Positions, Interests and Needs
A classic tool used in conflict transformation.
The distinction between Positions, Interests and Needs (PIN) of parties in conflict is a classic tool used in conflict analysis and resolution. This tool helps us to make a difference between the statements of each party and the emotions that are behind them, thus a tool for opening communication channels. The theory of Positions, Interests and Needs is based on the idea that there are a few basic universal needs. On the basis of these needs people pursue certain interests and create positions that they believe will satisfy their interests and needs. The following article, based on the results of a debate about the usefulness of this tool provides perspectives on how this tool can be used and understood.
A position is the stance taken on an issue by a conflict party, based on underlying interests rooted in core issues defined as needs. Positions are located in the realm of communication and interaction as they are the articulation by the conflict parties of the often complex factors that make up a conflict. Positions are usually informed by an actor’s perceived needs, but also by the actors’ location in a particular conflict or negotiation setting: they are based on their understanding of the setting, the opportunities it presents for them as well as what constraints are present within the scope of the conflict or negotiation.
Example from the Philippines: simple positions masking complex conflict
An example of positions and how they interact with other levels of conflict comes from a land claim conflict that Ecoweb (www.ecoweb.ph/) is involved in facilitating in the Philippines. Two groups of people claim ownership of a piece of land (their position), one occupies the area, whilst the other party legally owns it. The interests of the occupiers lies in the income they gain from cultivating coconuts, which answers to their need for survival, education etc. They are Maranao Muslims who assert the legitimacy of their claim on the basis of ancestral ownership, though they were violently removed from the land four decades earlier. The landowners do not have a clear economic need for the land, as they own vast tracts of property, though they may need income in order to pay property taxes accumulated during the occupation of their land. The interests of the landowners seems to lie in asserting their rights as legitimate owners of the land. The (Christian) landowners, settlers in the region organized an armed group to harass the land occupiers.
This is basically a resource-based conflict, but it has another, identity related dimension due to the distinct groups the parties are from. The landowners expressed in private to the conflict mediators that they see the Maranao Muslims as having a cultural practice of squatting. This example shows us that though both groups have the same position, that the land is theirs, there is a complex background to the conflict. With these kinds of differing interests and needs, the conflict transformation process should be geared towards understanding each other’s positions, interests and needs in order to open up to options that could be beneficial to all parties.
The above example also shows us that needs are not necessarily only linked to basic needs for survival such as the need for safety and security, but can be related to assertion of identity. It can become difficult in a situation of conflict transformation if the needs of the conflicting parties are on different levels, as this can affect the power relations within a conflict. For example if one party has needs directly related to survival they will often have less power and lower economic means, making their position a weak one within an asymmetric conflict.
Needs are the goals pursued by an individual or a group in order to survive. They can have an objective nature if the lack of provision of these needs results in a physical threat to survival (basic needs). They can also be subjective (perceived needs) when they are not a direct factor in survival. Positions on the other hand are the expression of the aim or goal of a conflict party. Positions are always subjective. Needs and positions can be the same thing in two situations:
With perceived needs – where the conflict party cannot separate their personal perception of a need from the reality of the situation
When the conflict party expresses their need clearly within their position.
Also we must remember that identification of needs in conflict analysis is an interpretation by the analyst, who is making a judgement about the positions the basic needs of the conflicting parties are.
Example (of subjective nature of needs)
The position stating that living in harmony with nature and building peaceful relationship with others could not be counted as a basic need in Western culture, because we are used to living in cities and have conflicting relationships. However, from the Native (Aboriginal) Australian point of view this position could be a need. In fact, at the beginning of European colonization, some Aboriginal people are said to have died in jail only after several hours of imprisonment.
Limitations of this tool (1) Subjectivity
The example of Native Australians dying in prison seems also to show the limits of the positions/interests/needs tool, as the interpretation of the Party’s Needs by the conflict analyst is always subject to personal bias.
The interests of a conflict party are what they need to achieve in order to meet their needs. For example in the Philippine case discussed above, it is stated that the interest of the land occupiers is to secure the income from the land they are using. This achieved they would then be able to meet their own basic needs. This is also distinct from their position, that the land is theirs, as there are ways to gain the income from the land without owning it. Here we can see how it can often be easier to reconcile interests than positions.
It can be difficult to distinguish between needs and interests, and this is where the subjective view of the conflict parties and conflict analyst can result in different views of the conflict and its possible resolution.
Limitations of this tool (2) Emotion in conflict
In marketing as well as in politics some analysts and experts suggest that many decisions are not as logical as they seem to be and are hugely affected by emotional factors. Therefore, according to the emotions-over-logic approach people do not always take positions that respond to the needs they are trying to meet. In fact, in violent conflicts it seems that emotions also play an important role along with misconceptions that affect logical attempts to resolve conflict peacefully.
Use of the PIN tool in training: Personal accounts
In his experience as a trainer Richard Smith finds it useful to articulate the position as the public position expressed by a party. And then to explore the underlying interests and look at short and long term needs. These are usually very different, but in exploring them it becomes easier to find where the common ground might be. Often the public position is full of rhetoric, or is populist in the way it tries to express itself.
