The world spends more than $1.6 trillion a year on its armed forces and $600 million to $800 million on conflict mediation, if you include the peacemaking work of the United Nations and of regional and national organizations. The approximately 2,000-to-one imbalance is massive, but sadly not surprising. Outside the milieu of official diplomacy are half a dozen private organizations whose mission is to resolve armed conflicts by bringing together the opposing sides and helping them reach a peaceful settlement.

Among these, the largest is Geneva’s Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), founded in 1999 and with an annual budget of $30 million and 130 employees. The center has peacemaking activities in eight African countries (plus the Sahel); Syria; the Philippines and Ukraine. It is run by David Harland, a New Zealander and former senior UN official who served in East Timor, the former Yugoslavia and Haiti. Harland describes his type of organization as “a Venus fly trap in the garden of diplomacy,” an exotic species that operates in the shadows. Knowledge at Wharton asked Harland to explain how it goes about mediating in some of the world’s hottest spots.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is the biggest challenge your organization faces in playing its role, now and in the next couple of years?

David Harland: The challenge is not in finding money to fund operations and is not the physical risk or the legal exposure. The main challenge is always finding a connection that adds value. Our aim is to construct a process in which we can connect parties involved in a conflict in a way that increases the chances of a peaceful resolution.

Things are changing in our field. After 65 years of a fairly dramatic decline in warfare, it has been steadily increasing in the past five years. How the wars are fought is also changing. For almost the entire postwar period, to sustain a war a non-state actor needed support from countries such as the U.S., Russia and China. Now almost all insurgencies don’t have that and instead rely on commercial business models to sustain themselves, such as human trafficking, trading in narcotics and so on. So we can’t engage with state sponsors of armed conflict as much as in the past. There are now different approaches to peacemaking that can work.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is your approach to these problems?

Harland: The basic thing we provide is that we offer a protected space in which the parties can meet without the pressures of physical risk or of time or of constituents’ pressure. They can then explore whether it is in their interest to pursue a path toward peace.

“The challenge is not in finding money to fund operations and is not the physical risk or the legal exposure. The main challenge is always finding a connection that adds value.”

We are not an advocacy organization. If one party decides after consultation to continue the talks, we provide an opening for that. This poses challenges, because the protagonist could be gaming the system, acting in bad faith, gathering information or buying time. They may be ingratiating themselves to third parties.

We follow a fairly standardized methodology that involves four steps. The first is analysis. We have a group of young analysts who are following the trends in armed conflicts around the world or potential conflicts. We determine whether these are entering a mediable space. If we answer in the affirmative, then we move to the second stage to contact the parties. This stage requires a different set of people, often former diplomats, intelligence officers, humanitarian workers and others who are used to dealing with these kinds of actors and know the physical risks. They normally start by contacting the weaker of the sides and then, if this is promising, we contact the other principal belligerent group or groups.

We then enter the third phase, the negotiations. Our mediators are retired diplomats and politicians whose careers have involved the construction of agreements. This phase can be very short or very long. And then there is the exit phase, in which our closers work with the parties to put in place a path to implement the agreement and allow for a reasonable level of certainty that the agreement can be sustained over the long term.

Knowledge at Wharton: What type of conflict is more amenable to resolution through HD’s efforts and which less?

Harland: The “perfect” conflict for HD is a long-term belligerency at a subnational level between an armed group and a central government that has reached a stalemate. Furthermore, the government is strong and doesn’t fear for its existence. It knows it cannot fully eradicate the armed group in opposition, because the belligerent has a constituency and has a grievance that needs to be addressed. That covers about a third of all conflicts in the world. Examples include the Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar; the Moro insurgency in the Philippines; or the Kurds who are fighting against the Turkish government.

Knowledge at Wharton: When and how do you decide to embark on a mediation effort?

Harland: Our maximum value is usually gained from the time of our first contact with the opposing parties to the first agreement between them. An example is the decades-long armed conflict in Indonesia involving rebels in Aceh province, where we were the first to connect the Free Aceh Movement and the Jakarta government. We took that process to the 2002 cessation-of-hostilities agreement. Then we exited when other actors had more to add. That was a classic HD process.

In general, the question is whether a conflict has reached a mediable space, usually a mutually hurting stalemate called the “oh, shit!” moment. That’s when the protagonists are heavily committed to using military force and have told people they won’t accept a compromise. But they have reached the point where they are not sure they can reach their goals by force alone. At this point, we want to ensure that no other mediation groups are trying to provide the same service; forum shopping by the protagonists is a bad idea in the field of mediation.

“In general, the question is whether a conflict has reached a mediable space.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Does HD draw from its accumulated experience of conflict resolution to improve its capabilities?

