The Non-Linearity of Peace Processes-Peacebuilding theory and the challenges of the self-help discourse

The book, based on a project at the Berghof Foundation, outlines many interesting facets of constructivist theory around systemic thinking, complexity theory and action-research in the context of international conflict transformation work. It is a powerful confirmation (if one is still really needed) of the value of qualitative approaches to better understand conflict and peace processes, aiming for more reflexivity when it comes to analyse ‘our’ role in peace negotiations and peacebuilding. However, as I will outline more in detail in my review, the book also raises important questions about contemporary discourses of peace research, peacebuilding theory and the globalised modernisation agenda.
I will focus on three interlinked issues in my review: First, the examples in the book rely heavily on workshop-based-scenarios and I was missing a more generic critical appraisal of this tool to reflect on how the peacebuilding community may be ‘over-workshopped’. Second, some of the contributions move systemic theory very closely to psycho-analytical, counselling approaches and I was left wondering whether there is a risk of moving peacebuilding too closely into the realm of (Western) self-help discourses. And third, although literally every contribution stresses the importance of adopting a flexible, systemic view, I am missing meaningful insights into the opportunities that conflict, violence and war offer to some actors and how social relation change rather than ‘breaking down’ and how systemic approaches can address root causes of conflicts that are tied into globalised socio-economic problems. In short, in many conflicts there are actors that simply do not gain anything from voting for peace and who I have difficulties imagining in a workshop scenario exploring systemic issues of peacebuilding.
But let’s review the chapters more systematically.

Daniela Körppen and Norbert Ropers’ introduction ‘Addressing the Complex Dynamics of Conflict Transformation’ sets the tone of the book well. But I was left wondering how much of a transformation has really taken place in the field: ‘Still, many projects in the peacebuilding field are based on a linear and dualistic logic’ (p.11). I don’t think any donor or organisation would agree with this-at least on a discursive level. We are in the 2010s and although logframes are still around, I wonder how much has changed since the project that lead to the publication of the book started in 2006. In the outline of the chapters, phrases like ‘systemic therapy’, ‘systemic constellation work’ (p.17), ‘therapist’ and ‘true client’ (p.19) caught my attention. I started to wonder whether there is a danger in extending the ‘liberal peace(building) discourse’, maybe subconsciously, into the level of the individual in Western/capitalist societies that are focussing more and more on enhancing ‘performance’, dealing with depression and negative moods and self-help discourses around fulfilment, ‘finding your true calling’ or doing ‘what you want’. Put more cynically, I see a risk of an ‘Oprah-isation’ of peacebuilding into a feel-good framework that leads to happy performers, consumers and contributors to the shiny new ‘post-conflict’ world and that is often not grounded enough in local realities. 

Sirin Bernshausen and Thorsten Bonacker’s ‘Constructivist perspective on systemic conflict transformation’ is an excellent outline of the key theoretical concepts that guide the book:

As opposed to actor-centric approaches, systemic approaches – and especially approaches founded on systems theory – direct considerable attention to the self-selectivity and self-referentiality of conflict. [...] Thus, systemic approaches prefer to not look at conflict from the perspective of the actor but also incorporate the process perspective, which puts more emphasis on the momentum and dynamics of conflicts (pp.24-25).
As someone who has done research on German peace research, I noticed the underlying tone of the article to convince people that constructivism or systemic approaches are valid assumptions for research – it was just a reminder that there are still fundamental debates about validity going on and the chapter advocates very well for constructivist research. But the chapter also highlights a key paradox of peace research when it comes to practical issues:
We believe that if we are to adopt a systemic approach to conflict transformation, a basic premise is the impossibility of exercising direct control. When designing an intervention, we must therefore focus our efforts on creating a framework, an environment conducive to peace processes. We must let go of the idea of designing a detailed blueprint for conflict parties to follow.
As much as I agree personally, I also know that this is not exactly the type of answer any donor really wants to hear. It is the opposite of the measuring impact debate. The challenge for the next generation of peace research is to find a balance between engaging with various donors, but still allowing systemic principles to guide projects. The risk is that in the end there may be another follow-up project where peace research has to adapt their ideas to donor thinking and at the end of the day, systemic thinking is reduced to an elaborate box in a proposal or a ‘plastic word’ like ‘theory of change’ that often doesn’t mean much once it has entered the official world of words of aid speak. In the end, the theoretical overview proposes ‘workshop-style methods’ (p.34) to engage with some of the challenges which leaves me a bit unsatisfied.

