Utilising an Adaptive Approach to Leverage Greater Context-specific Knowledge and Local Participation in Conflict Prevention and Conflict Management in Africa

Published on 29 May 2020 in Africa Insights, Vol 49(3).


The African Union (AU) and a number of sub-regional institutions have demonstrated the will and capacity to play a leading role in maintaining peace and security on the African continent. However, despite several successes, Africa has not been able to achieve its objective of Silencing the Guns by 2020. One of the factors that hinder the effectiveness of the AU and its partners is that its conflict prevention and conflict management methodologies are outdated. They rely on a linear causal theory of change and predesigned templates that have now proven to be ineffective in Africa and elsewhere. This paper introduces a new approach – Adaptive Peacebuilding – and explores its policy, management and operational implications for the AU and its partners. The paper explains the theoretical foundation of the adaptive approach, considers its key features and then discusses its practical application. The paper concludes with recommendations for how the AU and its partners can integrate an adaptive approach in the assessment, analysis, management, coordination and evaluation of its conflict prevention and conflict management missions and related efforts.



The aim of the AU’s Silencing the Guns initiative is to stop wars or violent conflict and to sustain durable peace. It is part of the comprehensive Agenda 2063 programme of action to transform the African continent, which recognises that there can be no development without peace, and no peace without development. Whilst the AU, Regional Economic Communities/Regional Mechanisms (RECs/RMs), several African states and African civil society have developed significant capacity over the last two decades, and whilst one can point to several successful episodes where these institutions were able to prevent or manage a conflict, the overall Silencing the Guns project has not been able to deliver on its aim to silence the guns by 2020.

The various contributions to this special issue analyse several reasons why this project has been unable to achieve its aim within this timeframe. In this paper, I will focus on one additional, but fundamental underlying shortcoming at the core of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), namely, its theory of change, and how it has conceptualised and operationalised conflict prevention and conflict management to date. The underlying theory of change that informs the APSA is a deductive linear causal model, whereby the outcome is assumed to be more or less guaranteed if the design is followed, i.e. it is a determined-design approach.[1] This paper will offer an alternative conceptual and operational framework, namely a complexity-theory-informed Adaptive Peacebuilding approach, and will explain how adopting this approach may enhance the way that the AU and REC/RM system deliver the Silencing the Guns initiative in future.

It is popular to argue that contemporary conflicts are becoming increasingly complex. Beyond this common-sense use of the term, research has been done across multiple disciplines to study and theorise complexity.[2] This paper will explore what we can learn from the study of complexity for purposes of prevention and conflict management in Africa. Can we draw lessons from complexity thinking that can help us to generate alternative pathways for Silencing the Guns? Can a complexity-informed approach help us to think differently about how to operationalise the APSA? I think the answer to the latter questions is, ‘Yes!’ In this paper, I will explore the policy, management and operational implications of the Adaptive Peacebuilding approach for conflict prevention and conflict management in Africa. The paper will explain the theoretical foundation of the adaptive approach, introduce its key features and discuss its practical application in the context of APSA and Silencing the Guns.

 Adaptive Peacebuilding

The determined-design theory of change that informs the APSA is flawed, because social systems are empirically complex. As social systems are highly dynamic, non-linear and emergent, it is not possible to find general laws or rules that will help us predict with certainty how a particular society or community will respond to an AU-led conflict-prevention or conflict-management initiative.[3] So, we cannot undertake a project, for example a reconciliation initiative in Somalia, and predict what the outcome will be. Nor can we use a project design that was assessed to have performed well elsewhere, for instance the Westminster parliamentary system, and expect that it will have the same effect in another context. This uncertainty is an intrinsic quality of complex adaptive systems, not a result of imperfect knowledge or inadequate analysis, planning or implementation.[4] This recognition has specific implications for the way we should plan and undertake conflict-prevention and conflict-management initiatives.

