Got Complexity? How Systems and Complexity Thinking Can Help Peacebuilders

Peacebuilding and development practitioners are struggling with a series of challenging and important imperatives: how to build more sustainable, locally-owned initiatives; how to avoid negative impacts; and how to do more with fewer resources. Many have looked to systems thinking and complexity science for help. This Impulse article by Rob Ricigliano is meant to help inform that search.

Before exploring what systems thinking and complexity science can offer peacebuilders, it is important to say what they do not offer. Systems thinking and complexity are not “magic bullets” that can instantly reveal the answer to intractable problems. And, while systems and complexity offer a powerful critique of more linear, short-term approaches, they are not a rejection of traditional practice. Finally, even though the rage in many parts of the field is to find the right tools, systems thinking and complexity approaches to peacebuilding are not just a set of tools.

So what do systems thinking and complexity have to offer peacebuilders? Essentially, it is a different lens or mental model for looking at the work we do: a way to better understand why past efforts have been unsustainable or even harmful, and a catalyst for finding new ways to engage old, persistent problems – ones often referred to as “wicked” problems.

Instead of seeing the world of peacebuilding challenges as a series of discrete issues (violence, corruption, poverty, etc.), a systems view sees any peacebuilding context as an interrelated system of diverse components that interact with each other and their environment in ways that are dynamic and difficult to predict. Rather than seeing these challenges as problems to be solved, a systems view sees them as by-products of a complex and dynamic system.

Thus, if peacebuilder want to address these undesired “by-products” (like the lack of clean water, persistent poverty, or organized violence), then they need to engage the underlying “complex and dynamic” system – as opposed to just trying to “fix” problems directly.

This is a challenge to how peacebuilding and development are usually carried out, as we tend to be organized around a more linear, direct engagement model (e.g. if it’s broke, try to fix it). For example, USAID has units devoted to democracy and human rights, water and sanitation, global health, environment and climate change, etc. All of these units have developed expertise in their area, so if a country’s health indicators are lagging, bring in expertise to fix their health issues. If they lack access to clean water, build a water system. And so on.

These examples are an over-simplification. However, these approaches are fundamentally different from one that sees poor public health indicators as the by-product of a complex, adaptive system. And, as such, the response may mean not addressing only (or even primarily) the healthcare infrastructure, but a more holistic approach that deals with persistent patterns of behavior that involve a myriad of social forces, such as culture, ethnic relations, etc. For example, what if there was a patron-client governance dynamic that siphoned funds away from healthcare system, or a vengeance-retaliation relationship between ethnic groups that made it unsafe to access healthcare?

A systems approach to peacebuilding in complex environments means addressing these underlying dynamics or patterns of behavior. George Richardson, of SUNY-Albany, defines a systems view as “standing back from reality just far enough to deliberately blur discrete events into patterns of behavior.” In complex environments, our success is determined by our ability to see and then engage these patterns. And, these patterns or dynamics also explain why peacebuilders can often have unintended negative impacts. In the example above, building a new health clinic may actually spur violence as an aggrieved ethnic group might avenge a past injustice by burning down a health clinic built in their rival’s community.

But, it is essential to realize that a traditional, more linear approach to peacebuilding and a systems approach are not alternatives to each other. Both approaches offer value for peacebuilders. There are many peacebuilding challenges that are truly “fixable” in the sense that a direct “remedy” actually will lead to a sustainable improvement in people’s lives. Sometimes, building a well or a health clinic will solve a villages’ problem of having insufficient fresh water or poor health indicators. These problems exist on what I call “planet fixable.”

However, in other, seemingly identical environments, these same problems are not “fixable” by traditional means. In fact, complex environments the new well might touch off a round of inter-communal violence. These problems reside on what I call “planet complex.”

Therefore, a key task for peacebuilders is to determine whether you are dealing with a fixable or a complex challenge; whether you are living on planet fixable or planet complex. There are a few key questions that will help peacebuilders determine the degree to which any challenge is fixable or complex, including:

  • Is this issue one that keeps reoccurring or that defies past attempts to address it? Have reasonable, more linear “fixes” been tried unsuccessfully or produced negative impacts? If so, these are indicators that you are dealing with a complex environment.
  • Why does the condition (e.g. lack of fresh water) exist in the first place? What do local voices say if asked this question? If the reason the issue exists is straightforward (e.g. the community’s well broke due to a natural disaster) then the situation may well be fixable. If the answers to the question point to a complex series of interrelated causal factors, then you are likely dealing with a complex environment (e.g. inter-clan rivalries, enmeshed with economic forces that are worsened by climate change and a weak government that cannot provide necessary assistance, etc.).
  • If the “fix” you imagine were to exist, how sustainable would the situation be? For example, if a new well was installed, what is likely to happen next? Would people fight over control of the well or would it become part of a stable community? If it is difficult to understand what the impact of a particular action would be, then you are likely to be dealing with a complex environment.

Unfortunately, all too often, peacebuilders don’t even want to ask the question of whether something is fixable or complex because they don’t want to know the answer – if it is complex, then there is nothing we can do.

Fortunately, a systems approach also provides a series of helpful (and constantly improving) set of tools and practices for understanding and engaging productively with complex environments. These approaches can be divided into three essential categories:

  • Listening to the system: tools for getting a holistic view of a system that is both comprehensive and comprehensible, such as how to collect and analyze data, use visualization techniques (such as dynamic systems mapping), and identify potential leverage points in a system.
  • Engaging a system: planning and design strategies that build theories of change for how to affect the evolution of a system, maximize the potential for any program to make a sustainable contribution to systems change, and develop strategies that align short-term impacts (e.g. fast variables) with long-term outcomes (e.g. slow variables).
  • Learning from a system: how to build organizational structures and networks that support real-time monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation over time.

Lastly, there are many resources available to help peacebuilders learn more about the po-tential for systems and complexity thinking to assist them in their work. For example, the Alliance for Peacebuilding has a Systems and Complexity Affinity Group, and many organizations, like FriEnt are pulling together other people and resources. As the African saying goes, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” The challenge of systems certainly requires the power of “all of us.” So, please reach out to others (including me) as you embark down the road to putting systems and complexity thinking into peacebuilding practice.

Rob Ricigliano is Co-Director of the Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding Program at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Board Chair of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

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