Peter T. Coleman, Robin Vallacher, Andrea Bartoli, Andrzej Nowak and Lan Bui-Wrzosinska’s chapter ‘Navigating the landscape of conflict: Applications of dynamical systems theory to addressing protracted conflict’ applies systemic theory to the case of Mozambique. The step-by-step outline provides helpful insights on how to engage in protracted social conflicts, but what I found very interesting was that the systemic view adopted a somewhat narrow-minded view on conflict and violence:

As the machine of war is established and grows, it encompasses a growing number of social, economic and political processes, focussing them all in a single issue within the conflict. (...) The richness and multidimensionality of all the processes occurring in a healthy society become entrained in the structure, leaving no opportunity for positive interactions. (p.46)
With Joseph Hanlon and Carolyn Nordstrom’s research and writings in mind, I found this analysis surprisingly ‘un-systemic’. No mentioning of the broader global system that supported the war, including economic factors as Hanlon outlined both for the war and the post-war period. And what about the numerous ways in which society adapts to conflict, benefits from it or works around it? Yes, it may only be a small, potentially elite group, but there are similar dynamics in liberal peacebuilding as Hanlon pointed out time and again. In short, I’m surprised that despite the focus on systems and complexity war seems to be reduced to one negative dynamic that simply needs to be ‘overcome’. Most case studies adopt a similar position rather than asking how system thinking can help us to better understand new forms of agency and power and how to transform them after the war, when many powerful actors have a lot to lose.

Daniela Körppen’s chapter ‘Space beyond the liberal peacebuilding consensus – A systemic perspective’ starts with an excellent overview over the liberal peacebuilding debate. Her conclusion about the ‘tautology of liberal peace’ is a very good summary of many years of a largely academic debate:

This leads to a tautology, because liberal peace approaches only support local ownership if it adheres to the basic components of liberal peace and if it does not undermine liberal values. According to this, they can hardly opt for participatory or meaningful local ownerships, as this could signify cultural conflict transformation practices which are not compatible with a liberal perspective. (p.83)
By now, repeting some of the key elements of systemic theory seems a bit redundant and I found the dichotomy between ‘Western’ and ‘local’ culture that need to be brought together for conflict transformation less helpful. This seems to be the option to avoid a Western imposition of its discourses and ‘self-help’ mentality, but I wonder whether it would have been more interesting to engage with the hybrid ‘global’ culture that often informs conflict transformation. Members of the elite who negotiate peace processes have attended ‘Western’ universities, numerous workshops and are familiar with development and peace discourses. My own research in Nepal showed the ritualisation around liberal peacebuilding that was neither a fully ‘technocratic’ Western imposition of ideas nor substantially informed by local or ‘bottom-up’ ideas. But those who ended up in workshops and negotiations share a unique hybrid culture and transnational cosmopolitanism that deserves more attention-especially when it happens in the urban centres and political capitals where donors, government and cultural elites interact.

Danny Burns’ chapter ‘Facilitating systemic conflict transformation through systemic action research’ is an interesting methodological introduction that outlines key pillars of action research and how action research can become a more widely used approach in systemic conflict transformation work and it is less speculative than the next chapter by Dirk Splinter and Ljubjana Wüstenhube on ‘Discovering hidden dynamics – Applying systemic constellation work to ethnopolitical conflict’. I had some difficulties in understanding the potential value of family therapeutical methods in managing ethnopolitical conflict. Although the authors suggest that ‘it is obvious that the systemic approach to constellations has a lot in common with certain pre-modern world views about how individuals and their environment (including ancestors and history) are interlinked’ (p.121) I have a hard time imagining a space for outside, ‘Western’ facilitators in such processes. Maybe there are local instances where an extremely knowledgeable outsider can add value to peace processes, but in the sphere of globalised cultures (see above) I am less convinced that powerful political, military and cultural leaders would engage in constellation work – but the authors are also clear about their speculative approach: ‘But how do constellations actually work? That is an area where further research is required’ (p.123).

