• Stefan Szepesi

How Do We Learn? Inspiration From Humanitarian Negotiators

Learning is perhaps the greatest of all challenges in negotiation. Negotiators on the humanitarian frontlines may have some valuable insights for all public service professionals.



I wrote earlier about peace negotiation as a low-learning system and why even for experienced individual negotiators or mediators learning is hard. It is uplifting to know there are a few organisations and projects that take it upon themselves to tackle this question through experiments and cooperation. One of them is the Geneva-based Center of Competence for Humanitarian Negotiation (more on CCHN here). They have brought peer-to-peer learning (P2P) to the heart of their program: mixing frontline staff from different humanitarian organisations with one another in workshops and seminars across the world. I attended one of these in Lebanon last month and it was interesting to observe how the mere sharing of frontline negotiation stories across NGO and UN silos stimulates learning and debate between the humanitarians who negotiate access of food, shelter and medicine to the world's most vulnerable groups.


And there is more to P2P than merely individual learning. One of the CCHN partners, the HD Centre in Geneva, has been working on putting peer review at the heart of what they call Adaptive Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E). This is not just for internal learning purposes. Donors spent major resources each year in the field of mediation and conflict resolution in which HD plays a major role. As competition for these resources has increased the industry and jargon of results-based M&E has taken a strong foothold in the sector, even as most if not all mediation experts agree that results are so long term and difficult to monitor in the interim that the M&E models originating in public policy and development cooperation do not work. In fact, they can interfere with sensitive and largely confidential mediation processes, impose large reporting costs on professionals in the field, and misalign incentives for management. With various proxy indicators for long-term peace and stability identified, decision-making can be unconsciously steered towards meeting M&E targets rather than putting all energy squarely behind learning and adapting along the way for optimal long-term impact.


So what is Adaptive M&E, why is peer review at the heart of it, and why does any of this matter for negotiators outside the peace and humanitarian sphere? Andreas Kaufmann and Ian Wadley explain peer review for humanitarian organisations here and Adaptive M&E in further depth here (Wadley). What follows is my summary take on some of the essentials and why this may matter a big deal for learning in other public service organisations.


An Adaptive M&E model is light-footed, low-cost, discrete and does not interfere with confidential aspects of the project. Its focus is not primarily on accountability through data but on accountability through learning. It is the quality of the learning process that counts. Adaptive M&E provides the space for team members to be self-critical about their initial assumptions and their actions going forward. It delivers insights directly to the team in charge of the project, allowing team members to adjust strategy based on a professional exchange of views rather than an external report card based on elaborate matrices and recommendations by outside consultants.


Adaptive M&E consists of three levels of analysis:

  1. Assuring high quality professional judgement by the project team itself, and with the assistance of peer review

  2. Assessing a project’s strategic logic and implementation

  3. Measuring observable results where possible

Peer review is at the heart of Adaptive M&E and quite different from the term as employed in academia where anonymous external commentators criticise the work under review. Neither is it administratively or information heavy. According to Ian Wadley of the HD Centre, it is a reflective and constructive process: “We engineer the peer reviews to move as quickly as possible from description of context to analysis and creative options. (…) We push participants to start talking about the strategy, the logic, the options and next steps, and avoid the discussion becoming mired in endless discussions of context, or past events.”


A good peer review thus attempts to get past the trap that is often inhibiting learning in negotiation: the pull of external factors as the dominant or sole explanation of lack of progress. Wadley: “Instead of delivering determination of facts, a peer review delivers questions, insights, reflections, alternative analysis, alternative perspectives and challenges,” A typical peer review takes only a day, is preceded by a one-page self-review by the team, and followed by a one-page outcome note to the team. The latter is not necessarily shared with the donor or senior management. These need to be assured the quality of the peer review process is sound. Trust is thus essential. A peer review process should put the team in a position to pro-actively seek input from trusted colleagues and to have ownership over the outcome. This means a management-mandated course correction (a result common in traditional M&E) is advised nor required. Some of the peer reviewers may come from inside the organisation itself (but with no direct responsibility on the project concerned), whereas other peers may come from outside. They key factor for success, according to Wadley, is that the team considers them to be trusted professionals who add value and fresh perspective.


The focus in Adaptive M&E is on learning and adjusting strategy, not on complying with the original design. "Without deliberate efforts to promote professional reflection, mediation practitioners are likely to repeat their errors, make sub-optimal decisions, and implement strategies that have not kept pace with dynamic conflict settings", Wadley writes. Interestingly, the same wisdom may apply not only to professional conflict mediators but also to public policy practitioners for whom negotiation plays a central role. Although the traditional M&E "industry" is not very active here, there is a major learning and adaptation challenge inherent in negotiation for public service. In government, teams spent little to no time self-reviewing their negotiation performance, even for high-stakes international negotiations, even though it is probably one of the few ways to actually learn and adapt mid-way. A light-touch peer review process akin to the one innovated by the humanitarian sector could help both learning and a more timely adaptation of negotiation strategy.

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