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Forging inclusive peace: we stink more than we think


John Paul Lederach explores the core question of how people in conflict environments participate meaningfully in decisions that influence their lives. People affected by ‚Äėdeep and sustained harm‚Äô need to feel ‚Äėvalued, visible and acknowledged‚Äô. Lederach explains that the dominant peacebuilding metaphors conceal as much as they reveal¬†‚Äď not least the negotiating ‚Äėtable‚Äô, which epitomises elite bargaining and decision-making. Conventional peace approaches have consistently failed to enhance inclusion, especially for local communities, and space to do things differently is closed down. More substantive inclusion requires ‚Äėengaging the public imagination‚Äô through people‚Äôs perceptions of the quality of process and the character of leadership, and moving to processes more akin to social¬†networking.?

Dominant metaphors

In the transition from war to peace we have not fully explored the framing power of our dominant metaphors. By ‚Äėwe‚Äô I¬†include those engaged in peacebuilding across multi-tiered approaches. Generally, we have accepted the notion that inclusivity in peace refers to access and participation in the structure of formal negotiations, or the table. The table represents the locus of decision making and power.

Following Lakoff and Johnson, two dominant peace metaphors stand out in settings of armed conflict: negotiations as a TABLE and transitions as ACCORDS. (Note they use capital letters to identify key metaphors.) Essentially, approaches to inclusivity revolve around concerns for access to and the impact of table-based negotiations and table-forged agreements. We rarely question how the table metaphor constrains our imagination about inclusion and participation. We assume that the sheer scale of numbers and the temporal long-term framework of protracted conflict necessarily require that we organise representational modalities to culminate at a table. However, the table metaphor hides important patterns.

First and literally, only so many people can physically sit around a table. Necessarily, a table metaphor relies on some form of representative presence. Since only a few among the millions can participate directly, much of inclusivity reverts to symbolic participation of a youth, woman, or civil society participant at the table.

Second, this representational approach can unintentionally spawn and exacerbate internal divisions within regions, identity groups and movements, each vying for more direct presence at the locus of power and decision-making. In some instances, this has propagated the need to ‚Äėarm‚Äô otherwise nonviolent social movements and identity groups¬†in order to gain access to negotiations.

Third, the output of the table process highlights and depends on written accords. Written accords put extraordinary weight on the prose of agreed commitments, but they offer very little direct participation of the wider population in the emotional processes the changes will require.

A fourth element emerges around the need for confidentiality in early phases. As the process evolves, modalities for sharing and engaging the public imagination are not easy to develop.

Finally, as accords move into implementation they require wider participation. Yet, the terrain for participation and the organisation of agency for participating rarely have sufficient preparation. Political cultures of governments and armed movements rely heavily on top-down, relatively fast-paced forms of consultation (flying in for a local meeting and back out on the same day) built around weak and often fractionated bureaucracies. Thus, while the public language may encourage participation, the governance habits of participation in settings of protracted conflict are poorly evolved.

These limitations tend to create and re-create a common response among the wider population in a war-torn context. The table process is perceived as elitist and controlled. It is also experienced as distant from lived realities and aspirations of the millions most affected by the decisions adopted.

This may be why peace processes stink more than we think.

I recognise this olfactory reference likely provokes a reaction. However, we have growing empirical evidence for the multiple ways this statement can be interpreted.

We stink: promises of peace rarely match delivery

Comparative work on peace agreements from the Peace Accord Matrix project (see articles in the References authored by Madhav Joshi and Jason Quinn) suggests that the quality of an accord is ultimately found in the quality of its implementation. Looking across 35 agreements over the past 30 years, accords do not always deliver on what they promise. It takes longer to implement provisions than originally contemplated in agreement timeframes. As SungYong Lee and colleagues have shown, Accord implementation has been better at ending military aspects of conflicts than realising the provisions associated with social equality, economic equity, justice and political access.