The following two chapters that kick-off the second part of the book ‘Implementing systemic thinking’ are in some ways the weakest of the book. Luxshi Vimalarajah and Suthaharan Nadarajah’s chapter on ‘Thinking peace – Revisiting analysis and intervention in Sri Lanka’ and Norbert Ropers’ ‘Peace processes as corridors for systemic change – Insights from Sri Lanka 2002-2005’ have been written before the military ‘solution’ to/ ‘conclusion’ of the conflict. This is a major caveat, because any military approach poses fundamental challenges for peace research and peacebuilding. Given that Berghof itself has been involved in Sri Lanka for a long time this would have been an opportunity to reflect on their work – especially after the military involvement. Concluding that the ‘impact of international actors in helping transform internal conflicts is limited’ (p.165) is not very satisfying after Berghof’s work and the many failures of liberal peacebuilding of the international actors in Sri Lanka.

In a similar way, David Peter Stroh’s ‘The system dynamics of identity-based conflict’ appears to be a bit repetitive on the theoretical reflections and case studies that engage with Israel and Palestine always leave me frustrated due to the protractedness of the conflict and the global complexities that make any positive or systemic approach almost impossible.

Robert Ricigliano’s chapter ‘Planning for systemic impact’ is an interesting case study about Mercy Corps’ work in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the analysis of the conflict dynamics (p.187) reminded me a bit of the infamous US Pentagon's Powerpoint analysis, but by and large I enjoyed the chapter because despite its complex charts around questions of impact of the ‘Alleviating Poverty through Productivity and Livelihood Enhancement (APPLE)’ there is a simple message at the end of the chapter:

What was interesting with regards to the Mercy Corps Afghanistan work is that they realized the potential of systemic and holistic analysis tools was not diminished by possible conflicts with grant restrictions or other policies (p.202). 
Not bad for a project funded by the European Commission...

Oliver Wolleh’s chapter on ‘Comparing systemic therapy and interactive conflict resolution – Commonalities, differences and implications for practices’ reviews the Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue process that the Berghof research center facilitated between 1999 and 2004 with 14 dialogue workshops. However, I am still not fully convinced about the application of systemic therapy and notions around ‘clients’. It would have been interesting to learn more about the long-term impact since the dialogue series finished in 2004. Oliver Wolleh’ approach with systemic therapy is interesting, but the almost clinical nature of the workshops made it difficult for me to understand, how practical, political and long-term changes have happened ‘on the ground’.

The final case study from KwaZulu-Natal, Juba Khuzwayo, Berenice Meintjes and Usche Merk’s ‘Integarting African meaning systems and systemic thinking – The Sinani approach of working with conflict communities’, is also the most interesting one. It basically shows how ‘good development work’ is essential and systemic thinking can aid existing processes:

Sinani’s experience showed that working with existing community-based structures is the most effective way of introducing sustainable peace. Finding the structures that are appropriate to support takes time and relationship-building effort (p.262).
This is a very straightforward, realistic example from the field. The authors are also very open about the managerial framework in which they had to operate
Working systemically within a ‘logical framework’ funding contract sometimes means doing a lot of adjustments, renegotiations and rephrasing in order to fulfil the donor requirements, which takes away energy and creativity from the actual intervention process (p.263).
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t wrap-up the findings and insights with a final concluding chapter.

The book is an interesting state-of-the-art example of advocating for systemic approaches for conflict transformation, including complexity, constructivism and other qualitative approaches.

However, as a peace researcher I feel that the project could have ventured into new territory more boldly. If peace processes are non-linear, it is necessary to better understand the grey and shady areas of transformation, how people benefit from conflict and war and how conflicts change societies in a more nuanced way than from ‘peace’ to ‘war’. I also believe that more Western-based socio-psychological approaches are not the answer for the next generation of peacebuilders, but rather have the potential to perpetuate liberal peace ideals of societies that need to be transformed into ‘productive consumers’ in the world economy.

Finally, peace research also needs to think more boldly how to challenge workshop-based approaches in the global development and peace industry that has sufficiently workshopped already...the rituals around conferences and workshops need not perpetuated with ever more sophisticated models!

Körppen, Daniela; Ropers, Norbert & Hans J. Gießmann (eds.): 

The Non-Linearity of Peace Processes – Theory and Practice of Systemic Conflict TransformationISBN: 978-3866494060, 273 pages, U$47.95, Barbara Budrich Publishers.
Full disclosure: I asked for and received a free review copy from Budrich Publishers in October 2011.


  1. Many an afternoon has been enjoyed by a family, bonding over the discussion of liberal peacebuilding. Given that its influence pervades our society, there are just not enough blues songs written about liberal peacebuilding. Since it was first compared to antidisestablishmentarianism much has been said concerning liberal peacebuilding by the easily lead, who form the last great hope for our civilzation.


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