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Peacebuilding: dealing with complexity and change. How can the field of systems thinking help?

on Mon, 12/10/2012 - 20:10

To start, I must clarify what I mean by the field of systems thinking. Here I am referring to the field of study, discourse and practice that has its roots in the second world-war when scientists from different disciplines found themselves working together on military problems.  A system is considered to be one whose elements are interconnected and interdependent to form the whole and display properties of that whole rather than those of the component parts. Systems thinking and approaches are applied to ‘wicked problems’ (Conklin 2006), situations of great complexity and uncertainty where there are no easy solutions or answers. Misunderstanding the nature of problems  and failure to recognize the situation as ‘wicked’, often results in application of inappropriate thinking, tools and methods. The expected results and outcomes do not materialize but instead unintended consequences arise as well as incomprehension at the ensuing chaos and seeming intractability of the problem. 

Peacebuilding is a complex field spanning many disciplines and has ill-defined boundaries between the practice of peacebuilding and those of security, peacemaking, humanitarian aid and development.  The work involves a myriad of actors at all levels of society influenced by many historical, social and political factors.  This creates a great deal of social complexity, often with various stakeholders convinced that their view is the correct one and do not recognize the assumptions and beliefs that underpin their approach.  The arising problems have all the attributes of wickedness to which inappropriate approaches are at times applied. Paul Collier in his TED talk (2009) speaks of the poor record in preventing a return to violence in countries emerging from civil war.  He suggests that interveners tend to look for quick-fix solutions, are often working to different agendas and fail to identify the appropriate priorities for the context. There is recognition of the divisions amongst interveners in the peacebuilding field (Fisher and  Zimina 2009) .  International players and NGOs may come together and agree on broad policy objectives but when it comes to specific implementation, they may be divided. 

Combining inquiry and learning approaches with systems thinking in processes such as Systemic Action Research (Neuweiler and Körppen 2008) involves letting go of pre-decided outcomes and a rigid approach as to who should be involved and why. It opens the space for a flexible and adaptable process based on conversation, exploration and discovery at multiple levels of the situation under consideration.  Given the present nature of decision-making taken by funders and those with the capacity to intervene, such a change presents a major challenge as it asks for a trust in collaborative inquiry and learning processes, and a willingness to accept emergent outcomes.  However, if intervention is to ‘do no harm’ and support the social transformations that lead to sustainable peace, I believe that the peacebuilding field itself needs to develop more fully its collaborative and learning capacities and to adopt systemic  approaches to bringing about change. 


Collier, Paul  (2009) Paul Collier's rules for rebuidling a broken nation TED talk 

Conklin, Jeff (2006) Wicked Problems and Social Complexity, In Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,Chapter 1, Wiley, October 2006,

Fisher, Simon and Zimina, Lada (2009) Just Wasting our Time? Provocative Thoughts for Peacebuilders In:Berghof Handbook Dialogue No. 7, Peacebuilding at a Crossroads? Dilemmas and Paths for Another Generation 

Neuweiler, Sonja and Körppen, Daniela (2008) Exploring the Potential of Systemic Conflict Transformation, Workshop Report, Beghof Foundation for Peace Support