Summary of "International Organizations and Conflict Prevention: Lessons from Business"

Summary of

International Organizations and Conflict Prevention: Lessons from Business

By Antonia Handler Chayes and Abram Chayes

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Antonia Handler Chayes and Abram Chayes, "International Organizations and Conflict Prevention: Lessons from Business," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 280-309.

Since the end of the Cold War a wide variety of international organizations have acted to prevent or manage violent conflicts on many occasions. Yet these interventions have often had disappointing results. One reason for these failures is a lack of coordination among the international groups. "Many of the organizations that intervene often do so with a strategy and presence that is ignorant of what has gone before them, and unaware how their efforts might be consistent and supportive of the efforts of others, rather than independent or in competition with them."(p. 281)

The solution is to decentralize responsibility for peace operations to the field, and to charge field operatives with the responsibility and authority to integrate their activities with others. In recent times business organizations have shifted toward such decentralized structures, in order to respond more effectively to an increasingly complex and changeable business environment. The authors describe business models of decentralization, identify key elements of those models, and consider how those elements might be applied to the task of conflict prevention and management.

Decentralized Business Structures

Many businesses have moved away from a fixed, pyramidal, hierarchical, structure toward a more flexible, lateral, team based structure. Teams are usually designed to fulfil a particular function. They may be short lived, existing just for the duration of the project, and have a changing membership. The Chayes note that "the most successful [teams] are characterized by their nonhierarchical nature, flexibility, and interdependence. They are also problem-solving."(p. 282)

There are three decentralized models commonly in use. The virtual corporation model creates a temporary joint venture between independent companies for a specific purpose. Cross-functional and product development teams bring together members from a variety of areas. "Because teams include members from engineering, manufacturing and quality assurance, as well as representatives from the customer, functions can be carried out concurrently, rather than sequentially."(p. 283) This generally results in significant savings in time and development costs, while maintaining and even improving product quality. Self-directed teams are responsible not only for their functional area, but also for managing themselves. These teams have a great deal of autonomy, and the authority to make key decisions pertaining to their functional area.

The authors identify eight key characteristics which contribute to team success, and which are common to each of these models. First is a corporate culture which supports openness, flexibility and cooperation. Corporations and their members must be able to learn, to revise old assumptions, to adapt to new and changing situations, and to seek alliances with other individuals, teams and corporations.

Second, the corporation must decentralize authority, granting teams greater autonomy. Top-down management can inhibit innovation. Giving responsibility and the necessary authority for a project to the teams encourages greater innovation and more flexibility, as the teams are empowered to do what is needed to get the job done. The Chayes note that most international organizations still have rather rigid, top-down authority structures.

Third, the corporation must have a shared overarching goal, or a common vision of the future for the company as a whole. This vision must have content. It must be inspirational. And it must be grasped by the entire firm. A common vision is needed to keep the relatively autonomous teams united. Teams will also need to develop their own particular goals and vision, to help keep the team members united.

Fourth, there must be a strategy for achieving the company's vision, and a concrete plan for implementing that strategy. "Corporate units develop elements of the strategic plan, with increasingly specific performance goals, milestones, and measures of success."(p. 287) These plans must be formed and revised according to conditions "on the ground." It can be helpful for a team to be affiliated with a senior manager, who can then cut through bureaucratic obstacles for the team. The danger is that such an arrangement can lead to micro-management of the team from above.

Fifth, there must be a clear allocation of roles and responsibilities to teams and members. This helps minimize "turf wars," competition between the teams for power and authority. "Such up-front agreement signifies commitment and consent of those involved, and promotes a meeting of the minds among those who perform the work."(p. 288) These initial agreements may include plans for handling disputes as they arise. As always such allocations must be revisable in response to changing conditions.

Sixth, there must be full, open communication and information sharing, both within and between teams. The authors refer to this as transparency in operations and planing. Good communications may reduce conflicts within teams. Information must also be shared with higher levels of management, and with important external stakeholders and clients.

Seventh, successful decentralized structures base authority on knowledge, skills and expertise, rather than merely on one's position in the company hierarchy. "In effective cooperative ventures, authority depends on relevant knowledge and expertise, ability to balance power and priorities, ability to control resources, access to pertinent information and the ability to reduce uncertainty for the organization."(p. 290) Leadership of a project may change as the project progresses through different phases, and as different areas of expertise become most relevant.

Finally, leaders and members of team based organizations must show maturity. They must be able to take on responsibility and leadership, and also to relinquish leadership. They must be cooperative, confident, creative, flexible, risk tolerant, and have good interpersonal skills.

