Peacebuilding is essentially local

Cedric de Coning | 04 December 2013

Most international peacebuilding interventions, large and small, make the mistake of interfering so much that they end up undermining the ability of the local system to self-organize. For peace consolidation to be self-sustainable it has to be the result of a home-grown, bottom-up and context-specific process.

Complexity theory has shed light on how complex systems self-organize. Self-organization in the peacebuilding context refers to the various processes and mechanisms a society uses to manage its own peace consolidation process. If a society is fragile, it means that the social institutions that govern its politics, security, justice and economy lack resilience. Resilience refers to the ability of these social institutions to absorb and adapt to the internal and external shocks and setbacks they are likely to face. 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. This risk is gradually reduced as institutions develop the resilience necessary to cope with the type of threats they are exposed too.

If the resilience of the self-organizing capacity of a society determines the extent to which it can withstand pressures and shocks that risk a (re)lapse into violent conflict, then peacebuilding should be about safeguarding, stimulating, facilitating and creating the space for societies to develop resilient capacities for self-organization.

Seen in this context, peacebuilding can be a very delicate and self-contradictory process fraught with built-in tensions. There is an inherent tension in the act of promoting a process of self-organization from the outside, as too much external interference will undermine it. From a complexity theory perspective one can say that every external intervention removes feedback from the system that would otherwise have contributed to self-organization. The intervention removes the need for the local social institution to react. Without external intervention the problem would have triggered some local response.  Every external intervention thus deprives the local system of an opportunity to learn how to deal with such problems itself. Social institutions learn from trial and error. They adapt to changes in their environment based on the positive and negative feedback they are exposed too. Too much filtering and cushioning will slow down this process, and encourage dependency. Linear logic suggests that if a little aid has a positive effect, more aid will have an even greater effect. However, the non-linear logic of complexity warns us that there is a threshold beyond which more peacebuilding starts contributing to the very fragility it is meant to prevent.

Most international peacebuilding interventions, large and small, make the mistake of interfering so much that they end up undermining the ability of the local system to self-organize. External peacebuilders impose neoliberal political and judicial norms and model institutions according to their own ideal types. In the process they deny local societies the room to develop their own institutions which are emergent from their own history, culture and context.

For peace consolidation to be self-sustainable it has to be the result of a home-grown, bottom-up and context-specific process. External peacebuilders fail to recognize the degree to which their own norms and institutions are the product of their own history, culture and context. Consequently, they underestimate the challenge of transferring these norms and institutions to other cultures and contexts.

They also fail to recall the irregular progress, setbacks and challenges of the state formation processes in their own history. Consequently they are unrealistic about the time-frames and incremental progress involved. They set end-states and measure progress against ideal-type indicators that end-up reinforcing perceptions of fragility.

Peacebuilding is desperately in need of more realistic planning, more frankness about the uncertainties and risks involved, and more awareness of the incremental progress, and occasional setbacks, societies are likely to experience in their transitions from fragility to resilience. Instead of trying to replicate institutions that mirror their own, international peacebuilders will benefit greatly from studying their own history, so that they can improve their understanding of the evolution their own institutions underwent to end-up playing the roles they perform in their societal context today. They should study the various stages these institutions went through before they took on their current roles, the degree to which their development was linked to the simultaneous development of related institutions, and ask themselves if their institutions could have the credibility to play their current role in society without that particular history.

I have argued elsewhere that one of the implications of complexity theory for peacebuilding is that interventions have to be essentially about stimulating and facilitating the capacity of societies to self-organize.The art of peacebuilding thus lies in pursuing the appropriate balance between international support and home-grown context-specific solutions.

What is appropriate depends on the context. However, as a general rule of thumb, I would argue that international peacebuilding interventions should provide security guarantees that regulate acceptable state behavior in the international system, and they should stimulate, facilitate and create the space for the emergence of robust and resilient self-organized systems.

International peacebuilding interventions should not interfere with local social institutions with the goal of engineering specific outcomes, such as trying to produce a neoliberal state. Trying to control the outcomes produce the opposite of what peacebuilding aims to achieve; it removes much needed feedback, it prevents social institutions from learning, it generates ongoing dependence, and it undermines self-sustainability.

This blog post was published earlier on the Local First

Photo credit main picture: GerryT