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Recently, the London School of Economics’ Justice and Security Research Programme (JSRP) partnered with The Asia Foundation to assess the Foundation’s Theory of Change approach to their governance and law programs. The excerpts below are from one of several working papers titled ‘Community Mediation and Social Harmony in Nepal.’ The working paper discusses mediation’s impact on social harmony and inter-group relationships. It also discusses how ethnic majorities and minorities interact with and view mediation differently.
Though Foundation-supported community mediation in Nepal is primarily an access to justice programme, over time, Foundation staff and local partners have come to view the mediation as a catalyst for a number of positive communal changes. Three primary outcomes are expected from these changes.
1. Access to Justice: ‘By supporting the expansion of mediation services in rural Nepal, there will be a steady improvement in access to justice for local communities.’
2. Social Harmony: ‘It is expected that the provision of community mediation services will contribute to improvements in social harmony at the local level.’
3. State-Society Relations: ‘In the longer term and more indirectly, it is expected that by improving the level of engagement between local governance actors – particularly the VDC (Village Development Committees), mediators and host communities – the expanded mediation program will contribute to broader peace building efforts. This is expected to enhance an important state function through local collective action, and thereby gradually improve state-society relations.’
How Mediation Functions in Nepal
Community mediation is legally permitted to see a wide variety of interpersonal and group cases, but cannot adjudicate cases involving serious abuse, rape, or murder. Mediations may give general advice but are prohibited from advocating on behalf of a particular outcome or disputant. Case resolution culminates once disputants have reached an agreement. Both disputants then sign a document declaring the terms of their resolution, which is then stamped and kept on file at the local VDC office, but bear no official penalty for breaking their terms.
Formal Justice Mechanisms
In the past, formal justice institutions were regarded with suspicion by many ethnic minority groups, who saw them as a high caste instrument to reduce the power of ‘hitherto autonomous communities.’ In reference to the current system, a number of academics have argued that Nepalese courts are ‘used systematically to discriminate against the less powerful’, including women, the poor, ethnic minorities and lower castes.
Long-Term Impact of Local Disputes
In Nepalese communities, even small disputes can seriously affect many aspects of everyday life in both the short and long term. For example, Caplan illustrates how seemingly minor land and family disputes in Eastern Nepal present the ‘potential for serious intra-community quarrels’ that last for centuries. Similarly, Forbes notes how a land dispute can extend across generations and divide a village. Speaking in more extreme terms, Upreti argues that the ‘failure to manage local social and resource disputes has contributed to the escalation of the Maoist armed rebellion.’
Community Perception of Mediation
Many interviews reflected that community mediation had increased the number of disputes resolved by reducing the stigma associated with justice seeking. Disputants and mediators note that current sources of disharmony include disagreement over federal restructuring, poverty and social marginalization, crime among the border with India, and post-conflict grievances. [To contextualize the importance and continuation of post-conflict grievances long after a war ends, I will note for people unfamiliar with Nepal’s conflict that the war ended in 2006.]
Mediation’s Impact on Social Harmony
Focus group discusses reinforce and equate a scenario of improved relationships with one of wider social harmony. Consistent with this aim, disputants repeatedly identify preserving relationships to be the most significant benefit of mediation, citing that the service had eliminated feuds between neighbors and siblings and prevented many divorces. These results indicate mediation’s ability to build interpersonal relationships between disputants. Tracking disputant relationships beyond three months, though potentially difficult operationally, will also allow for a more complete picture.
Mediation’s Impact on Inter-Group Relationships
Community mediation’s Theory of Change also highlights building relationships between members of groups with such historic tensions. However, evidence to support community mediation’s ability to build inter-group relationships is mixed. Foundation reporting is promising, finding that disputants assign an average of 8.5/10 for community mediation builds relationships between/among different groups.’ However, a Foundation study conducted between 2007 and 2010 found that such inter-group bridging relationships formed primarily among mediators – a point confirmed by primary research. Many mediators noted changing their opinions and pre-existing biases of other groups as a result of such relationships.
Mediators in all districts cited political party, caste and ethnic affiliation as the root causes of disputes in their communities. However, there was no consensus among mediators as to the role of these issues in disputes brought to mediation. Given that the Foundation does not systematically document the proportion of disputes seen y mediation based on political, ethnic or caste-based issues, more information regarding these disputes and their impact on community perceptions is necessary to fully substantiate mediation’s ability to promote bridging relationships.
How Ethnic Majorities and Minorities View Mediation Differently
Li-On finds different views of the role of community mediation in relationships in diverse communities: majority groups saw mediation as a tool to smooth social rifts, whereas minority groups viewed it as a vehicle for empowerment. This tension between group harmony and individual empowerment suggests that individuals with differing levels of power – identified as capability, connections, resources, and otherwise – may understand improving relationships in contradictory ways. This suggests that ‘improving’ relationships may mean different things to different people, and may not necessarily lead to social harmony.
Mediation Empowers Minority Groups
The most significant empowerment resulting from mediation appears to occur among mediators from marginalized groups. A 2012 external evaluation that found that individuals from marginalized groups reported increased self-esteem after serving as mediators. Mediators indicate that this empowerment extends to other areas of their lives, leading them to become more engaged socially and civically and to pursue education.
Disputants often noted that electing someone like themselves to be their mediator made them feel that these individuals understood their circumstances. These same disputants also suggested that this choice also made them more comfortable with the mediation process and more confident that they would get a fair outcome. Such factors may not only empower disputants within the mediation process, but also have implications for mediation’s ability to increase access to justice among members of marginalized groups.
The presence of female mediators in Nepalese communities reduced men’s prejudice against women and changed men’s perceptions of women’s social roles. Focus groups reflected similar dynamics: the presence of effective, professional female and Dalit mediators seemed to improve how the surrounding community perceived these groups. A recent study by Blattman et al finds increased empathy, self-reflection and willingness to engage in dialogue among individuals who received even limited training in alternative dispute resolution. These changes, may establish norms of respect and equal treatment that begin with mediators but filter out to the wider community.
To read more JSRP reports on Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Timor-Leste, click here.