The Adaptive Peacebuilding approach provides us with a methodology for coping with this complexity and uncertainty.[5]It provides an alternative to the top-down blueprint or predetermined design approach that has dominated AU, REC/RM, and international conflict-prevention and conflict-management initiatives to date. In its place, it introduces six principles of adaptive action:

  • First, the actions taken to prevent conflict or to influence the sustainability of a specific peace process have to be context and time specific, and they have to emerge from a process that engages the specific society itself.
  • Second, Adaptive Peacebuilding is a goal-orientated or problem-solving approach, so it is important to identify, together with the society in question, what the conflict-prevention or conflict-management initiative should aim to achieve.
  • Third, Adaptive Peacebuilding is agnostic about how best to achieve its goals, but it does follow a specific methodology – the adaptive approach – that is participatory and facilitates the emergence of a goal-orientated outcome.
  • Fourth, one half of the key to the adaptive-approach methodology is variety: as the outcome is uncertain, one has to experiment with a variety of options across a spectrum of probabilities.
  • Fifth, the other half is selection: one has to pay close attention to feedback to determine which options have a better effect. Adaptive Peacebuilding requires an active participatory decision-making process that abandons the options that perform poorly or have negative side-effects, whilst those that show more promise can be further adapted to introduce more variety or they can be scaled-up to have greater impact. At a more strategic level, this implies reviewing assumptions and adapting strategic plans.
  • Sixth, Adaptive Peacebuilding is an iterative process: it is repeated over and over because, in a highly complex context, our assessments are only relevant for a relatively short period before new dynamics come into play.

One way to highlight the unique characteristics of complex adaptive systems is to contrast them with complicated systems. A complicated system can potentially be fully understood and predicted, provided sufficient information is available. Designing, building and launching a rocket into space is highly complicated, but once it is mastered, the same process can be repeated with a reasonable chance of success. In fact, the most frequently used rocket to send people and goods into space is the Russian Soyuz rocket, which has a core design that has been in use since 1967.[6] In contrast, non-linearity plays a critical role in the emergence and self-regulation of complex adaptive systems.[7] Even if a particular process helped to generate a peaceful outcome in one society, e.g. the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, it cannot be repeated in another context with any reasonable expectation that it will have the same outcome. In fact, it can’t even be repeated in South Africa with any expectation that it will have the same outcome.

One definition of peace that is particularly relevant to the Silencing the Guns initiative is that a society has achieved peace when no significant social or political group resorts to violence to achieve its ends, and the majority of the population believes that political differences should and can be managed peacefully.[8] Following this definition, one can argue that conflict prevention and conflict management are tools employed by the AU and RECs/RMs to influence the behaviour of the people and groups in a society affected by violent conflict who chose to use violence to advance their interests. We want them to stop using violence, and to shift to using peaceful means to advance their interests. So, this is a social project with a very specific intent.

If we recognise that the social systems we wish to influence to prevent or manage violent conflict are empirically complex, what implications flow from our analysis of how the AU and RECs/RMs can potentially influence such complex social systems? The first principle of Adaptive Peacebuilding introduced earlier recognises that the most sustainable way of influencing people and groups to change their violent behaviour is by influencing the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of the social institutions that govern a society. External pressure, such as sanctions, withholding political recognition, and even military intervention, may sometimes succeed in creating temporary stability, or force parties into peace agreements. However, as the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan and several similar experiences have shown, such externally imposed agreements tend to be ignored as soon as the pressure lessens: violent conflict often returns as soon as the external military intervention is withdrawn. The lesson we can draw from these observations is that for the effects created by a conflict-prevention or conflict-management initiative to be self-sustainable, the incentives and disincentives for sustaining peace must be generated from within the social system itself.

Social institutions influence the behaviour of individuals or groups within their society through positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback includes encouragement, recognition and reward. Negative feedback includes discouragement, rejection, exclusion and coercion. The World Bank’s World Development Report of 2011 defined institutions as ‘the formal and informal “rules of the game”, which include formal rules, written laws, organisations, informal norms of behaviour and shared beliefs’.[9] To date, most AU and REC/RM conflict prevention and management initiatives have focused on the formal (ceasefires, peace agreements, constitutions and elections) and externally visible (train and equip) aspects of institutional development. Too little attention has been directed to the informal ‘rules of the game’, and the informal norms and shared beliefs that drive social institutions. Institutions that are imposed top-down on the societies they are intended to serve tend to result in institutional mimicry.[10] These institutions may have the exterior form of the ideal international model, for instance, what a police force should look like. For instance, a new police force that has been established after a conflict may have the uniforms and cars that make it look like a police force, but, in reality, it may not perform the policing functions that the society expects. It may serve the interests of a governing party or dominant ethnic group, instead of upholding the law and protecting the public. This may be because one cannot reform the police in isolation from the way the parliamentary system and the judiciary provides oversight, or without disrupting political influence and interference in the police at the same time.

