Peace Science Digest

From Dialogue to Broader Societal Change in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Photo Credit: Harshil Shah via flickr

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Šerá Komlossyová, E. (2019). Moving beyond personal change: Using dialogue in ethnically divided communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 37, 33-47.

Talking Points

In the context of the work of the Nansen Dialogue Centre Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH),

  • Dialogue projects have influenced attitudes and relations at the interpersonal level, with participants reporting increased understanding and mutual trust, among other changes.
  • Dialogue projects have also been able to positively affect the broader sociopolitical context in BiH, largely through the work of affiliated alumni action groups who have engaged in joint action and activism to address societal problems, thereby demonstrating “that it is possible to bridge ethnic divides.”
  • Dialogue participants themselves identified and developed their own plans of action for addressing key community problems, thereby taking ownership over these peacebuilding initiatives.
  • In particular, dialogue participants focused much of their joint action and activism on challenging the segregated school system in BiH, encouraging relationship-building and common identity formation among students of different ethnicities.


Dialogue is a common tool employed in post-war settings to promote reconciliation between antagonistic groups. The primary focus of such efforts is usually individual-level attitude changes and interpersonal relationship-building. Indeed, research on dialogue has documented its ability to bring about “an increased sense of commonalities, recognition of multiple perspectives…, enhanced empathy…, mutual trust,” and so on. But the hope is also that these individual and interpersonal changes will then translate into societal-level transformation. Little research has, however, assessed whether and how dialogue can accomplish this second task. Accordingly, the author of this research is interested in investigating the outcomes of a particular dialogue project—run by the Nansen Dialogue Centre (NDC) Sarajevo—and whether it has been able to initiate broader changes at the societal level in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH).

The approach to dialogue employed by the NDC Sarajevo (“Nansen dialogue”) is oriented around three concepts: movement, visibility, and relations. Both physical and mental movement are needed for successful dialogue: the physical movement to neutral ground for the dialogue itself and eventually across societal divisions when taking joint action, and the mental movement occurring when participants listen to one another with openness. Participants make themselves visible to one another by telling their own and listening to each other’s stories. Mutual relations are strengthened through the understanding that dialogue engenders, even if disagreement persists. Ultimately, the goal of Nansen dialogue is to “transform antagonistic relations that prevail in ethnically divided communities into functional political and social relations.” This goal presents a real challenge in contemporary BiH where social and political institutions are still often organized around and segregated by ethnicity. NDC Sarajevo invites participants to an initial weekend-long dialogue seminar at the end of which they are encouraged to identify problems related to ethnic divisions in their communities and devise action plans to address these. NDC Sarajevo provides follow-up in the form of financial and technical support for these projects, as well as advanced trainings.

There were two phases to the author’s research. First, in fall 2012, she interviewed 22 individuals, including NDC dialogue participants from four rural locales, NDC staff, and the lead NDC facilitator, while also observing one week-long dialogue. Second, in summers 2016 and 2017, she followed up with focus groups and interviews with NDC staff and alumni members of the Nansen Coordination Boards (NCBs), the entities set up by former participants to coordinate community-based inter-ethnic projects. To determine the extent to which NDC’s projects have contributed to broader societal change, the author applied the following Reflecting on Peace Practice (RPP) evaluation criteria: whether a project reaches a large number of participants, including influential individuals, functions on the individual and sociopolitical levels, causes participants to initiate their own peacebuilding projects, improves intergroup relations, and/or instigates change or reform of political institutions.

The author concludes that NDC Sarajevo’s dialogue projects were able to positively affect the broader sociopolitical context in BiH through the work of its affiliated alumni action groups who “succeeded in de-ethnicizing everyday problems local communities face, showing that it is possible to bridge ethnic divides” and engage in joint activism to address these problems in a way that serves the common interest. She bases this conclusion on the following evidence, in light of RPP criteria. First, NDC Sarajevo involved many individuals who were influential and well-respected in their communities, including municipality councilors. But dialogues—and alumni-organized activities—reached not just this “middle-range” level of community leaders but also many individuals from the “grassroots,” especially students, parents, teachers, and other municipal officials.