Harland: We have a system of internal learning that rests on two pillars. The first is an attempt to define the value we bring to the peacemaking process. If we relied on an anecdotal narrative, it’s hard to say what can be learned. So we have a methodology of establishing a value in which we divide the peacemaking process into phases, and try to quantify the elements that add value at each stage. We apply a coefficient that connects the value added to the significance of the conflict. Adding a lot of value in a tiny conflict may have less global significance than adding a small amount of value in a large conflict, so you need to adjust for that.

The other pillar is based on peer-to-peer learning that involves members of one team lending their expertise to another team in a different part of the world where the two situations may have some structural similarities.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is the main lesson you personally have learned as the head of HD?

Harland: Our ambition can exceed our capacity, so it’s important to understand the limits of where we add value. There are things we do well, and then you get the feeling you can run faster with those elements, when in fact it is better to focus on adding value and then moving to exit. We managed to do it quite well in Liberia during the last elections in 2011, when we ran a quiet mediation process between the winners and losers, and then we understood the need to exit quickly rather than stay on.

Knowledge at Wharton: Among the places where HD is currently conducting peacemaking activities, where is it making most progress and where least?

Harland: In general, the countries where we add most value are those where other peacemakers aren’t operating. We have had two very good years in Tunisia, where we have been quietly facilitating a political agreement between Islamist and secular political parties. It is the only country in which there was an “Arab Spring” revolt against authoritarianism where the opposing groups have found common ground. Also we have had quite significant success in negotiations to gain humanitarian access into some areas controlled by Islamist extremist groups. In Afghanistan, we have been able to improve humanitarian access in certain parts of the country. Widows’ groups have made representations to the military commanders of the Taliban that have, in some cases, led to a greater willingness to explore options, such as access to water, sanitation, health care, shelter, the vaccination of children and the care of refugees.

Knowledge at Wharton: In Syria, HD has several initiatives to establish an environment for a political solution to the conflict. Can you elaborate on those initiatives and explain exactly how you have been working there?

Harland: An example is the Kurds, one of the strongest fighting forces in Syria. We have been working with them on issues that are clearly going to come up in the context of an overall political settlement in Syria. These include the relationship between the Kurdish and the Arab communities in areas administered by the Kurds and also the constitutional aspirations of the Kurdish area.

“[Our] reputation might suffer if we are perceived to be supporting one side, or to seem neutral when others don’t think it’s appropriate to be impartial.”

But Syria represents a very tragic case; more than half the people killed in the world in the past year or so were in Syria. The conflict is unusually intractable, because there are several layers; rather like a watch mechanism, you have to get all the layers in sync at the same time. It’s almost impossible, because there is a sectarian conflict, a struggle among regional players and a geostrategic chess game between Russia and the U.S.

We’ve been operating in Syria since 2012. We originally got involved at the request of foreign governments in the region that were concerned about the spillover effect of exporting refugees and terrorism. They asked us whether we would be able to explore ways to help and lay the groundwork for other political engagements and for facilitating humanitarian assistance.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are the risks of working in a country such as Syria?

Harland: We have one advantage over other external actors in that we don’t have a large footprint, such as warehouses or installations that require a big staff. But it is an environment of enormous physical risk, and we go through a rigorous risk management process to deal with the threats there. Our initial contacts were with organizations at a safe distance from Syria, and then we went through a process of building trust with them so that we can operate relatively safely in very dangerous areas.

In Syria, we face every possible risk, physical, reputational, legal, financial and so on. For example, our reputation might suffer if we are perceived to be supporting one side, or to seem neutral when others don’t think it’s appropriate to be impartial.

Knowledge at Wharton: What have been HD’s biggest successes and failures?

Harland: Of those in the public sphere, the mediation HD achieved between the Indonesian government and the Aceh rebels is one success. Of our current work, the one I like most is in Tunisia, where we were able to quietly support national mediation between the main parties, and I think this has helped keep Tunisia relatively stable.

As for failures, the ones that keep me up at night are mainly those that teeter on the edge of a cliff. In the Philippines, we engaged in mediation efforts and after several years the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government in Manila signed a framework agreement in 2012. This brought peace to the southern Philippines for the first time in at least 40 years. But the enabling law has not been passed in the Philippine senate, so there is the risk of a relapse into conflict. The Islamic State is trying to establish a connection with Islamist movements in the area, so the price of failure could be very high.

Knowledge at Wharton: If a philanthropist wanted to spend $10 million on peacemaking efforts, how would you advise such a person to do so?

Harland: I think the mediation areas that are most promising are those places of armed conflict that have a very high human cost, but which are out of the public eye. In Nigeria, the conflict involving Boko Haram receives quite a lot of international attention, but there are thousands of people involved in inter-communal conflict in Nigeria in which Boko Haram is not involved. These are quite amenable to the tools of mediation, and where they have been used, in the middle belt of the country, there has been a massive decline in the number of deaths. There are chunks of the world amenable to conflict resolution that are too messy to get public attention, and where inter-communal and inter-religious violence is keeping tens of millions of people in poverty.