Complex social systems develop their own institutions over time through iterative adaptive processes, and this is an emergent process of self-organisation. So, social institutions emerge from the history and culture of a specific society. They develop in response to specific challenges, and they are shaped by the specific history and institutional memory of that experience. A police service, or similar institution, is not just a technical body that can be replicated in any society from a common blueprint. We know this because the UN, the EU, the AU, and others have tried to do so many times in many places and in many different ways, and what we have learned from this experience is that top-down template approaches to institutional capacity building do not result in self-sustainable institutions.[11] These experiences and findings are consistent with what we know about how complex adaptive systems function. This is why Adaptive Peacebuilding holds that societies, and their local social institutions, will have much more effective and lasting leverage over the behaviour of the violent actors in those societies, than any regional or international actor that is perceived to be outside or external to that society or group. The lessons we can draw from these observations is that the focus of the AU and REC/RM conflict prevention and management interventions should be on strengthening the resilience of the national and local social institutions in a society that is affected by violent conflict, so that they are in a stronger position to influence the violent actors in that society.

To date, the AU and RECs/RMs (and their partners in the UN and EU) have employed a determined-design theory of change to build the capacity of mostly state institutions affected by conflict. This is a linear cause-effect problem-solving model whereby international and/or regional experts analyse a conflict to diagnose the problem by identifying its root causes, which are then addressed through technical programmatic interventions, typically undertaken by international actors such as the UN, donors, international NGOs and increasingly over the last few decades, also the AU and RECs/RMs.[12]

Adaptive Peacebuilding offers an alternative model, which argues that the role of external actors like the AU and RECs/RMs is to assist countries and societies to develop the capacity to self-sustain their own peace processes. This can be done by supporting and facilitating the emergence of resilient local and national social institutions that have the capacity to prevent, manage and resolve outbreaks of violent conflict in their own society.

Resilience and Adaptive Capacity

Resilience does not have one commonly accepted definition, but it is most broadly understood to be the ability to manage, withstand and recover from a shock.[13] Carl Folke et al. add to this general definition that withstanding a shock means retaining or recovering essentially the same function, structure, feedback, and therefore identity.[14] In the conflict-prevention and conflict-management context, I will define resilience as the ability of a society to prevent, manage and recover from violent conflict without losing its essential values and identity.

Adaptive capacity is defined as the capacity to thrive in an environment that is characterised by change.[15] In the conflict-prevention and conflict-management context, it refers to the ability of a society to adjust to disruptive change, to take advantage of opportunities and to respond to consequences.[16]

Resilience and adaptive capacity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Adaptive capacity emphasises the extent to which civilians and social institutions are able to adapt to rapid or drastic change, i.e. how flexible and nimble they are in the face of crisis. Resilience emphasises the ability of these social institutions to prevent, manage and recover from the effects of the disruption. The more adaptive capacity a society has, the more resilient it will be. Resilience is broader than adaptive capacity, in that: it also covers reducing vulnerability and managing risks, for instance by taking preventative action; and it also covers other forms of managing and responding to a shock beyond adapting to change.

Taken together, resilience and adaptive capacity reflect the ability of a society or community to sustain its essential values and identity. Collectively, they describe a society or community’s systemic capacity to reorganise itself, and to learn and adapt in response to a significant disruption, such as the outbreak of violent conflict.