Second, while the dialogue projects certainly built trust and understanding on the interpersonal level, they also leveraged these newfound relationships and common perspectives on current problems to influence the sociopolitical level, encouraging participants to engage in joint action to address the problems they identified. Third, the participants themselves developed their own plans of action for addressing these community problems and took ownership over these peacebuilding initiatives. Fourth, over the course of these projects, participants demonstrated a willingness to work across ethnic lines to address these common problems.

And, finally, although NDC Sarajevo was unable to directly change institutions that were reinforcing ethnic divisions, NDC participants engaged in activities that “challenged [these] … institutions and lessened the negative role they play,” such as their activities to encourage relationship-building and common identity formation among students of different ethnicities. Crucially, students from one multi-ethnic high school with a high number of self-identifying “Nansen kids” protested the local government’s proposal to bring back mono-ethnic high schools, effectively preventing this backward slide into even more dysfunctional institutions.

The main limitation to NDC Sarajevo’s work identified was a lack of long-term strategic thinking and coordination on the part of action groups—something the author argues would only enhance their ability to influence the broader societal context.

Informing Practice

This research, like other research recently highlighted in the Peace Science Digest on the work of the Israeli encounter organization Sadaka-Reut,[1] underscores how important it is for dialogue organizations and projects to provide the infrastructure to support and follow up with dialogue participants. Most crucially, if dialogue is to result in anything further than momentary interpersonal connection across ethnic divisions—indeed, if it is to play a critical role in creating broader change at the societal level—participants must have the support they need to engage in joint action and activism to confront and address the problems they identify in their communities. One of the key dimensions to the success of these joint actions undertaken by alumni of the Nansen Dialogue Centre (NDC) Sarajevo is that they were completely devised by the participants themselves, once they had had the chance to break down stereotypes and build trust, rather than identified ahead of time by NDC Sarajevo. As the author notes, this model creates a much stronger sense of ownership among alumni for these actions, but it also presents a challenge when it comes to funding. Leaving completely open the kind of joint projects that might be conceived after a dialogue process may not sit well with donors who often require clear deliverables on a pre-set timeframe.

For this reason, the author urges donors instead to “be prepared to provide organizations with continuous support and sufficient time to instigate the needed changes.” This move requires funders to be comfortable with a great deal of uncertainty about how their money is going to be spent, as it is precisely this uncertainty about the ultimate outcomes of a dialogue that makes it a particularly powerful mode of interaction and its outcomes potentially more sustainable. (On this last point, see Šavija-Valha and Šahić’s 2015 book on NDC Sarajevo’s dialogue projects under Continued Reading.) Although this approach requires a measure of “letting-go” by outside actors—whether donors or peacebuilding organizations—who already have well-developed ideas about the kind of change they wish to see in the places where they work, peacebuilding efforts can be more effective and sustainable when local communities and participants are provided space and support to develop their own ideas for change.

Continued Reading

Šavija-Valha, N., & Šahić, E. (2015). Building trans-ethnic peace: Interethnic dialogue, social and political action in local communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nansen Dialogue Centre Sarajevo.

Peace Science Digest. (2019, April). From encountering the “other side” to social change activism. Retrieved October 18, 2019, from

Church, C. (2011). The use of reflecting on peace practice (RPP) in peacebuilding evaluation: Review and recommendations. Cambridge, MA: CDA.


Nansen Dialogue Centre Sarajevo:

[1] Peace Science Digest. (2019, May). From encountering the “other side” to social change activism. Retrieved October 17, 2019, from

Keywords: dialogue, Bosnia-Herzegovina, ethnic conflict, activism, reconciliation

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 5 of the Peace Science Digest.