Local mediation involves bringing disputants together to discuss and resolve a dispute in a way that is mutually satisfactory to the parties. Unlike court litigation, the process is voluntary and confidential. The mediator(s) ask that the parties communicate in a respectful way and remain open to hearing each other’s perspective.

Local mediators can help deescalate conflict and alleviate human suffering, even if only temporarily. They can also build trust in communities that distrust state institutions. In some cases, they have helped engage proscribed non-state armed actors in track-1 peace processes.

Some local mediation efforts are ad hoc, while others are more structured. Often, the former are initiated in response to perceived inefficiencies in the justice system. This may involve addressing high levels of crime or overburdened dockets (Mason and Amos 1991). Increasingly, there is recognition that locally-based mediation can complement – rather than compete with – international or national mediation initiatives.

Local mediators often work in the context of culturally sensitive issues, such as tensions between modern formal law based on individual rights and traditional customary laws that emphasise collective punishment. Such considerations influence methods of relationship building, communication styles and perceptions of what constitutes a fair process. In north-east Kenya, for example, local mediators have drawn on Somali culture that favours poetry and storytelling as modes of communication.