The Adaptive Peacebuilding Method

The focus on resilience reflects a shift away from the aspiration to control how a society will respond to rising tension or an outbreak of violent conflict. In its place, the emphasis is on supporting and enhancing the self-organising capacity of social systems to cope with, adapt to, and bounce back from disruptive change. We have learned over time that an AU peace support operation like the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), or an AU human rights presence in a country like Burundi, or an AU political mission like the Mission de l’Union Africaine pour le Mali et le Sahel (MISAHEL), can never sustainably achieve control or even exert significant influence over those in a society who wish to employ violence to achieve their political aims. The AU and RECs/RMs can contribute to strengthening the constructive or positive effects of self-organisation in a society by: facilitating the flow of information; stimulating the emergence and interconnectedness of networks; and supporting the development of resilient and inclusive local and national institutional capacity for conflict prevention and conflict management.

The determined-design approach follows a deductive method. There is an a priori acceptance of the validity of a specific theoretical approach, and this theory then informs a generic or universal methodology that is applied in specific cases. Even where there are local adaptations, as discussed in the hybrid peace literature, the process remains essentially deductive.[17]Adaptive Peacebuilding employs an inductive method, whereby knowledge is generated from active engagement between, for example, the AU and RECs/RMs, the host state and local and national institutions. Adaptive Peacebuilding thus differs fundamentally from the top-down theory of change employed by the determined-designed approach.

The adaptive element in Adaptive Peacebuilding refers to the specific methodology that complex adaptive systems employ to generate knowledge in the face of uncertainty, namely, by continuously co-evolving with the environment in a never-ending process of adaptation.[18] This is an iterative, adaptive process that utilises experimentation and feedback to generate and continuously update its knowledge about its environment.[19]

The three key dimensions in the Adaptive Peacebuilding methodology are intent, variation and selection.[20] Once intent – which, in this case, is to stop violence and sustain peace – is established, the approach utilises two methods to pursue it. On the one hand, it experiments simultaneously with multiple parallel initiatives that give it variation; on the other hand, a selection process uses feedback to analyse the effect of each of these initiatives against the intended effect. Based on the evidence generated, it then repeats and perhaps expands or adapts the initiatives that had better results, and discontinues or adapts those that were less effective. This process is repeated regularly until the intent has been achieved or the process has reached a stage where a different type of intervention is needed. For instance, an AU peace-support operation may transition into a post-conflict reconstruction and development (PCRD) mission or an AU political liaison office.

Adaptive Peacebuilding is scalable at all levels – the same core approach can be applied at the programme, project, campaign, or strategic-framework level. It can be used to inform structures and processes at the AU Commission (AUC) in Addis Ababa, and it can be used to inform the work of AMISOM or the AU in support of the transition in the Gambia, or implementation of the stabilisation strategy in the Lake Chad Basin. In any situation where the AU and RECs/RMs are engaged in influencing the behaviour of a particular society, various conflict-prevention and conflict-management initiatives should be under way simultaneously in various sub-systems and at multiple levels, to ensure a holistic or system-wide effect, for instance, in Mali (MISAHEL), Somalia (AMISOM), or South Sudan via the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) role in supporting the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS). A national-level mediation process may be under way between a government and opposition groups; but, at the same time, a national dialogue process may involve communities and civil society; and, at the same time, there may be several institutional reform processes under way that involve the judiciary, the police and the armed forces. Initiatives may also be under way to build the capacity of the independent electoral commission and to establish a national peace committee infrastructure, etc. Some of these initiatives will be highly specialised; others may be meant to impact sub-systems, such as the security dimension. Cumulatively and collectively, they should have a system-wide effect on the society and its social institutions.

It is not possible for such a broad range of interventions and initiatives to be undertaken by one organisation. And it is not possible for all these initiatives to be planned, sequenced and coordinated as if they were part of one mega-project undertaken by all the organisations together. Instead, one needs to rely on self-organisation to help manage this kind of complex system. The AU and RECs/RMs should play a leading role in helping the local, national, regional and international organisations involved to develop a shared vision that captures their intent. With a clear intent, which is captured in a shared vision, it is possible for many organisations to work towards the same broad goals, each within their own mandate and capacity, and in the areas where they have a comparative advantage. When they perform this convening function, the AU and RECs/RMs should help to ensure that the feedback generated by these various initiatives is shared as widely as possible throughout the system, so that as broad a range of organisations and initiatives as possible are able to self-adjust and self-organise on the basis of the information shared as a result of this process.

