satyagraha” means 'truth force' and was born on September 11, 1906 at the Empire Theatre in South Africa by Mohandas K. Gandhi. It is the key power source for those who wish to make use of nonviolent power.

[7] “nonviolent social power” is also known as nonviolent direct action (NVDA), nonviolence, nonviolent action and active nonviolence.

[8] Sharp, G. (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Extending Horizons Books.


  1. This is a great piece, Chris. Thanks so much for all your work in these situations, and for the wisdom you are passing on to the rest of us.

    One of the things I find helpful is Gandhi's little pamphlet Hind Swaraj. Obviously he's working in a different culture, but there may be similarities. Particularly, "a petition, without the backing of force is useless..." and "A petition of an equal is a sign of courtesy; a petition from a slave is a symbol of his slavery. A petition backed by force is a petition from an equal and, when he transmits his demand in the form of a petition, it testifies to his nobility. Two kinds of force can back petitions. "We shall hurt you if you do not give this," is one kind of force; it is the force of arms, whose evil results we have already examined. The second kind of force can thus be stated; "If you do not concede our demand, we shall be no longer your petitioners. You can govern us only so long as we remain the governed; we shall no longer have any dealings with you." The force implied in this may be described as love-force, soul-force, or, more popularly but less accurately, passive resistance. This force is indestructible. He who uses it perfectly understands his position."

    Of course, as you rightly point out, noncooperation is helpful only in certain contexts where withdrawal of consent is possible. But there are broadly three different types of nonviolent action - protest/persuasion, noncooperation, and intervention. Usually the best of these in noncooperation, but it may be that where protest and noncooperation are not possible, intervention is necessary. Of course, in the situation you're in that requires a great deal more risk and willingness to suffer than it would in my context. Anyway, keep up the great, inspiring work - and keep us informed, you are teaching us all a great deal.

  2. Thanks for this, Chris and Simon. I agree but you've also got me asking myself some questions. :)

    From your perspective, what assumptions about power do you think are involved in entering into negotiation? And in your mind, is nonviolent strategy also a threat-power? Is it also an attempt to create asymmetrical power systems? What do you see as the key differences? I suspect that it has to do with conceptions of the Other? Also, is negotiation a tacit admission of the legitimacy of the powers-that-be position and use of power?

    Also, for clarity, how do you distinguish the differences between power and force?


  3. Simon, thanks for your comments.

    Developing a deep understanding of how powerful noncooperation can be is a key to the unfolding nonviolent movement in Cambodia. As with many nonviolent movements, the beginning is filled with incredulous faces that wonder and hope, “will this really work?!”. This is true at all levels from the grass roots to the international NGO's and donors. From my vantage point an important step in the journey is for the nonviolent story to be told as widely as possible – the amazing history the past century (particularly) has seen of people taking up nonviolence as their power. It is compelling. Without the stories of the past it is hard to envision such counter-cultural methods succeeding today.

    As for the three types of nonviolent action, human rights groups have used protest/persuasion with mixed success, but has been severely curtailed in the time I've been in country. Protest is a difficult tactic, culturally speaking, but has managed some interesting success with companies and local authorities. In Kampot, fishing villages walked in protest down the main street and the governor overturned a concession previously awarded to a company. In general protest receives a strong reaction from the powers-that-be and it is hard to say if that is a positive or negative outcome. The strong reaction could mean that groups are hitting a raw nerve and should keep working at it. On the other hand it builds barriers to communication with those with the power to make important changes in policy.

    Intervention, if I understand this correctly, has halted company actions in some situations. Snuol district, for example, gathered their whole community around excavators that were clearing community forest. The workers stopped and the company agreed to go elsewhere. However, success is almost always temporary. A few days, a month, perhaps a year goes by and then the opponent returns as if testing the community to see if they're still up for a fight. What's vital is that a community's experiment with nonviolence had a significant effect. This should not be forgotten or put down as a one-off lucky break. Just as it's important to tell of the experiences of nonviolence outside Cambodia, it's vital for the stories inside to be told, too. Both the “successes” and “failures” can be used as our key learning materials.

    As for noncooperation, I'm going to have to do some serious thinking on this one. What exactly could it look like? When a company starts tearing up a community forest, or tearing down houses, what does a community cease cooperating with that will change the outcome? Or does this form need to be used well in advance of the crisis? I can see it leading to some innovative responses. Perhaps residents could refuse to leave their homes. Or sit in their forests and refuse to move. But it is not unheard of for force to be used to remove people from their homes pre-eviction, or shoot villagers who are creating obstructions.

  4. Dave, really interesting questions. I'll have a go answering, but they are thoughts-in-process not the end of the road.

    There are many sources of power. Threat power is only one source, and in my mind not the best. It is communicating to the base instinct to protect self, to minimise harm. It is often working from a zero-sum ideology that what power I have you don't, and what power you possess I don't. The only way to increase my power is to take from you.

    Other sources of power can increase the amount of power available to the actors involved. Power sourced in relationships do this. I increase my power to influence others by increasing my relational connections, but this does not diminish the relational access to others. In fact it may increase theirs, too.

    Negotiation could make use of both these types of power, it really depends on the parties' own perspectives. However, the default is to see such a situation as a fight over the existing power resources.

    Is nonviolence a kind of threat power? I think it has the potential to be more than that. The threat that Simon mentioned is a threat to withdraw resources from the other. These resources are required for (part of) the ongoing existence of one party. But the resource is primarily human, not a commodity like oil or land, even though such a withdrawal has both economic and political consequences. But I think it is more than threat power because the nonviolent party sees that there is more to the situation than “I want what you have”. It's a withdrawal (and I might be wrong here) because the paradigms don't match. The nonviolent actor sees through and beyond the zero-sum game. But recognises that the other cannot. A separation of relationship is required. Not so much to hurt the one, but allow the other to continue on their (nonviolent) path.

