By Allan Stitt of the Stitt Feld Handy Group

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of the Canadian Government Executive (www.netgov.ca).

There was certainly a bit of culture shock for us from the moment we landed at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was coming from Toronto with my wife and some colleagues to teach the Ethiopians about mediation, a project funded by CIDA and the Stitt Feld Handy Group. From the moment we landed on the runway and passed the burned out and broken down planes, I knew this would not be anything like the courses we taught in Canada or even Europe or Australia. My wife said, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more”.

I had received an email about 6 months earlier, in the summer of 2005, from Sophie Racine of CIDA asking me whether the Stitt Feld Handy Group would be interested in coming to Ethiopia to teach some local people about mediation. Sophie told me that CIDA was funding a group called the Ethiopia Arbitration and Conciliation Centre (the EACC) to help change the culture of dispute resolution in Ethiopia. Fighting and adversarial litigation was the norm and a group of people at the EACC led by Woubshet Ayele wanted to change all that. Sophie had been working in Ethiopia and this was one of her key projects.

I had been to Ethiopia before, about three years earlier, as part of a team from the Canadian Bar Association, to talk to some lawyers and judges about Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). It seems that Woubshet was in the audience when I spoke and he decided to give up his law practice to devote himself to bringing ADR to Ethiopia. Sophie learned of Woubshet’s goals and ideals and saw the potential of how cooperative forms of dispute resolution could change the way Ethiopians dealt with each other.

This trip would be very different from my last one. I would spend a day with a group interested in construction disputes, a day with people who dealt with labour disputes, a day with people who dealt with family disputes, a day with people who dealt with business disputes, and a day on arbitration. Very few of the 40 or so people I taught each day were lawyers. All had taken a basic mediation course in the past, some a number of years before and some the week before from my partner, Frank Handy, and a colleague of ours, Rick Russell.

After we got our bags at the airport, we headed to the Sheraton Hotel, probably the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life. It had 5 fancy restaurants, a spectacular pool and health club and every convenience imaginable. The walls that surrounded it hid the extraordinary poverty that we saw everywhere else in Addis, the AIDS epidemic that was devastating Ethiopia and so many other countries in Africa, and the fact that a working man who made the equivalent of a dollar a day was not doing badly.

We went on a drive to see some of the sights (one of the members of the Board of the EACC provided a driver for us) and my wife commented that the donkeys we saw up ahead looked like they were carrying heavy loads. It was only when we got closer that we realized that those donkeys were women who were carrying the heavy loads. We were told that the women did a lot of carrying while the men often sat around and drank coffee.

One of the first challenges for us in the course was the language barrier. Amharic is the primary language but people learn English in the schools. We did not have a translator but were careful to speak slowly so that they could understand. Some people obviously understood better than others, but we could tell by the questions we were asked that everyone was keen and really wanted to learn about mediation. One woman had almost no accent and we asked her whether she had studied in North America or in England. “No”, she said, “I just listen to the BBC a lot to try to improve my English.”

People who train in mediation know that role plays are key tools to help people learn about mediation and we decided that we would use role plays for our students. We drafted a number of role plays that we hoped would be culturally sensitive. Our Ethiopian students were not really used to role-playing (and were particularly hesitant to play the role of mediator) but were eager to eager to learn and, through the course of each day, became very engaged in the role plays.

But back to the culture shock. Here is an example. During the day when we taught Family Mediation, we wanted to talk to the group about screening cases for domestic violence. It is fairly well accepted in Canada that, for a mediation relating to the breakup of a marriage, the mediator should first screen the two disputants to determine whether there has been a history of spousal abuse. If so, the mediator should use some specific techniques and skills to try to minimize the likelihood that he violence will re-occur. In extreme cases, the mediator may refuse to conduct the mediation.

In Ethiopia, the perspective was quite different. We asked the group what they did when a woman wanted to leave her husband because she was being physically abused. We were told that the advice she usually received from lawyers and social workers was to go back to her abusing husband, because if she did not, she would likely have no access to her children and no money to live on. Being abused, they assured us, was better for her than living (or dying) on the street. This is the reality of life in Ethiopia. We knew we could not change a culture in a week and all we could do was to do our best to make a very small inroad into a culture where violence was accepted.

There was other violence in Ethiopia when we were there. Some students at the University who were protesting were shot. Some members of the opposition party were arrested. Ethiopians were looking for a better way to live.

Yet, with all of the violence, the people were absolutely wonderful to us and truly embraced the concept of mediation. To a person, the participants tried to make us feel comfortable and made sure that we had anything we wanted or needed. The concept of mediation was new to them, but they embraced it. They saw this as a beginning for them to change from a society of violence to a society of cooperative dealings. They were fascinated by the idea that disputes could be resolved, in a lot of cases, by people looking at meeting each others’ interests rather than looking for how to exercise power over the other. They told us how much they appreciated what Canada was doing for them to teach them the skills they needed to resolve disputes quickly and calmly.

My wife Sari and I met some fantastic people there who were doing fascinating work. We were in awe of the people in Ethiopia who are so dedicated to helping others. People who really cared and were trying to make Ethiopia a better place. CIDA is really helping the Ethiopian people and making a difference and we thank them for giving us the chance to be part of what they are doing.

Allan Stitt was a member of the Stitt Feld Handy Group team that went to Ethiopia in December of 2005 as part of a CIDA project.