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Steven Watts Brings Dispute Resolution to Chad
For snapping a quick photo out of the window of a taxi, Steven Watts was pulled over by local “security” personnel in N’Djamena, Chad. The man pointed a gun at him, interrogating him in Arabic and French.
Not speaking either fluently, Steven relied on his Muslim guide to negotiate a peaceful resolution to this, the first of many “cultural” conflicts. Steven’s offense was that although he had retained the official permission of the Chadian ministry of information to take pictures in the city, he had failed to get unofficial permission from the local warlord that controlled this particular neighborhood. Thus began his education of the cultural differences between Chad and America.
When these photos were taken, Steven stood deep in the Saharan desert country of Chad, where the weather is 125 degrees or hotter, food is scarce and sometimes inedible, the water contaminated, and a civil war rages with five rebel groups actively trying to overthrow the current government.
Steven has been working in Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, and Cameroon for over four years. His initial involvement came from research for his doctorate in intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, where his dissertation presents a new model to address poverty and corruption in developing countries like Chad. The dissertation argues for multinational corporations, (ExxonMobil specifically) to collaborate with the local communities in order to protect their operations in these countries.
Currently, the Chadians feel animosity toward the company that takes their oil and gives them nothing tangible in return. Steven argues that if ExxonMobil provides the community with facilities such as medical centers, schools, and water treatment plants they will be securing public stability, which will in turn, allow them to profit in Chad. “I maintain that engaging in community-based risk mitigation strategies will lead to the socioeconomic foundation for a functioning society,” says Steven. If the company continues to ignore the community and growing social unrest, he argues that they risk their profits in an increasingly unstable country.
Steven’s professional background makes him a perfect candidate to speak with authority on this topic. In the ‘80s, he worked in the oil industry, and he retains many professional friendships in the unique fraternity. Add to that many years with the big five international management consulting firms Ernst & Young, LLP and PriceWaterhouse, LLP, where he created global business solutions for some of the world’s largest corporations. In addition to his Ph.D. from Fuller, Steven holds an MBA in organization development and a BS in economics from the University of Houston.
The accumulation of professional experience and advanced education has prepared him for a career as a professor, researcher, and speaker, but in working with Chad, problems arose for which Steven was unprepared. As he talked about the economic infrastructure of Chad’s communities with key Islamic, Christian, and Anamist leaders, many other issues surfaced. At a dinner meeting at the home of the Minister of Petroleum, Youssouf Abassalah, Youssouf agreed with and offered his support of Steven’s argument that investing in the economic infrastructure of local communities was a critical way to help in the fight against the poverty and corruption that threaten Chad. But he brought up another problem. A radical, Taliban-type Islamic model of government was creating great concern among Chadian leaders.
Radical Islam was only one of the many issues. “During the course of my research in 2004, it became clear that issues of corruption and poverty were embedded in a complicated structure of disputes stemming from religious, geographic, political, and tribal conflicts,” says Steven. Conflict over each of these issues has fostered a culture of hostility, so much so that when he asked Muslim community members from the north of Chad to name a symbol for their country, they indicated that it would be a dagger because for everything they must fight and protect the interest of the tribe.
It was conversations like these that convinced Steven he needed to work with all members of the Chadian community to develop a culturally contextualized model of conflict resolution. But, in order to bring them these principles, he would need additional and specific skills. Enter Pepperdine Law’s Straus Institute.
After meeting with Straus Directors, Steven found the program to be appropriate to his interest in helping the Chadian people. He enrolled in the MDR program and continued to meet with Chadian leaders and community members. His continuing challenge has been to “examine the role that dispute resolution might play in creating a functioning society in a country at risk of becoming a failed state.”
Dispute resolution can work in a place like Chad because it isn’t government-based, and it levels the playing field. Already, there are peaceful underlying currents within the Chadian culture, such as respect for women and children, and the strong shared calling for stewardship of all resources by the Islamic, Christian, and Anamist faiths.
Another recently-established initiative for peace is the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Change, founded by a former member of the Chadian government, Julien Beassemda. Julien has a vision of training local Muslim, Christian and Anamist in ways of peaceful conflict resolution, and Steven has partnered with him. The MLK center has already made great strides in creating a cross-cultural and interfaith grassroots organization that has been successful resolving some tribal-based conflicts between the cattle herding Fulani and agricultural Goran tribes of Southern Chad.
Steven has developed another partnership with the Universite Evangelique Du Tchad. The director and professor of the school, Sem Beasnael, a Christian leader in Southern Chad, has a vision to train Chadians in agriculture, economic, and technical skills. The university has only one building, which lacks a roof, but Steven agreed to help them raise funds. He also promised to teach classes in economics, culture and transformation, and conflict resolution.
In all his initiatives, Steven approaches the Chadians with the utmost respect. He doesn’t presume that he is the benevolent American with all the answers. Instead, he works closely with the MLK center, the university, community members, and tribal and religious leaders with the goal of passing on his skills in intercultural understanding and dispute resolution, so that the Chadians can teach each other. In every exchange, he honors their culture and customs, whether by studying the Qur’an and speaking about theology with Islamic leaders or meeting on the dirt floor of a tent to discuss how ExxonMobil can play a more strategic role in Chad.
This summer, he will return to Chad. It’s not the weather or the thrill of a dangerous environment that bring him back. He doesn’t return to evangelize the Chadians, although he is a Christian and has compassion for the people. Instead, Steven spends his own time and money traveling to Chad because he believes that the country can develop a functioning society, built on mutual respect for human rights and social justice for all.
by Emily DiFrisco