Another trainer, Ivan Monzon, explains that local actors assume a position as a protection mechanism. In his experience, the actors use positions to ask for recognition and for this reason they are not willing to change them. Sometimes it is not possible to go directly to a discussion about interests because people are feeling harmed or underestimated. For this reason it is very important to provide time to listen to the initial positions.
Applying the PIN tool: Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe the public position of the opposition movement is often expressed as « Mugabe must Go ». The position of the ruling ZANU-PF is « We are victims of Western Imperialism ». Within both of these positions there are interests, some more hidden than others. The opposition interests lie in a desire for shifts in political power, the ruling party interests lie in protecting the status quo and diverting attention away from the actions of the military elite. The short term needs of the opposition are more about the right to participate freely in democratic participation and access to basic needs like food and shelter while the ruling party needs are for ongoing uncertainty and instability that enables them to continue obtaining material gains from the resource exploitation taking place, and holding onto the power that allows this. In the long term however the needs are similar, linked to the need for security, protection from direct violence and persecution, and to gain stability that creates opportunities for economic gain.
Applying the PIN tool: Philippines
Another version of the ‘positions, interests, needs’ model is called the « onion » model, which explains that in a good relationship between persons/groups the layers are quite close together and it is easy to shift in communication from positions to needs. In a conflict situation these layers become thicker and thicker, and positions hide needs. In general trust is necessary to express one’s needs and this is exactly what is lacking in conflict.
Laura Engel found the tool useful in the land rights conflict Ecoweb is dealing with in the Philippines. The positions are about the ownership of the land, but if we are able to see what the interests of the conflicting parties are (a stable income for their family, sending children to school, be able to pay for medication etc) and also the needs (security, food) new possibilities suddenly open up. The land cannot be owned by both parties, so one of them will not see their position met, but what can be done is to work for the fulfilment of the interests by generating new work options or creating support structures within the community.
Limitations of this tool (3) Does not work in isolation
The tool is helpful when it helps parties to understand each other better, but where there is no will or even desire to understand, or when the dialogue is not supported by other forms of struggle that help to leverage and shift power, then understanding in itself is nice, but it does not create change.
Asymmetric power relations and PIN tool
In order to resolve a conflict a shared platform needs to be created where the interest and needs of all conflict parties can be addressed. Once this has been achieved it is possible to move forwards through compromises, mutual interaction and inclusion. If the position of any one party is ignored or dismissed it can cause disturbances or resurgence of conflict, which means that situations of asymmetric power relations can be difficult to resolve.
Example from Peru: Asymmetric power relations in conflict
Asymmetric power relations can easily result in conflict as in this situation violence is often perceived by the weaker party as the only way of being heard. This example is of rural inhabitants in Peru demanding the attention of their government. Fishermen and inhabitants of small villages have very little trust for private companies and the authorities, and feel insecure in this asymmetric power relation, concluding that violent action is the only way to force the start of a dialogue or make their point. When a new government was elected in Peru they promised the creation of 2 000 jobs within two months. These jobs were however only short term (such as ten day contracts to clean roads and villages) and people were sent far from their homes, resulting in high transport costs. To protest against this the people went to the authorities, carrying their tools: machetes, shovels, stick, etc. but the authorities refused a dialogue. At this point protests became violent, and when this did not bring dialogue, main roads were blocked in several places (a common form of protest in Peru) with the demand that a member of the government come to talk to the people. Once this goal was achieved the protests stopped immediately, even before an agenda for talks was agreed on. This shows us the protest was about redressing the power balance, in order to be regarded as a legitimate conflict party.
Empowerment: changing conflict relations in order to achieve transformation
There are a million things that can shift power, but what is needed is to get beyond interests and positions towards an expression and discussion of real needs in order to make dialogue a more attractive option, either willingly or through pressure. Sometimes simply providing the space and an opportunity for dialogue can help, raising awareness through public debate and getting the right people to talk to each other, but pressure is often also needed. Pressure is best asserted through a mix of mobilising, organising, campaigning and lobbying. Ultimately you need people in positions of power to notice you, to take your position seriously, and to take the time needed to establish a relationship that then opens up space to discuss, analyse and try to find solutions together.
Empowering the disadvantaged party can help in shifting power relations in a conflict. This can be done through civic education, awareness raising campaigns, and interventions aimed at increasing livelihoods options. Some of the needs or structural imbalances are addressed as third parties try to empower the weaker side. However third parties should be careful not to involve their own interests at the forefront, because this tends to give the powerful side more ammunition against the underdog. Empowerment should enable the weaker side to be able to strategise and act independently of the third party in the fight for a shift in power relations.
(This article has been written as a result of the valuable insights of Sebastian Snoeck, Richard Smith, Andreas P. and Spyros Sofos, Chiedza Kokera, Laura Engel, Martyn Chase Abrahams and Regina Salvador-Antequisa.)