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Complexity thinking and adaptive peacebuilding

Cedric de Coning explores how complexity thinking can contribute to our understanding of how to create more inclusive peace processes, and how adaptive approaches enable local and external peacebuilders to apply new models of practice, experimentation and learning. These differ fundamentally from approaches where the role of peacebuilders is to implement a pre-designed intervention. De Coning suggests that pressure for change tends to accumulate over time often without signs of progress, and that key system changes occur during periods of turbulence when the self-sustaining ‘path dependencies of violence’ are disrupted. Adaptation does not imply embracing disorder or abandoning goals, but rather being more front-footed, coping with uncertainty, anticipating change and embracing experimentation.


Another concept that unlocks new insights for understanding change in complex systems is resilience, which refers to the capacities of social institutions, such as formal and informal justice systems, to sustain acceptable levels of function, structure and identity under stress. Resilience to withstand shocks and challenges, and the ability to adapt, grows as social institutions develop increasingly complex forms of self-organisation. Christine Bell and her colleagues at the Political Settlements Research Programme have shown that from Aceh and Mindanao to Colombia and Mali, national and local peace agreements reached through self-renewing and inclusive peace processes have proven to be more resilient when roles and responsibilities, including for implementation, are distributed among a broad group of participants.

Self-organisation, in this context, refers to the ability of organisations and individuals within a complex system, like a large community, to organise, maintain and adapt themselves without the direction of a controlling agent. It is thus not surprising that one aspect of self-organisation that is strongly associated with sustaining peace is the inclusion of outsider groups,ie interest and identity groups otherwise excluded from peace talks. Societies that have found political and social models that can accommodate multiple identities of ethnicity, religion, language, race, gender and sexual orientation are less likely to experience violent conflict. For example, Tania Paffenholz and colleagues at the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative have found that when a broad range of actors beyond the principle conflict parties are included, and these actors were able to assert influence over the process, their inclusion was vital for preventing violence and for sustaining peace. This is partly because self-organisation facilitates and modulates the flow and processing of feedback information, for instance through developing a shared understanding, participatory decision-making or monitoring mechanisms. It distributes and dilutes vulnerability across social networks. If one node is weak, others can carry the load, thus preventing the system from breaking down. Based on these insights, support for peacebuilding should prioritise facilitating and enabling resilient, self-organising and adaptive national and local social institutions.

Adaptive peacebuilding

Adaptive peacebuilding is one such complexity-informed approach where peacebuilders, including communities and people affected by the conflict, actively engage in a structured process to sustain peace by employing an iterative process of experimentation, learning and adaptation. It builds on the work of Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock, who have pioneered the problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) approach to escape the linear tyranny of the log-frame in development planning and evaluation. Adaptive peacebuilding applies this approach to sustaining peace and links it with other complexity-informed approaches to peacebuilding. Examples include the work of Dialectiq, Humanity United’s work in Mali and Zimbabwe, the work of Burns, Gray and Roos on community-based peace processes in Myanmar and the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps’ ADAPT project, also in Myanmar.

UN peacekeeping operations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, together with local communities, employ a range of strategies to pursue local peace agreements, improve local security, disrupt local conflict dynamics and encourage local economic activity. The people involved are continuously learning from their experiences and are adapting their approaches based on their assessment of which initiatives are more or less effective. Adaptive peacebuilding in these contexts does not necessarily imply following a specific methodological approach like PDIA. It is more a pattern of practices that experiment with an inductive, iterative and adaptive approach. These adaptive approaches differ fundamentally from the determined-design approach that was in vogue over the past two decades, where the logic of the programmatic intervention has been predetermined, and the role of the peacebuilders and communities was to implement the programmes as designed.

While peacebuilders can influence complex social systems by enabling and stimulating the processes that enable resilience and inclusiveness to emerge, the prominent role of self-organisation in complex system dynamics suggests that it is important the affected societies and communities have the space and agency to drive their own process. External fixes will not stick if they have not been internalised, so local adaptation processes are ultimately the critical element for inclusive political settlements to become self-sustainable. In How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, Yuen Yuen Ang describes this paradoxical mixture of top-down influence and bottom-up improvisation as ‘directed improvisation’.

Local leadership

This is why the notion of peacebuilding is unfortunate. It subconsciously suggests that experts can design and build peace, as if it was an engineering challenge. In On the Frontlines of Peace, Severine Autesserre shows how many successful examples of peacebuilding have involved innovative grassroots initiatives, led by local people, often using methods that international peacemakers tend to undervalue. In Global Governance and Local Peace, Susanna Campbell goes one step further and argues that the capacity of UN agencies to successfully pursue their peacebuilding aims relies to a large degree on the ability of their people in the field to make the organisation responsive to parties in the local context. Thus, not only is sustaining peace dependent on resilient local communities, but also the international efforts to support such efforts are more successful when they are accountable to local populations and informed by feedback from local communities.

As these examples show, adaptive peacebuilding approaches can contribute in original and innovative ways to more inclusive peace processes and more self-sustainable political settlements. This does not mean, however, that adaptation is a solution in and of itself. There are common fallacies associated with complexity that should be avoided, such as that complexity thinking implies embracing messiness, abandons goals and gives up on transformative change. What incorporating complexity thinking will do is to help mediators and other peace practitioners to become more confident in coping with uncertainties and more comfortable experimenting with adaptive approaches.

Issue editor

Andy Carl


Andy Carl is an experienced peacebuilding practitioner with a career of leadership in the NGO sector. Andy currently works as an independent writer and advisor to individuals, groups and organisations engaged in working on peace, justice and social change processes. He helped establish International Alert in 1989 and in 1994 he co-founded Conciliation Resources where he was Executive Director for 22 years.