As indicated in the sixth principle above, this has to be an iterative process; in other words, it should be an ongoing process where the vision-planning-execution-evaluation cycle repeats regularly. An annual cycle is too slow for a highly dynamic situation, so monthly to quarterly cycles would be preferable, depending on the type of initiative and the context. It is important to keep in mind that: the system itself is dynamic and non-linear; our understanding of the system therefore remains partial and provisional; it needs to continuously adapt to changes in the social system that we are attempting to influence.

In order to influence complex social systems away from violent conflict and towards self-sustaining peace, it is necessary to develop an understanding of how complex systems process information, self-organise and adapt. To do so, we need to understand how a complexity-informed Adaptive Peacebuilding approach will help us to think differently about how we undertake conflict analysis, planning and performance assessment in AU and REC/RM missions and related initiatives.

Implications of Adaptive Peacebuilding for How We Understand Conflict and Peace

Under the determined-design approach, the accepted best practice is for external experts to start any new operation or initiative, or any serious review of an ongoing mission, with a conflict analysis. The aim is to identify the root causes and triggers of the conflict. The objective is to use the conflict analysis to design a plan of action that will transform the causes and counter the triggers. The conflict analysis identifies the risks for relapse into violent conflict, so that the intervention can focus its effort on those areas.

However, we now know that social systems are dynamic, non-linear and self-organising – in other words, they are complex adaptive systems. This means we cannot predict or control the future behaviour of a society.[21] A complexity-informed approach accepts that our ability to know and control complex social systems is inherently limited. Adaptive Peacebuilding provides us with a method for coping with complexity. Adaptive Peacebuilding also recognises that, in order for our analysis to be context-specific, it needs to be informed by and reflect the local narrative, i.e. it needs to emerge from a participatory method that engages local and national stakeholders in the process, and results in a product that they can relate to, and that they agree reflects their lived experience.

We also now know that, if something is complex, it cannot have one definitive problem-set, i.e. essentially one problem and one solution, for instance reducing a conflict to a binary inter-ethnic or religious rivalry, where the solutions are then typically either power-sharing or self-governance. Social conflict is always more complex than determined-design processes suggest. We should thus not try to solve complex social problems with methodologies that predesigned to address this kind of limited problem-set. This kind of simplified analysis is attractive to policy makers, because it leads to a neat matching set of solutions. However, complexity informs us that conflicts emerge, and continuously evolve, as a result of the non-linear and highly dynamic interactions of many factors. We should thus be concerned whenever an analysis identifies some factors for intervention and ignores others, because we know that such an approach is likely to generate unintended consequences.

Adaptive Peacebuilding thus favours a comprehensive approach in which any initiative that is aimed at influencing the behaviour of a society consists of many simultaneous initiatives at multiple levels, scales and timeframes, as this kind of intervention is more likely to bring about system-wide change. This does not mean that one organisation has to do everything, but it is important that whatever an organisation does is part of a larger comprehensive and system-wide effort. The AU and RECs/RMs can play an important role in convening and coordinating the processes that enable and facilitate such a comprehensive approach. A recent example is the role that the AUC and the Lake Chad Basin Commission played in helping to bring together the various stakeholders affected by the Boko Haram conflict, and then producing the stabilisation strategy.[22] At the time of writing, a similar AU-led process is under way in the Sahel.

A complexity-informed conflict analysis should consist of an iterative process of investigation and self-critical analysis. Many current pre-mission assessments are based on a single short field visit, on the basis of which a mission is then planned. Both the assessment and plan are rarely reviewed. Instead the focus shifts to how the mission is executed, but rarely do we review whether the assumptions on which the mission is based are still valid, or whether it may be possible to achieve the same or similar objectives with a different approach. In contrast, Adaptive Peacebuilding reminds us that if we have not reviewed our analysis regularly, then we have most likely missed something, because the one thing we can predict is that the system we are engaging with will have evolved.

