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To Sustain Peace, UN Should Embrace Complexity and Be UN-Heroic

united nations in bangkok
United Nations building in Bangkok. Photo: Isriya Paireepairit

The United Nation Secretary-General’s new report on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace details the progress made over the last two years on two resolutions from 2016. The UN should be commended for undertaking this much-needed process of critical reflection and reform, particularly at a time when the very nature of international relations and diplomacy are being upended by catastrophic environmental, political, technological and economic trends. The report calls for better coherence, coordination and cooperation across the traditional siloes of the UN and out into a broader more inclusive network of local, state and regional stakeholders. These are essential and welcome measures. Nevertheless, the UN’s road to sustaining peace will be met with challenges.

I lead a research team at The Earth Institute at Columbia University studying and modeling the complex dynamics of sustainably peaceful societies. Our reading of the current report has identified a few major challenges to its successful realization of sustainable peace (see also Here, I present two challenges for consideration, in order to strengthen the UN’s capacities for supporting Member States in sustaining peace.

The Frame Challenge: Complicating Our Theories of Change

The UN SG’s report on sustaining peace speaks to an urgent crisis of complexity in global affairs, where a wide assortment of non-state actors–including NGOs, corporations, computer hackers, criminal organizations and terrorist groups–wield more political power than ever before. Similar concerns are reflected in a recent UN resolution on mediation, the 2015 Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) report, and the twin 2016 UN resolutions on sustaining peace. In this context, the international community’s traditional ways of thinking, forecasting, policymaking, and assessing impact are becoming rapidly obsolete.

In response to this increasing complexity and volatility, policymakers are calling for more holistic or systemic approaches to peace and development. The new SG report highlights the need for “a system-wide approach from the United Nations and for close collaboration with partners…to ensure a coordinated, coherent, integrated and results-oriented response.” The 2017 Positive Peace report calls for “… new and unique approaches for applying systems thinking to the nation-state to better understand how societies work, how to manage the challenges they face, and how to improve overall wellbeing.” Similarly, economist Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University has characterized the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as incorporating “interdisciplinary complex systems dynamics.” This shift from understanding the pieces of peace to the whole system is promising.
Unfortunately, these proposed changes are what we term “systems light,” essentially a metaphorical characterization of peace systems where their component parts are seen as interconnected and complicated. This form of systems thinking is not wrong, but it is insufficiently informed by more sophisticated methods and findings from complexity science – and therefore only a marginal improvement on standard forms of policymaking, practice and measurement.

We have found that one step toward operationalizing systems thinking in peacebuilding is by employing collaborative visioning and planning exercises through causal loop diagramming. This involves a process of bringing stakeholders together to physically draw how different conditions and factors in communities affect one another in complex ways to affect the dynamics of peace. Such processes can foster more nuanced forms of systemic thinking, engender meaningful dialogues between stakeholders, and offer new insights into opportunities for sustaining peace. When employed with sector experts and policymakers, these visualization methods can help to generate new questions and hypotheses for data gathering, organize available knowledge in more integrative ways, and act as a diagnostic tool to help identify potential gaps in current policy approaches.

peace-making in Burma, AC4
Network mapping with local civil society. Studying relationships helps reveal networks of effective action.

For example, in the context of the recent peace process in Colombia, we partnered with the Fragility, Conflict and Violence unit of The World Bank to aid in exploring the role of memory and reconciliation programs in sustaining peace. Our team facilitated a three-day workshop in Bogota with members of nine governmental and civil society organizations working there on these issues, to explore the dynamics across levels – local, regional and national – that affect their ability to support local communities and to identify opportunities to leverage their collective impact. The workshop utilized causal loop diagramming to help the participants visualize their understanding of the larger system dynamics affecting their work, and to situate the impact of their individual projects in this broader context.

However, what is ultimately necessary in service of UN reform for sustaining peace is that the UN begin to take complex systems seriously. This will entail working closely with academics – physicists, data scientists, and other applied mathematicians – who have the technical expertise to help the UN move beyond a metaphorical understanding of complexity and begin to integrate the insights, models and methods from the study of complex networks, emergence processes, attractors, dynamics, and other systems properties into their policymaking and assessment.

