What space for peacebuilding in a complex world?

Peacebuilding practitioners have been engaged in a process of critical self-reflection for some time. They are seeking new ways of contributing effectively to peacebuilding and social transformation in light of new global dynamics and conflict trends. And it is worth thinking about our understanding of peacebuilding in a complex globalized world and how we wish to shape it in the future. In this complex situation, clinging to established peace policy paradigms is not enough. Which roles and responsibilities fall to external civil society and governmental actors? How are global dynamics and thematic trends changing peacebuilding policy and practice, and what kind of response is appropriate?
The opening dialogue between Dan Smith, International Alert and Rob Ricigliano built the bridge between the public panel discussion on 7 May and the conference day and offered in-depth reflections on how to engage effectively in complex contexts characterized by greater uncertainty, fluidity and multi-polarity.

Dan Smith started the discussion by recalling some of the highlights from the opening panel:

  1. The old trend of the declining of war is over. Despite the fact that violent conflicts are on average less lethal and shorter than 30 years ago, rising pressures are generating increased conflict risk. Among the challenges coming down the road are the growing pressures from climate change, demographic shifts, natural resource management, and growing inequalities.
  2. It is crucial to make connections: Linking people, linking issues, linking processes. We have to rethink our mutual relationships and develop an honest dialogue. Therefore we should stop thinking about peacebuilding as „what we do for them“ and start to think about conflict in our own neighbourhoods as well. Growing inequalities are not solely an issue for developing countries.
  3. The pathways that peacebuilding needs to travel in the coming years must built on what we have learnt and take up new ingredients: For example there is a need to address issues of climate change, natural resource management and growing social and economic inequalities. We need to go beyond the “participation” of women, but to really grasp their peacebuilding potentials. There is also the need to go beyond “building institutions” and bring in a closer look at the relationships between the state and society also on the local level.
  4. The "home" of peacebuilding is not on the margin of development – it is part of what shapes people-centred development. Where it doesn’t, both peacebuilding and development tend to go wrong.

In the following presentation Rob Ricigliano gave an idea how a systems perspective can help us to tackle these complex challenges - stating that it is generally difficult to talk about complexity because it is too complex. And it is sometimes challenging to avoid being seen overly critical of what people are doing in their day-to-day business. But best intentions often work against us when we try to grapple with these complex wicked problems. Our current system offers few incentives to ask questions about existing local systems. The traditional practice still seeks for the fixable part of a problem.

In contrast to this reductionist approaches a systems perspective takes a more holistic view. In a complex world the problem does not lie in the issue itself but in the surroundings. Complex systems cannot be controlled and hence, there is no way to ‘fix’ them. The key is to work with, not against, the energy and motion in the system. In order to tackle the problem it is necessary to engage the surrounding system.

Ricigliano advocated for a shift of mind towards systemic peacebuilding. He introduced the basic aspects of complex systems, i.e., the interaction and relationships among parts, the interconnectedness of parts, the feedback and dynamics, and emerging patterns.

Ricigliano identified three key elements of a system approach to peacebuilding:

  1. Listen to the system: There is a need for consultation and feedback at the beginning and during the implementation in order to adapt our strategies to the prevailing dynamics.
  2. Engage with the system: Peacebuilders can only nurture changes already happening in the system.
  3. Learn from the system: Instead of monitoring and evaluation processes that force agencies into pursuing predetermined outcomes and punishing ‘errors’, learning requires peacebuilders to be ‘error embracing’.

This kind of approach is not only relevant for the policy level. It is also important on the implementation/individual level in order to address the micro-macro gap. For implementers “on the ground” it seems useful to know that the micro-level impact they are aiming for is part of a holistic approach and it also helps to find key leverage points for action. Coherence, coordination, collaboration are impossible without an overarching theory of peacebuilding

But the approach is not only limited to local systems. It is equally important to look at the complexity within the own organizations and the wicked problems inherent in our very own peacebuilding systems.

Dan Smith added to the discussion that with the results agenda we even move more and more to the “solution” of “fixable” problems because the results agenda is a “short-term-results agenda” that sees “result” as a solution to a fixable problem. One core dilemma of our programming cycles is the competition among organization to get resources. The pressure to deliver “results” is also a part of our problematic system.

Marc Baxmann

Download pdf Version

The non-linear potato equation

Dan Smith: The wicked problems we are dealing with do not stand still in order to allow you to  solve them. There are several good and several bad ways of approaching them. We have to understand that there is not just one answer to these problems like 2 plus 2 equals 4. And it doesn’t matter if you have 2 elephants plus 2 elephants or 2 tomatoes plus 2 tomatoes – it always equals 4. But what we should aspire to is not a solution that is the end of the problem. We can only strive for making things better.

Almut Wieland-Karimi: But what is 2 apples plus 2 pears? Fruit salad?

Rob Ricigliano: Well, it depends on the solution you can offer. 2 plus 2 equals potatoes, if you think that the equation should have this result…

A doctor’s tale

A patient comes to a doctor. The doctor looks at the patient and says: “Ah, I see his problem is his lungs!”

Another doctor asks “Why do you think his problem is his lungs?”

“Because I am a lung specialist”