Considerable peer pressure is typical for the various departments or agencies (for instance those that form part of a joint departmental task force) to agree on a joint conflict analysis or needs assessment. Adaptive Peacebuilding supports multi-agency processes that bring different perspectives to the table. However, the pressure put on them to agree on one joint analysis is not helpful, because it is likely to lead to a lowest-common-denominator type product. A shared conflict analysis that retains different perspectives and insights and which can accommodate a greater variety of views, will be more resilient. It will be better able to pick-up on nuanced developments in the environment and help to avoid group-think.

Lastly, informed by our knowledge that social behaviour is context-specific and emergent, and because we are aware of the side effects generated by our institutional and professional biases and the blind spots in our assumptions and analyses, Adaptive Peacebuilding argues that it is critically important to involve local and national actors in conflict analysis, needs assessment, performance assessment, and the other aspects of the planning cycle. Local and national actors will understand their own situation and context in ways that external actors will never be able to replicate. The extent to which it may be possible to involve local and national actors, and who those specific people may be, will depend on the context. However, Adaptive Peacebuilding advocates the general principle that the extent to which conflict analysis, needs assessment and other such products is locally owned, will determine how local actors understand, support and take ownership of the initiatives undertaken by the AU and RECs/RMs.

In this section, we looked at the implications of a complexity lens and an Adaptive Peacebuilding approach for how we understand and analyse the conflict systems and peace processes we intend to influence. In the next section, we will turn our attention to how we can plan, deploy, manage and assess peace interventions differently when they are informed by Adaptive Peacebuilding.

Implications of Adaptive Peacebuilding for How We Undertake Peace Efforts

Adaptive Peacebuilding recognises that the conflict-prevention and conflict-management interventions undertaken by actors such as the AU and RECs/RMs are also part of a complex and self-organising global-governance system.[23] This means that we can simultaneously undertake initiatives within both the AU and RECs/RMs and the societies that they are trying to influence, in our attempts to make use of and amplify the self-organising behaviour of these complex systems.

Earlier we introduced the concepts of resilience and adaptive capacity. Taken together, they capture the capacity 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 or challenges, as well as the capacity to adapt and grow as social institutions, develop increasingly complex forms of self-organisation. AU and REC/RM conflict-prevention and conflict-management initiatives should be focussed on stimulating and enabling the capacity of societies to self-organise. Self-organisation in this context refers to the various processes and mechanisms that a society uses to manage its own peace consolidation process, i.e. the ability to manage its own tensions, crises, and shocks without relapsing into violent conflict. A peaceful society is not without conflict and crises, but it has developed the resilience needed to manage its own conflicts non-violently.

In the first two decades following the establishment of the AU, the focus was understandably on developing the capacity of the AUC and the RECs/RMs. However, if the aim is to prevent conflict before it reaches the critical stages, where intervention of the AU and RECs/RMs is required, then the focus has to shift to strengthening the resilience of local and national social institutions, so that they are better able to prevent and manage their own conflict before it becomes violent. This also means that the AU and RECs/RMs need to adapt their ability and tools to assist and empower the local and national capacity for peace.

Adaptive Peacebuilding aims to stimulate and strengthen the self-organisation process – regardless of whether this is at the international, regional, national or local level. One way to facilitate the capacity of societies to self-organise is by encouraging feedback. The aim is to increase the quantity and quality of information available to everyone in the social system. Enhancing the flow of information enables all to adapt their behaviour to the performance of the system.[24] An increase in the flow of information thus enhances and deepens the connectedness, resilience and adaptive capacity of local and national actors, the AU and RECs/RMs, and other international actors in the system.

