By Salaam Yitbarek
Many Ethiopians and those interested in Ethiopia have asked themselves over the years why Ethiopians cannot get along, or why Ethiopian organizations, groups, or collectives seem to not work very well. Indeed, over the past few decades, we have seen countless Ethiopian collectives of all types split apart, disbanded, abandoned, rendered ineffective, or operating inefficiently, often because of intra-group conflict-conflict among the membership-and an inability to practice effective conflict resolution.
For example, consider the state of Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the Diaspora, which for various reasons happen to be the strongest voluntary organizations in the community. It is fair to say that at least half these churches have experienced serious conflict leading to break-ups. And much of this conflict is not substantive - not due to political or theological differences. A priest, during a recent sermon, remarked that nearly all the large North American cities have Ethiopian Orthodox churches. "What else do they have in common?" he asked the congregation. The answer was quick - "Feuds!"
I believe that the propensity for conflict and the lack of tools and capacity for conflict resolution are fundamental reasons for Ethiopia’s poverty and underdevelopment. Endless feuding and infighting from the grassroots level upwards have made it difficult for Ethiopians to build and sustain the social capital and institutions necessary for development. I think it is imperative that academicians and development practitioners make awareness of intra-group conflict a top priority for study and intervention. But before I make my case, I would like to describe the nature of the problem in greater detail. Here are a few interesting points. First, the intra-group conflicts we see in Ethiopian collectives are seldom caused by differences in ideology, organizational structure, or other substantive reasons. Nor are they confined to organizations whose members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Indeed, virulent conflicts occur in apparently homogeneous groups whose memberships have not only similar ideologies, but similar frames of reference, perspectives, and interests.
Another interesting point is that such conflicts occur just as much in the Ethiopian Diaspora as they do in Ethiopia. This is interesting because in the Diaspora, factors such as poverty, various types of oppression, lack of education, etc., do not exist.
Finally, intra-group conflicts are found in all types of Ethiopian collectives. We can observe chronic feuding and infighting in families, extended families, non-political civic organizations such as professional associations, religious institutions, local community and charity organizations, as well as political associations.
So, why is there so much intra-group conflict characterized by personal feuds and infighting in Ethiopian society? And when there is conflict, why is conflict resolution so difficult? One explanation is that we have been brought up in an environment where certain dysfunctional behaviors that hamper effective communication, cause conflict, and hinder conflict resolution are the norm. Below is a list of some of these behaviors that I have observed. I ask readers to reflect on whether you have seen them in yourself, in others, in meetings, and other group settings.
Personalization of issues
This is when we are unable to conceptually distinguish between people and their ideas or thoughts. For example, if someone objects to a suggestion I make, I see the objection as personal attack, not as a simple difference of opinion. In response to the perceived personal attack, I respond with a personal attack, instead of discussing the issues.
Hence, the initial disagreement over ideas turns into a personal struggle, and because it is a personal struggle where pride and survival are at stake, we end up unable to constructively 'agree to disagree'. Groups whose members find it difficult to 'agree to disagree' become paralyzed by feuding and infighting and eventually collapse.
We tend to irrationally favor those from our own kin-family, village, team, and ethnic group-no matter what the cost. That is, if a person from my kin has a conflict with someone outside my kin, I automatically favor my colleague, no matter what the substance of the disagreement. Furthermore, I extend the conflict to a dislike of the stranger and his entire kin-his family, friends, place of employment, ethnic group, etc. This is the root of blood feuds.
Parochialism within organizations leads to ineffectiveness, as decisions are made based on who supports the decisions, rather than on their merit. It also leads to organizations being split into smaller and smaller factions, and eventually collapsing. An organization may split into two main factions. Factions will develop within those factions, and further splitting will occur, until the organization fails.
Chronic suspicion and mistrust
We view each other first and foremost as potential threats. With such a heightened level of threat-awareness, any idea or thought, no matter how innocuous, is quickly considered to have negative ulterior motives behind it. Even the most innocent comments by the closest of friends can be misinterpreted as sinister, resulting in the breakup of relationships. This behavior is a fundamental cause of conflict in a group setting. No group can be effective without trust.
As we view everyone as a threat, we tend to disproportionately develop a paranoid outlook in our interaction with others, with the 'threat' foremost in our minds in our interactions. This paranoia, in a group setting, results in organizational paralysis with everyone looking over their shoulder and hesitant, instead of working towards the common goal.
