Peacebuilding is not rocket science – it’s much more complex – STIAS Public lecture by Cedric de Coning

22 August 2022

Adaptive peace: using insights from complexity theory to strengthen the resilience and self-sustainability of social-ecological systems under stress

“Complexity theory offers new ways of understanding how social-ecological systems function under pressure, for example how climate change related stressors may exacerbate competition over scarce resources. Complexity provides a theoretical framework for understanding how the resilience and adaptive capacity of social systems can be influenced to help them prevent, contain and recover from violent conflict. Complexity also generates ethical insights: peacebuilders may help a society prevent or contain violence, but if they interfere too much, they will cause harm by disrupting the feedback loops critical for self-organisation to emerge and be sustained. To cope with this dilemma, this STIAS project develops a new approach where peacebuilders, together with the people affected by conflict, actively engage in an iterative process of inductive learning and adaptation. The Adaptive Peace approach is a normative and functional approach to conflict resolution aimed at navigating the complexity inherent in trying to nudge social-ecological change processes towards sustaining peace, without causing harm,” said Cedric de Coning, research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and senior advisor for the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD).

STIAS Fellow Cedric de Coning during his public lecture on 18 August 2022

De Coning was presenting the fourth STIAS public lecture for 2022. He has a PhD in Applied Ethics from the Department of Philosophy, Stellenbosch University, and a MA (cum laude) in Conflict Management and Peace Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He started his career as a South African diplomat in Washington DC and Addis Ababa, and has served in advisory capacities for the African Union and United Nations, including as advisor to the head of the AU’s Peace Support Operations Division and on the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board for the Peacebuilding Fund. His research is in the fields of international relations and peace and conflict studies, with a special focus on peace operations and the climate-peace nexus.

His STIAS project is about applying complexity theory to peace and conflict studies. It looks at how we understand peace and conflict, how we can try to influence social and ecological systems, and how we undertake peacebuilding. He is trying to answer the puzzle of how to prevent violent conflict and sustain peace in an era of increased turbulence.

“The 2nd half of the 20th century was a period of relative stability, but we are now experiencing a period of increased turbulence. The geopolitical balance of power is in flux as we transition from a unipolar world order into some new form of multipolarity.” Our sense of anxiety is also exacerbated by the fast pace of technological change,” he added. “We can do things we don’t fully understand but we can’t grasp all the consequences. All of these developments has a compounding effect that increases the risk of conflict.”

After the wars in the Balkans and Somalia in the early 1990s, and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, there was a period of relative decline in violent conflict globally. However, over the last decade the number of civil wars has tripled. There are now an estimated two billion people living in conflict-affected areas, and we are witnessing the highest number of global conflicts since 1945.

“The tools used in the 1990s to manage conflict are no longer working,” said de Coning.

And why does he believe reducing conflict matters? Because it impacts on our overall survival – “we need to significantly increase our levels of co-operation if we are going to manage the greatest challenge of our time – to reduce the impact of the human species on the climate and biosphere”.

Tools don’t match reality

de Coning explained that many decades of increased specialisation in governance and academia has made it harder to generate knowledge across domains and disciplines. This means we struggle to deal with the systems-level effects of climate change, new technologies and the changing world order. We lack the adaptive governance knowledge and tools that can make sense of trans-scaler and whole-of-system dynamics. This will require new skills, capacities and institutions that can synthesise information from multiple domains, and cope with highly dynamic uncertainty.

He believes that the study of complexity can help us cope with these challenges as it allows us to think differently about how to manage change and transformation. “Complexity theory can give us a theoretical framework for understanding how social-ecological systems function and respond to stress. This can help us gain insights into how to strengthen the resilience of societies and communities to prevent, manage and recover from future violent conflict.”

Explaining the difference between complicated and complex systems, he compared building rockets to building peace.

“Something that is complicated, like building a rocket, requires a lot of sophisticated knowledge and problem solving, but once it is mastered, we can launch a rocket into space time and time again with a high degree of certainty that it will perform as designed,” he said.