For example, our team at Columbia includes Dr. Larry Liebovitch, an astrophysicist who has been translating our conceptual models of peaceful societies into mathematical equations, which allows us to investigate them through the use of computer simulations. In a recent run of the simulation, we channeled the effects of the many positive peace variables in our model through one “gatekeeper” variable. This, in essence, could represent the effects of increased coherence and coordination being called for in the SG’s report. We were surprised to discover that channeling coordination through a single “gatekeeper” variable actually diminished the positive effects that the variables had previously evidenced on the dynamics of societal peace. Of course, this finding has no direct bearing on the actual implications of any specific policy recommendation. But it does illustrate how employing mathematical models and computer simulations can provide the tools with which such proposed changes might be better understood and refined.

Incorporating new ideas and methods from complexity science more centrally into UN peacebuilding not only can increase the efficacy and sustainability of UN policies and practices, but it also can help to reduce the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions that often plague international intervention regimes.

The Identity Challenge: To Be UN-Heroic Rather than Heroic

As the 2015 AGE report states, “sustaining peace – which fundamentally concerns reconciliation and building a common vision of a society – must be understood as a task that only national stakeholders can undertake. The United Nations and international actors can accompany and facilitate the process, but not lead it.”

Furthermore, research is increasingly finding that top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches to policymaking in peace and development are often ineffective and unsustainable. Not only are community-initiated programs usually more effective, but they also allow for more genuine inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups, such as women and youth, who typically have a more grounded and informed understanding of current local challenges and of the viability of particular solutions.

Accordingly, the SG’s report, building on the momentum of UN resolutions 1325 (2000) and 2250 (2015) mandating the meaningful involvement of women and youth more directly in peacebuilding, calls for more active inclusion of local women and youth in its implementation. It reads, “The scale and nature of the challenge of sustaining peace calls for closer strategic and operational partnerships among the United Nations, national governments, and other key stakeholders, including … civil society organizations, women’s groups, youth organizations, and the private sector, taking into account national priorities and policies.” These are vital and necessary measures.

The challenge with such mandates is that they are often implemented as “add-ons.” That is, they simply add women, youth and other traditionally marginalized members of local communities to standard programs and practices as an after-thought or at the margins, and so result in tokenism. This “add diversity and stir” tendency is quite common with most organizations and institutions that undertake efforts around increasing social inclusion. The UN may be particularly susceptible to such marginalizing practices, given the extraordinary power the Permanent Five has held over UN decisions and activities since its founding, and the relative powerlessness faced by many Indigenous delegates.

What is an alternative? Simply put, it involves turning the expert approach of the UN on its head and privileging the expertise and efficacy of local communities. Rather than trying to envision, design and implement new solutions, it involves learning to work more effectively with local communities to identify existing remedies and trends, and then to work in sync with them to bolster and amplify their effects.

Why is this UN-heroic? Because it suggests that peacebuilding and sustaining peace are often best served by returning to the origins of the sustaining peace mandate from the 1990s that recognized the critical importance of identifying structures and processes from within societies that could be bolstered to institutionalize and sustain peace. It suggests that the UN focus its peacebuilding resources primarily on convening stakeholders, identifying and mapping the networks of effective action currently operating locally to build and sustain peace. Problem-solving with communities can help to understand how to best support and build on local efficacy with the fewest negative consequences. Only then should the UN provide technical support and feedback in weaving in fair and sustainable practices shown to be effective elsewhere.

What Does This Mean for the UN Moving Forward?

The UN should:

  1. Commit to integrating complexity and data science models and methods more centrally into strategic, analytic, policymaking, implementation and impact assessment phases of UN peacebuilding.
  2. Begin with what is working locally to sustain peace. Build new programmatic initiatives on sustaining peace by identifying, supporting, and increasing the capacities of local community initiatives–particularly those initiated by women, youth, and other members of traditionally marginalized groups.

Peter Coleman is a professor of psychology and education as well as executive director of Columbia’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4).

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