Another way is to increase the linkages and strengthen the connections among the various elements in the system, i.e. among the various stakeholders and actor networks. When the flow of information is enhanced, and the quality of the networks is strengthened, the stakeholders have better connections with each other and more information about what is happening elsewhere in the system. This places them in a better position to adjust their own plans and action accordingly. The Nouakchott process on the enhancement of security cooperation and the operationalisation of the APSA in the Sahelo-Saharan Region is an excellent example of how strengthening networks and increasing the flow of information can result in better regional cooperation and coordination.[25]

Insights from complexity studies can also help the AU and RECs/RMs understand where they can have the most impact when trying to influence complex social systems. Donella Meadows found that we devote most of our energy to aspects that, counter-intuitively, only have weak leverage.[26] In the conflict-prevention and conflict-management context, this often involves skills training, investing in new technologies or equipment, and enhancing procedures. These are weak leverage points, because on their own they don’t change the system, e.g. a police officer with better skills and equipment, in a corrupt police force, is likely to be more effective at soliciting and collecting bribes. Meadows points out that the higher order leverage points in complex systems – where relatively small shifts can have the most impact – are rules, structure, goals and paradigms. Meadows thus shows us that if, in this example, the goal is to root out corruption and make the police force more effective, more impact will be achieved by influencing the mindset, the law governing the police force, the rules governing behaviour and the mechanisms for monitoring and sanctioning conduct, than focussing on the skills and tools of the individual police officer.

In the Adaptive Peacebuilding approach, the core activity of a conflict-prevention and conflict-management intervention is one of process facilitation. This is the essential form of engagement, both horizontally, i.e. with others who engage with the society we are trying to influence, as well as vertically, i.e. in the form of specific initiatives undertaken to influence social behaviour. The conflict-prevention and conflict-management initiatives that we undertake in society stimulate the processes that will lead to change and enable self-organisation. Insight gained from the study of complexity reminds us that it is not possible to direct or control self-organisation: it has to emerge from within the society itself. External actors like the AU and RECs/RMs can assist a society by facilitating and stimulating the processes that enable self-organisation to emerge – but they cannot control these processes or their outcomes. The more external actors try to control the flows and outcomes in a complex society, the more it is likely to resist and respond in unintended ways.[27]

As pointed out above, influencing the parties to the conflict implies influencing the society affected by violent conflict. The overall intent of initiatives like Silencing the Guns should be to help strengthen the resilient capacity of local and national social institutions to manage societal disputes in a peaceful way. The Silencing the Guns initiative is thus a project with a very specific transformative intent, but the way in which Adaptive Peacebuilding aims to bring it about is radically different from the determined-design approach.


This paper introduced Adaptive Peacebuilding and explained how this approach may enhance the way that the AU and RECs/RMs undertake conflict prevention and conflict management, like the Silencing the Guns initiative. Adaptive Peacebuilding stands in contrast to the determined-design approach, in that it rejects the notion that external experts can analyse a conflict meaningfully and design solutions. In contrast, Adaptive Peacebuilding holds that social systems are empirically complex. This means that their behaviour is non-linear, highly dynamic, self-organising and, therefore, unpredictable. The way social systems develop cannot be predetermined or designed. Attempts to prevent and manage conflict – by imposing a predetermined notion of how a society should prevent and manage its own conflicts – disrupt the ability of a society to generate its own self-sustaining capacity for peace. Such attempts to manage conflict will generate negative and unintended consequences.

Adaptive Peacebuilding employs an iterative, adaptive methodology that facilitates an inductive process, using experimentation and feedback to generate and continuously update its knowledge about the conflict-system it is trying to influence. It also recognises the important role that self-organisation plays in preventing and managing conflict; thus, it favours a central role for local and national social institutions. As a result, from an Adaptive Peacebuilding perspective, the role of actors such as the AU and RECs/RMs in conflict prevention and conflict management should essentially be about strengthening local and national capacity for peace.

If the aim of the AU and RECs/RMs is to Silence the Guns, i.e. promote self-sustainable peace where no significant social or political group in a given society resorts to violence to achieve its ends, and the majority of the population believes that political differences should and can be managed peacefully, then they have to enhance the resilient and adaptive capacity of social institutions that can prevent and manage violent conflict in their societies. This implies a delicate balance: on the one hand, the AU and RECs/RMs need to help develop the capacity of these institutions; on the other hand, they need to step back and cede space, so that these local and national institutions can self-organise, experiment and learn from their own experience, especially their failures.