“A complex system in contrast – like any human society – is highly dynamic, non-linear and thus unpredictable. Each of the elements in human society – people and institutions – are continuously reacting to developments around us. We each make choices on the basis of the information available to us, and cumulatively and collectively, millions of our choices interact and generate emergent system-level effects. The ability of complex system to self-organise also means that societies can solve problems. A rocket can’t fix itself but a society can, sometimes with a bit of help from peacebuilders.”

“Complexity emerges from a non-linear combination of multiplicity and simultaneity. A recent film title captured our sense of anxiety when too many things are happening at the same time, the title was: Everything, everywhere, all at once.”

His work on ‘Adaptive Peace’ is about helping societies sustain peace, despite setbacks and shocks.

de Coning explained that the mainstream approach to conflict resolution is a determined design approach that relies on linear causal logic. It assumes peacekeepers and institutions have the knowledge and skills to resolve conflict and to design a solution based on international standards and norms usually developed from the European and American state-formation experience. “A linear determined-design approach may work well for rockets, but it sucks at making peace,” he said.

Adaptive Peace is an alternative approach where peacebuilders, together with the people affected by conflict, actively engage in an iterative process of inductive learning and adaptation.

“What peace means in practice is context specific,” he said. “Peace needs to be transformational and tangible for the people affected by conflict. Many international peace-making efforts are being undertaken at such a level of abstraction, that it has no tangible relatable meaning for the people affected by a particular conflict.”

Doing while learning and learning while doing

The Adaptive Peace methodology includes clarifying the intent, assessing problems, and designing multiple interventions. These are then introduced simultaneously, and their effects are monitored, so that you learn and adapt while doing. Interventions that don’t work need to be adapted or stopped, and new ones need to be introduced, and this is a continuous process. It’s about tapping into the ability of complex systems to self-organise, to solve problems themselves.

“It’s not about one solution or one hypothesis,” he said. “You continuously experiment with multiple potential solutions, and monitor what works. Something that works today may not work in three months. So you need to continuously monitor and adapt. You can never arrive at a final solution. If you haven’t deviated from your plans, you aren’t paying attention.”

He also emphasised the vital role of the people affected by conflict in solving their own problems. “The people involved need to be in a position to make all the critical choices related to how a peace process may impact on their lives. For a peace processes to be self-sustainable it must emerge from within.”

“Peacebuilders may help a society prevent or contain violence, but if they interfere too much, they will cause harm by disrupting the feedback loops critical for self-organisation to emerge and to be sustained. Every well-intended intervention that solves a problem for a society is also a lost opportunity for the society to find their own solution for the problem.”

“Peacebuilders may help to stimulate and facilitate processes that can stimulate the emergence of peace, and they may assist with security guarantees at critical moments, but the essence of peace has to emerge from the lived experiences of the affected communities and societies.”

In the discussion, he emphasised the need for donors to engage with alternative approaches to measuring results; understanding that peace makers always have their own vested interests; the need to recognise and manage power imbalances in conflict situations; the role of social institutions (“In the South African transition a lot rested on the ability of civil society to support the transformation. You need many layers of social institutions to manage the competition and conflict inherent to democratic systems.”); and, the neglected area of understanding and leveraging the impact of diaspora communities.

“Conflict is normal,” he said. “Societies need to be under stress and we need competition and conflict to generate innovation and renewal. But violent conflict is negative and destructive, and needs to be managed. There is usually a tipping point where the parties to a violent conflict realise that they are not going to achieve their objectives with violence. In conflict resolution theory this is called a Mutually Hurting Stalemate and when you reach that point it is an indication that a conflict is ripe for resolution. However, it can be difficult, at times, for the parties to get out of the spiral of conflict on their own, and this is where peace makers can help to facilitate a peace process. It is important to recognise, however, that peacebuilders cannot make peace on behalf of a society. The people affected by conflict must find their own path, they must ultimately control their own process, and generate the content of their own peace agreements, for peace to become self-sustainable.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

Follow the link to watch the live recording

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