Truth emerges slowly and rarely to the depth those most harmed hope to see. Reparations are sporadic, while national politics remain robustly front, centre, and moneyed. Much of the reason for this may be that military and political issues usually come early in the implementation process while wider social and economic elements come later, when implementation loses momentum. The table as metaphor contributes to an image of peace as a controlled process that moves from the many to the few and, once decided, from the few back to the many. As Lakoff and Johnson note, metaphors portray a sense of direction. In the case of the table, peace accords are delivered with downward vertical, hierarchical and operational flows of responsibility and action.

In sum, evidence suggests a first meaning of we stink: our actions and delivery do not match up with our promised changes. In settings of armed conflict, peace rhetoric has rarely delivered the quality of change it has appealed to in the public imagination.

Presence and behaviour speak louder than words

A second challenge is found in the phrase, more than we think. In settings of deep harm and division, inclusion is connected with the perception people have about the quality of process and the character of leadership guiding the change initiatives. This is particularly true for local communities. People affected by deep and sustained harm are rightly suspicious and distrustful. Their survival requires that they sniff out what really is going on. They pay less attention to words, promises and proposals and rely much more on their sensory intuitions about who is promoting the change and how leaders show up in their midst. Negotiations and implementation build from and around top-down, event-driven interactions serving the leaders and representatives at the table. On the receiving end, consultations repeatedly deliver events and promises but few visible changes. This is precisely why consultations, surveys, referenda and reports rarely provide the wider population with a sense of authentic inclusion.

Perceptions of peace emerge around how people experience quality of presence, the embodied forms that peacebuilding takes when representatives interact with the represented. While not easy to define, presence has ineffable characteristics that go far beyond the spoken and written word. It emerges from how people perceive each other, the hidden assessments of intent, motivation and purpose, and ultimately whether trust can be associated with what is explained and requested by representative leadership especially when major decisions have already been forged. Three consistent though mostly unspoken indicators arise from these perceptions.

First, people assess the quality of time leaders have for interaction. Event-based consultations needed in a representational approach require that many people give time to participate in a consultation, but rarely do those who organise the consultation have much time to give. A repeated complaint from local communities is that leaders simply do not have time for a decent conversation. These events may generate a lot of words and reports, but they rarely engender trust. Yet, inclusivity has everything to do with trust. In local settings with deep harm, trust never flows at the pace of political urgency or bureaucratic deadlines, yet those are the markers of time and often leave the sense that neither the quality of presence or process can be trusted.

Second, quality of presence fostering trust requires a¬†different container and expression of listening and empathy. We often think of listening and empathy in terms of interpersonal metaphors, for example, ‚Äėto walk a¬†mile in the shoes of another‚Äô. In settings of collective harm, inclusion requires a¬†shift into collective listening, a¬†more complex, varied and ambiguous undertaking. Collective listening requires presencing: to bear witness to the realities of whole communities, to stay with the ambiguity of circling conversations, and to sit with mutual learning over time. Collective conversation requires patient ‚Äėalongsideness‚Äô, which, while slow, assures a¬†deeper clarity of basic aspirations around concrete immediate and longer-term needs. Listening as committed presence shifts away from the extractive dynamics of gathering data and providing analysis toward re-humanising contexts of deep brutalisation. This listening does not drive toward quick conclusions on policy and political decisions. The purpose of collective listening leads toward deepening inclusion: people feel valued, visible and acknowledged. Their voice truly matters.

Formal peace processes tend to focus on content and analytical assessment. Consultations aim precisely to fulfil that need. On the other hand, collective listening and empathy opens toward emotional process and the unleashing of social courage and resilience, the ability to frame purpose and nourish agency for change. In this sense, inclusivity embodies a vigorous understanding of interdependence that links analytical and emotional processes.

A final element assesses the true nature of presence: has visible action responsive to concerns and needs emerged from the conversations? Quality of presence is not just about the moments when people are physically together. Quality of presence is most significantly perceived in follow-up actions and behaviour. People affected by years and decades of violence want to see practical changes that make a difference in their lives. They too often have experienced some form of manipulated extraction around their concerns that rarely returns to make a qualitative improvement.

Termite approach: traces and building conversations

The final aspect of we stink more than we think builds from this last observation and offers a shift in approach. 'Termites' as metaphor focuses on how insects face the coordination paradox: how do whole collectives cohere around purpose without centralised control?