Lack of empathy and empathetic understanding
Empathy, the ability to identify with or understand others' situation, feelings, and actions, is critical for effective communication and teamwork. However, in our society, we are not sensitized to the importance of empathy. We do not ask questions such as 'what in his background might have caused him to react this way', or 'what would I have done in his shoes'. This leads us to make erroneous judgments based on incomplete understanding, which in turn leads to confusion and conflict within groups.
Lack of suspending judgment or giving others the benefit of the doubt
Suspending judgment is fundamental to effective communication. However, due to our suspicious nature and lack of empathetic understanding, we have a tendency to judge and not give others the benefit of the doubt. If someone does something we do not understand, we do not say, 'Perhaps there is something he knows that I don't,' or 'Let me wait and see before making a judgment.' We judge hastily, without taking time to examine all possibilities. This results in erroneous judgments and personal conflicts.
Rather than addressing conflict directly, we spread rumors and innuendo about those with whom we disagree. We engage in character assassination because we know that it is an effective weapon in our society. Since we do not give each other the benefit of the doubt, we tend to believe bad things about others! A strategy of muddying someone’s reputation will render them useless, as people will simply have had their existing suspicions confirmed.
Lack of openness
Openness facilitates effective communication. As Ethiopians, we are not open and forthcoming about our thoughts and expect the same guarded approach from others. This is related to our lack of empathy, which makes us afraid of being judged hastily and incorrectly if we speak openly. This fear causes us to be vague, unclear, and non-committal, which inevitably leads to communication gaps and communication breakdown, as others persistently try to interpret the hidden meaning of what is said, and often end up interpreting negatively and incorrectly. Lack of openness leads to misunderstanding and ultimately conflict.
We tend to chronically hold on to personal grudges. Understanding or forgiveness of perceived affronts is seen as weakness, as it is assumed that everyone is and remains to be a threat. In a group setting, there are bound to be conflicts, and if people hold on to grudges, there can be no effective teamwork.
We hate it when others are better off than we are in any context, but instead of struggling to improve our own lot, we work to reduce others'! This comes from our ingrained perception that everything in life is a zero-sum game. If someone is rich, it is because another is poor. If someone is happy, it is because another is sad. It is as if the world has been allotted a fixed amount of wealth, happiness, etc., and it has been ordained that everyone should have more or less the same amount. Failing this, the ones with more must have committed some kind of crime to improve their lot and the ones who have less must be cursed.
Stubbornness and lack of compromise
Because of our zero-sum view of the world, compromise is seen as a weakness. We do not understand the concept of compromise as a building block for future win-win endeavors. Instead, compromise is seen as a loss forever.
I am sure that all of us have seen firsthand these behaviors manifested in our various collectives, from families to religious groups to political organizations. Many of us in the Diaspora have been exposed to non-Ethiopian collectives where, generally speaking, such conflicts occur far less often. We have also observed that these collectives are, as a result, far more effective and efficient than Ethiopian collectives.
It is crucial that we find a way to raise awareness that intra-group conflict is a fundamental barrier to development, to put an end to our dysfunctional group behaviors, and to promote positive, constructive behaviors that reduce conflict, increase our capacity for conflict resolution, and increase our collective propensity (tendency) for cooperation.
To this end, as a first step, I suggest that all of us look inward and self-reflect, try to identify these behaviors in ourselves, and then try to change our thoughts and actions in ways that help us reduce the conflict in our own lives, and in those of our families, friends, and acquaintances.
My second suggestion is that there should be a collective attempt to stigmatize dysfunctional behaviors in our everyday lives. For example, we must make it unacceptable to attack anyone personally instead of addressing issues. We must not only refuse to listen to character assassination, but openly chastise (discipline) and correct those who do it. In a charitable and constructive manner, of course-we have to keep in mind that most of us engage in such behavior almost unknowingly, because of the culture we have grown up in. Unless sensitized to the ramifications of such speech and actions, we cannot become fully aware of the consequences.
Finally, I suggest that academicians, development practitioners, and institutions make the topic of dysfunctional behaviors, social norms conducive (encouraging) to development, social capital, and the like, a priority for research and action.
Salaam Yitbarek works for Statistics Canada in Ottawa
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