Complexity Theory in Peacebuilding Initiatives & Mass Atrocity Prevention

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By ANTHONY DiROSA

A new take on the importance of locally owned peacebuilding initiatives by Dr. Cedric de Coning, who heads the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Research Group at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), suggests a different approach to how international peacekeeping can ensure stability by helping spur self-starting, organically based peacebuilding efforts owned by local actors. Much of de Coning’s perspective is informed by complexity theory, or the study of how order, structure, and pattern arise from extremely complicated, apparently chaotic systems. According to de Coning, this theory can help shed light on the process of self-organization in societies where a variety of mechanisms and processes develop to manage peace processes. At the heart of this process in peacebuilding is bolstering the resiliency of social institutions, that is the ability of institutions to absorb and adapt to the internal and external shocks and setbacks they are likely to face. The author believes that “if a society is fragile it means that there is a risk that it may not be able to manage its own tensions, pressures, disputes, crisis and shocks without relapsing into violent conflict.” Institutional resiliency should be seen as a means  conflict prevention that ought to be prioritized not only in peacebuilding operations, but also mass atrocity prevention efforts.

Given the importance of organically built  institutional resilience in shielding post-conflict societies from shocks, a major function of external peacebuilding operations should be safeguarding, stimulating, facilitating and creating the space for societies to develop sustainable capacities for self-organization, according to de Coning. At the same time, peacebuilding operations must be mindful of the sensitivities of promoting a process of self-organization externally; too much external interference will undermine self-organization. The reason for this, as de Coning argues, is that external intervention removes the feedback loop that a system would otherwise need to help it self-organize, react and adapt to crises. Interventions often remove the need for a local social institution to react, thus depriving the local system from an opportunity to learn how to deal with such problems itself. Oftentimes peacebuilding and international assistance follow a linear logic; the more aid and resources thrown into a conflict setting, the more successful the operation will be. But complexity theory’s non-linear logic posits the opposite: that there is a point to which peacebuilding actually stops helping, and contributes to the very fragility it’s supposed to prevent. Case studies and past experiences demonstrate that externally-driven reform processes are not wholly sustainable.

Furthermore, de Coning believes many international peacebuilding operations too often impose their own culturally and historically informed versions of institutions, norms and models, which limits the room for locals to develop them based on their histories and cultural idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, peacebuilding operations usually underestimate the difficulties associated with transferring these institutions, norms and governance models to the local contexts. This is often combined with a inability to recognize how arduous, time-consuming and rife with challenges the process of rebuilding a state’s institutions is, as the process from fragility to stability is full of uncertainties. Peacebuilding experts would be wise to understand how their own histories and challenges in consolidating their own states’ institutions can help lend insight onto ongoing peacebuilding projects. As de Coning aptly states: “the art of peacebuilding thus lies in pursuing the appropriate balance between international support and home-grown context-specific solutions.”

The author’s focus on institutional resiliency is doubly important given the importance of strong institutions and rule of law in disincentivizing mass atrocities and localized violence in conflict prone settings. Likewise, the large overlap between the work being done in the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community and the peacebuilding tends to be mutually reinforcing. The mass atrocity prevention community could certainly benefit from components of de Coning’s take on complexity theory. The transference of peace initiatives from international to local ownership is a trend more frequently advocated for in the conflict prevention community recently. Locally led reconciliation efforts in Kenya were instrumental in forestalling mass atrocities during the recent election cycle. Peace efforts in Nimba county, Liberia were more also successful once outside actors relinquished control and gave greater ownership of the process to local leaders. Local ownership of peace initiatives oftentimes gives more legitimacy to the process in the eyes of the locals, (as opposed to Western imposed mechanisms) as tribal leaders and elders already command the respect and trust of their communities.

Alternatively, in Bosnia, local reconciliation efforts were only able to take off when international and external actors consistently pressured and prodded local leaders. Similar difficulties with local ownership were found in Kosovo, where a push by international actors for greater local ownership of the peace process led to internal mistrust, corruption and ambiguity at the local level about how to proceed. There are dangers to ceding control of conflict prevention initiatives to local actors without looking over their shoulder. The proper balance, for both peacebuilding and mass atrocity prevention experts, probably lies somewhere in the middle where local ownership is coupled with international standards and oversight. It is important to view local ownership not as an‘ either/or’ question, but rather a careful balancing act that is mindful of the miscues associated with overreliance on external assistance as well as the lack of stewardship. While the motives of both external and domestic actors should be questioned throughout the process, sustainable peacebuilding requires both contributions from international and local actors united in achieving the same goals.

Photo: UN.org

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