One answer came from the study of insects that, as they travel, leave a scent which permits others to pick up and subsequently build on. The technical word for this is stigmergy: indirect coordination in the environment that stimulates subsequent agency. Social network analysis applies a similar lens to observe shifts in collective human behaviour. In terms of peacebuilding, when people travel, talk, interact with ideas, and then repeat this over time, coherence and wider shared meaning emerge without central control. What we leave in the trace of a thousand conversations may have greater and wider power than what a few share behind closed doors.

Navigating inclusivity in peacebuilding may not be about access to a single locus of power but rather the stitching of a thousand trace-leaving conversations that cohere toward action. Niall Ferguson provides a useful comparison between hierarchical and social network ways of organising agency. He makes the case that the former, often portrayed as official history, has dominated the latter. He also suggests that the less visible webs of human relationships have always been present and wielded significant impact on social behaviour.

Kenneth Boulding noted a basic theory of change: If it exists, it’s possible. He suggested we look for existing examples of what we seek to build. With reference to inclusivity, we may have overlooked important experiences that indicate this shift in metaphor. Here are three:

  • The Boroma Grand Guurti in Somaliland, which took years to prepare through a¬†small, travelling set of elders moving across and returning to many conversations with local sub-clans led to an open gathering that greatly reduced violence across a¬†war-torn region (see work by Ahmed Yusuf Farah and by Lederach and Lederach).
  • In Colombia, the process in Medio Magdalena of the Association of Workers and Campesinos provides an approach of transformative conversations within a¬†context of armed conflict (see work by Alejandro Garcia and my book, The Moral Imagination). Initiated by those most under threat, creative approaches to conversation conducted by small groups travelling and engaging across deep and violent polarisation led toward unexpected capacity for transforming the conflict landscape.
  • The Natural Resource Conflict Transformation Center‚ÄďNepal has focused on longstanding local conflicts over land, water and forest use. They developed a¬†modality of embedded members of the groups in conflict travelling together to sit with polarised communities, over and again, until consensus emerges for how the wider collective can move together toward joint conversation.

What might these initiatives highlight following a different understanding for action in pursuing greater inclusion in peacebuilding?

First, they do not rely on convening representatives around a table. They build on spider-like travelling, moving across communities and locations to spend time in collective, repeated, sustained and mostly publicly open conversations. We could call this itinerant movement across the affected landscape.

Second, their processes are circular and repetitive. Those travelling seek ways to stitch conversations, ideas and relationships even when people are not physically together. The process leaves a scent, a trace. Stitching focuses on re-building a more meaningful conversation and eventually a trustworthy process. It represents iterative and deepening conversations.

Third, while not taking place in a¬†single location, the conversations build and create connective tissue over time. This focuses less on events than emergent, growing and collective understanding. The accumulative impact has capacity to frame and hold a¬†meaningful platform for action and behaviour change. This ‚Äėstimulating‚Äô trace left in the environment has capacity to evoke collective movement.

The termite shift can be summed up in three words: itinerate, iterate, evoke. From collective listening, action emerges without centralised control and with potential for wide, rippling effects.

In conclusion, for the practical negotiator, I¬†am certain these reflections ring both odd and too abstract. Metaphor shifts always require a¬†different mental model. Paradoxically, robust inclusivity requires the capacity to imagine how each metaphor¬†‚Äď tables and termites¬†‚Äď organises agency in ways that may in fact cross-fertilise and create interdependency. Each metaphor contains elements that ultimately make the other more successful. However, in peacebuilding one metaphor has been so dominant it has limited our ability to imagine the other exists. Inclusivity has paid the price for this blindness.

For inclusivity to rise toward more meaningful practices, we need to expand our metaphors. Reliance on the table and representational approaches will remain limited and inadequate. Our shift, before, during and after national negotiations, should robustly imagine and develop the practices of travelling and stitching a multiplicity of trace-stimulating, sticky conversations.

It may be the only way we embrace the scent and avoid the stink.

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.