Applying the Model to Organizations Dealing with Conflict

The authors note two significant differences between organizations focused on conflict prevention and business organizations. Conflict prevention organizations often have much less time for advance planning. And, there is no single overarching organization that initiates or coordinated the various teams working on a conflict situation. Nevertheless many of the elements for effective business organizations are applicable to conflict prevention.

Unlike the modern business culture, most international organizations continue to be focused narrowly around a single function, and to pursue that function without regard for other functional areas. For example, the World Bank and the IMF imposed economic austerity programs on El Salvador at the same time that a UN brokered peace agreement called for expanded social programs. UN agencies are notorious for acting independently or even at odds with each other. Neither has the UN developed effective ways of cooperating with NGOs. There have been many calls for better coordination and cooperation between international organizations. Such organizations must undertake a cultural change comparable to that which has swept the business world

Intergovernmental groups are also notoriously hierarchical, independent, and prone to assert exclusive control over a narrow field. Here again such groups would do well to look to the decentralized organizational models developed in business in recent times. The authors have observed some promising moves in this direction, most notably by the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) of the OSCE, and by the Humanitarian Operations Council (HOC) operating in Somalia. Both the HCNM and the HOC served to create a forum to coordinate the efforts a variety of other international groups.

Classical peacekeeping missions generally had a clear, overarching goal: to assist, with the consent of the involved parties, in implementing a peace agreement. More recent conflict situations have been more complex, and the goals for intervention have been less clear. Objectives have tended to be set by default by whichever groups were prepared to intervene. The U.S. is generally able to impose its vision for interventions in which it is the primary backer. It is much more difficult to establish a shared vision in truly multilateral actions. The need for political compromise often leads to vague and even incoherent goals. The Chayes note that "lack of clarity in the goals and objectives of an intervention stemming from political divisions among the principle participants in New York [the UN] is a major--perhaps the major--problem in fashioning international responses to complex emergencies"(p. 298) In order to deal with this the authors suggest delegating the task of developing a shared vision to practitioners in the field. The people on the ground will have a better sense of what is actually needed and possible in the situation than will distant high level diplomats at the UN in New York.

NGOs are beginning to recognize the need for strategic operational planning. A scarcity of resources, and the complexity and immediacy of the situation may impede the UN from moving in this direction. However, the authors argue, "the fact that it is unclear at the outset whether or which organizations will be asked to intervene in conflict is not an excuse for the lack of a strategic planning process."(p.301) The military, for example, makes generic plans for a variety of situations. Moreover certain functions, such as refugee services, food and medical care, are likely to be needed in almost every conflict. "One lesson that can be learned from both business and the military is that the strategic planning process must be given high priority, regardless of the uncertainties of eventual participation or the shortage of funds."(p.302). Joint planning between the various groups is particularly important. Joint training in the field is also an important element of planning. Joint training also serves to familiarize participants with other organizations working in the field.

Advance allocation of responsibility is usually impractical in cases of complex conflicts. It is often not clear what will be needed or which organizations will be involved. NGOs generally pride themselves on their independence and autonomy, and so may be reluctant to be assigned to a particular role or responsibility. Moreover they may already be responsible to an external constituency or funding sources. The Chayes conclude that "in these circumstances what may be more important that an elaborate formal agreement is a process to generate a kind of rolling consensus among the public and private organizations at the field level on a rough, but shifting allocation of responsibilities and a division of effort and resources"(p. 304) The HOC in Somalia was effective in creating such a process.

International groups must improve their information sharing and communications. "What seems to be needed is not a simple exchange of information about isolated events, but rather an ongoing mechanism that provides a venue to explore and evaluate ideas within the system that the team represents."(p. 304) There are some promising trends in this direction. The HOC in Somalia created just such a mechanism. However there is still much rivalry between groups. The authors note that transparency improves with joint planning training, and is pat of an overall move toward a more open, flexible corporate culture.

Finally, The UN and many NGOs do have experienced, dedicated, imaginative, flexible people, and have given those people authority based on their expertise and ability. Many UN and NGO personnel have demonstrated the sort of flexible, cooperative leadership which is key to effective decentralized structures.


The Chayes draw three general lessons from their application of the business teams approach to conflict prevention organizations. First is that many tasks and responsibilities must be redistributed to the field. It is important to empower the people working in the field. Second is that goal development and strategic planning and training are vitally important. Finally the authors observe that "the key process is consensus building, and this requires different attributes both in the leadership and membership of the operation."(p. 307)