Successfully Silencing the Guns thus implies that the primary focus of the AU and RECs/RMs should be to support and empower local and national social institutions that can prevent and manage social tensions, before the tension grows into violent conflict that requires external support or intervention. However, the AU and RECs/RMs should be aware of the pitfalls of the determined-design approach and should rather employ Adaptive Peacebuilding to work closely with local and national actors in strengthening social institutions, thus developing a resilient and adaptive local and national capacity for peace.

Notes and References

[1] Eriksen, S., 2009. The Liberal Peace is Neither: Peacebuilding, Statebuilding and the Reproduction of Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Lidén, K., Mac Ginty, R. and Richmond, O.P. (eds.), 2009. Liberal Peacekeeping Reconstructed. Special Issue, International Peacekeeping, 16(5), p.662.

[2] Mitchell, M., 2009. Complexity: A Guided Tour. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] De Coning, C., 2016. From Peacebuilding to Sustaining Peace: Implications of Complexity for Resilience and Sustainability. Resilience, 4, p.168; Cilliers, P., 1998. Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems. London: Routledge, p.3.

[4] Preiser, R., Biggs, R., De Vos, A. and Folke, C., 2018. Social-ecological Systems as Complex Adaptive Systems: Organising Principles for Advancing Research Methods and Approaches. Ecology and Society, 23(4), p.46.

[5] De Coning, C., 2018. Adaptive Peacebuilding. International Affairs,  94, p.2.

[6] European Space Agency. 2019 Soyuz Launch Vehicle: The Most Reliable Means of Space Travel. Available at: http://bit.ly/2vYRRGh [Accessed 10 October 2019].

[7] Cilliers, P., 1998. Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems. London: Routledge, p.3.

[8] Caplan, R., 2019. Measuring Peace. London: Oxford Press, p.22.

[9] World Bank, 2011. World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development. Washington, DC: World Bank.

[10] Pritchett, L., Woolcock, M. and Andrews, M., 2012. Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation. WIDER Working Paper 2012/63.

[11] Pritchett, L., Woolcock, M. and Andrews, M., 2017. Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action. London: Oxford Press. See Chapter 2, Looking Like a State.

[12] Ramalingam, B., 2013. Aid on the Edge of Chaos: Rethinking International Cooperation in a Complex World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.11.

[13] Joseph, J., 2018. Varieties of Resilience: Studies in Governmentality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.3.

[14] Folke, C., Carpenter, S.R., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Chapin, T. and Rockström, J., 2010. Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability. Ecology and Society, 15(4), p.3.

[15] Joseph, J., 2018, p.14.

[16] Engle, N.L., 2011. Adaptive Capacity and its Assessment. Global Environmental Change, 21(2), p.648.

[17] Bargués-Pedreny, P. and Randazzo, E., 2018. Hybrid Peace Revisited: An Opportunity for Considering Self-governance? Third World Quarterly, 39(8), pp.1543-1560.

[18] Barber, O., 2011. Development, Complexity and Evolution. Online blog. Available at: http://media.owen.org/Evolution/player.html [Accessed 14 July 2011].

[19] Wilson, G., 2016. What is Adaptive Management? USAID Learning Lab. Available at: https://usaidlearninglab.org/lab-notes/what-adaptive-management [Accessed 22 January 2016].

[20] Barber, O., 2011.

[21] Cilliers, P., 1998, p.15.

[22] AU and the Lake Chad Basin Commission, August 2018. Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram Affected Area of the Lake Chad Basin Region.

 [23]Kavalski, E., 2008. The Complexity of Global Security Governance: An Analytical Overview. Global Society, 22(4), pp.423-443.

[24] Samoilenko, S., 2008. Fitness Landscapes of Complex Systems: Insights and Implications on Managing a Conflict Environment of Organisations. Emergence: Complexity & Organisation, 10(4), pp.38-45.

[25] Lebovich, A., 2017. Bringing the Desert Together: How to Advance Sahel-Maghreb Integration. European Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/bringing_the_desert_together_how_to_advance_sahelo_maghreb_integration_7215[Accessed 10 October 2019.]

[26] Meadows, D.H., 1999. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Hartland: The Sustainability Institute.

[27] Aoi, C., De Coning, C. and Thakur, R., 2007. The Unintended Consequences of Peacekeeping. Tokyo: UN University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.