How to get the most out of dialogue

A new IIED-commissioned review seeks to deepen understanding of what makes effective dialogue and why.

Bernardo Monzani's pictureAlix Wadeson's picture
Guest blog by
3 June 2020

Bernardo Monzani and Alix Wadeson are independent consultants and evaluation experts

A man stands as he speaks to a seated group of people surrounding him

Participants discuss how to make artisanal and small-scale mining more sustainable at an IIED dialogue in Tanzania (Photo: Steve Aanu/IIED via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The COVID-19 pandemic is upending lives everywhere. With losses so profound, the crisis is forcing us to reconsider how society works. It presents us with an opportunity for meaningful change. 

In this context, dialogue can have a truly transformational effect, helping support communities, leaders and policymakers to ‘build back better’ for a more equal society.

IIED has decades of experience in multi-stakeholder dialogues, and its efforts have shown how dialogue can influence policy and facilitate more participatory decision-making processes. In general, however, very little literature exists on when, how and why dialogues are effective. Surprisingly, even a common definition of dialogue is missing.

Recognising this gap, IIED commissioned an evaluative review to deepen its own understanding of the impact of dialogue-based initiatives and to contribute to the wider evidence base on what makes effective dialogue and why.

The review focused on five case studies of IIED’s work where dialogues have been instrumental in driving community and policy changes:

  1. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) dialogues
  2. Community-based Adaptation (CBA) conferences
  3. Green Economy Coalition (GEC) dialogues
  4. IIED’s support to the least developed countries (LDCs) to negotiate a new high seas treaty, and
  5. Support to national slum dwellers’ federations (SDFs).

Defining dialogues 

Our review first sought to understand how dialogue is framed and understood – within the context of IIED’s work, and beyond. 

Having looked across the different dialogue types, the review arrived at a definition of dialogue as a normative framework comprising three elements: principles (what defines the ethos of dialogue, such as transparency or equality), functions (the aims for using dialogue) and features (aspects such as inclusion or participation). 

Based on the case studies, we identified five key functions of dialogue, which:

  1. Creates horizontal spaces for information sharing, discussions and networking
  2. Gives voice to marginalised actors or stakeholder groups
  3. Increases understanding of local actors and dynamics
  4. Identifies bottom-up and alternative solutions to relevant societal challenges, and
  5. Produces a movement or critical mass towards such solutions.

For example, the GEC uses dialogue to create spaces for sharing and networking, nationally and internationally, to increase understanding around transitions towards a green economy. The support to the LDCs – to amplify the voices of habitually marginalised actors – has a much narrower focus. 

Assessing dialogues 

To assess the effectiveness of IIED’s dialogues we developed a theory of change capturing the outcomes the dialogues intended to achieve, and the strategies IIED implemented. Across the five case studies, we found that IIED deployed three main strategies: 

  1. Research and technical assistance: generating new knowledge and assisting its practical applications. One example is the research produced in the context of the high seas treaty negotiation that served to galvanise discussions among parties to the official negotiations
  2. Relationships and confidence building: acting as a convener, facilitator and enabler to bring together and engage different stakeholders. Work under the CBA initiative, and the support to learning exchanges among members of SDFs are examples of this.
  3. Communications and mobilisation: increasing visibility of specific issues with the aim of enlisting more supporters. A good example of this strategy is the GEC, whose dialogues sought to mobilise actors such as small and medium enterprises in Peru. 

The CBA conferences are a strong example of effective dialogue in action. Starting in 2006, they sought to bring attention to community-based adaptation, starting with civil society, then governments and national and international policymakers.

IIED forged relationships and built confidence among various stakeholders, and mobilised attention for adaptation at a time when the issue was not a global priority.

CBA conferences have successfully matured into a close-knit and diverse community, including grassroots organisations and communities. But it is equally capable of engaging with global platforms such as the UN- and World Bank-backed Global Commission on Adaptation

Designing successful dialogues

Based on the review, we identified a series of success factors for effective dialogue.  

Firstly, dialogue pays off, but long-term investment is necessary. Dialogue has enabled IIED to reach a rich and diverse range of people, partners and actors, forged through decades of committed networking and relationship building. IIED can now count on hundreds of partners across the world to engage peers and galvanise common action.

Second, dialogues build resilience. Where dialogue-based efforts are locally owned, they can help participants respond to unexpected challenges and adapt to new situations. This was demonstrated through the ASM initiative where participants in Ghana and Tanzania had built up strong relations, and the dialogues could continue despite major political changes across both countries.

Thirdly, participation and inclusion, while paramount, are not fixed features in dialogues. Highly participative initiatives, such as CBA, have had difficulties exercising influence on national and international policies, in part because the priority objectives are letting participants engage, rather than aiming for specific advocacy outcomes.

Inclusion is an important feature in all five projects, yet some are more interested in inclusive processes (such as the SDFs and their engagement with women’s groups) and others in inclusive outcomes (such as the closed nature of high seas treaty negotiations), and this has implications for effectiveness and impact. 

How do the features and functions of dialogue discussed here resonate with your experience? What are your success factors for effective dialogue and results?

Engage with us in a ‘dialogue on dialogue’ to support more participatory decision-making processes for more equitable and inclusive policy and practice – we’d love to hear from you! Get in touch with us via IIED’s Emilie Beauchamp (emilie.beauchamp@iied.org).

About the author

Bernardo Monzani (bmonzani@gmail.com) is an independent consultant and evaluation expert.

Alix Wadeson (alixwadesonconsulting@gmail.com) is an independent consultant and evaluation expert.

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