    So I don't think nonviolence is about creating another kind of asymmetry as asymmetry is really a synonym for violence. The use of nonviolence is a recognition of incompatibility and dissonance. The powers-that-be exist in a world where power is built on “more than” dynamics created in a mentality of scarcity. Nonviolence works in a mentality of abundance and of need fulfilment. To badly paraphrase a Gandhi-ism, “there is room for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed”. Michael Nagler does a great job at discussing the basic framework incompatibilities between these two ideologies. He suggests three conflicting paradigms: scarcity vs abundance, seperateness vs unity, and competition vs collaboration. I think lecture 4 in the introduction series. The link is in the side bar.

    So it has to do with conceptions of the Other, but also conceptions of resources allocation and relational dynamics.

    Is it tacit legitimation of the powers-that-be and their use of power? Well, the powers-that-be are legitimate. They are legitimate humans and engaged in legitimate human enterprises. My understanding of nonviolence is that there is room for all and while current situations are not perfect it doesn't mean they are not legitimate. The use of power is a different matter I guess, but negotiation seems a pretty legitimate method to me if you can really guarantee a fair process. The saying from Jesus, “be wise as serpents innocent as doves” seems relevant here. Go in with your eyes wide open but make sure you are without fault so that no one can accuse you of anything. Except that nonviolence may well be seen as seditious!

    Last question and I'm done. Power versus force. Good question. The best I can come up with is that power is the latent capacity to cause something to happen (or not happen), whereas force is the application of the latent capacity – I notice that I used the word enforce not simply force. I'm not sure that I have a clear difference. They are pretty interchangeable for me at this point in time. Perhaps I should mention that I don't assign a negative value to 'power' or 'force'. To me they are neutral, with the capacity for positive and negative consequences.

  5. link to Michael Nagler lectures

  6. Dear All,

    Thanks for publishing these things. I like it. I would also like to see it developed further. It would be great if it could be simplified in language. An example is that “asymmetrical power” can we use the term “unequal power”, which is perhaps easier for more people to read and understand.

    I think then a Khmer version would be good. I think too that a Khmer version should be in as simple language as possible (to make it as inclusive as possible).

    I would also suggest that we look more at what we regard as “negotiations”. In Cambodia I we have things like “community forestry”. This is where there are agreements developed on which areas are set aside for community management. Some would say that many communities have more rights (under international standards) than just 15 year “lease agreements” and that they should have collective ownership of forest. It has also been noted that in a number of cases the agreement for community forestry is followed by other lands outside of the community forestry areas being taken for land concessions perhaps illegally issued by government.

    Is something like this “negotiation”? At the moment there is a lot of NGO activity promoting the formalization of community forestry. If it is “negotiation”, your article is suggesting that promotion of community forestry, under the current conditions of unequal power, are ill-advised.

    There also seems to be a lot of other programs in Cambodia to develop “partnerships” between grassroots civil society and government often termed “engagement with government”. Your article would tend to suggest that those projects are dangerous if there have first not been other projects to empower grassroots civil society to a level where they can have successful negotiation.

    These are extra considerations to the more conflict related and immediate "negotiations".

    It may be that we also have to deal with a lot of projects and programs that could be making a lot of problems.

  7. RE: Questions about power & negotiation

    Thanks for the answers, Chris - helpful to clarify. :)

    There's a lot of directions I could respond, but I think I'll try to just pick one. Regarding the assumptions involved in negotiation, I've found it helpful to consider intstrumental and transformative paradigms.

    This is from an Article Summary of "Challenging the Assumptions of Traditional Approaches to Negotiation" by Linda L. Putnam

    1. The Instrumental View

    "One common assumption is that negotiation is a tool, an instrument, used to achieve some substantive end. Negotiation features and processes are described and evaluated in terms of their connection to some desired outcome, and outcomes are though of as distinct from processes. This assumption emphasizes substantive issues (interests and outcomes) and obscures relationship or identity issues. Relationships, for example, may be redescribed in instrumental terms. Rather than view negotiation as a kind of relationship, relationships are seen as elements in the negotiation process that can either facilitate or hinder outcomes. When negotiation is thought of as a problem-solving tool, relationships may be redescribed in terms of problems and outcomes. A bad relationship is seen as a problem, an improved relationship as the desired outcome."

    2. The Transformative View

    "An alternative to the instrumental view is the transformative view; negotiation is the process of producing fundamental change in a dispute. The change may be in the way the parties understand themselves, their conflict, their relationship, or their situation. Change can occur at the level of issues, actors, rules, structure or context. A transformative approach to negotiation emphasizes the role deliberative processes as processes of learning and understanding. Researchers working outside of the area of negotiation theory argue that the transformative approach addresses one of the main objectives of conflicts generally, and that many intractable conflicts can only be resolved by transformative processes. Putnam also notes that a transformative approach, "treats instrumental ends and bargaining outcomes as part of the totality of negotiation rather than as the ultimate aim of the process."(p. 341)"

    I also believe that related to this are many culture and identity issues.

    As you could probably guess, I favor transformative approaches. One of the reasons for this is it enables parties to experience success even if a particular outcome is not achieved.

    Finally, I'd also suggest that the assumptions about power and empowerment between these 2 paradigms are often quite different.

    PS I also agree that my questions on legitimacy of the powers-that-be position/use of power was poorly worded. :) My intent was just to explore how entering into negotiation may involve something of an unlevel playing field. Especially in power asymmetries. ???