Tag Archives: systems dynamics analysis

Robert Ricigliano: Making Peace Last

I just finished reading an excellent new book by Robert Ricigliano titled ‘Making Peace Last. A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding’. Though it might come as a surprise to some of you that I am interested in peacebuilding, I have to say that I was mainly reading the book because it describes an approach to peacebuilding based on complexity theory and systems thinking. One of my big goals is to have such an approach for a more generalized audience and therefore Ricigliano’s book proved to be a big treasure trove for me. I have used systemic analysis methodologies before and Ricigliano’s book added some important insights and gave me some tips on how to further improve my methodology. Here’s a link to the homepage of the book: http://www.makingpeacelast.com/

I want to write a brief review on Ricigliano’s book here and might later pick out some of the interesting aspects he touches upon.

Ricigliano’s book is intended as a guide for people working in peacebuilding to make their interventions more effective and sustainable. In the first part of the book, Ricigliano introduces the basic principles of systemic approaches and complexity and elaborates on why they are better able to achieve real and sustainable changes. Based on his work and with a rich background of peacebuilding and system/complexity literature, Ricigliano develops a framework for systemic peacebuilding called the SAT model.

Part 1 starts out with the basic question of why we are not doing better in peacebuilding nowadays. For Ricigliano, one of the main reasons is the fact that the energy of peacebuilding work is disbursed in hundreds of different directions while the myriads of activities are not guided by an underlying grounded theory or overall strategy of change. To change this, Ricigliano sees as the most urgent task of the peacebuilding community to confront the micro-macro paradox. He describes this paradox as failure of the many programs, diverse in nature and particulars, which are successful measured by their own ability to achieve immediate program objectives at local (micro) level, to lead to systemic (macro-level) change.

Indeed, this realization is not only true for the peacebuilding community, but in my eyes for most of the development community.

As a remedy to the micro-macro gap, Ricigliano proposes a holistic approach, that goes beyond peacebuilding in the narrow sense and includes the whole development and humanitarian fields, which need to be combined under one grand strategy. Development, according to Ricigliano, is still to sector-focused with separate goals, approaches and jargon. I very much agree with this point in Ricigliano’s analysis as I have pointed this out again and again in my work. Unfortunately, however, Ricigliano in my view fails to deliver very much on this particular point in his book by again focusing it specifically on peacebuilding without explicitly including many points of contact with other disciplines.

An interesting question Ricigliano poses in this regard, though, is whether peace can serve as a supraordinate goal. He identifies the need for this question in the fact that development workers from different fields fail to agree what to call their common concern. Ricigliano identifies, however, a general consensus that various practitioners are striving for something more than economic growth, rule of law, poverty reduction, or war crimes prosecutions and labels this, following two researchers that did some extensive work in Afghanistan, Peace Writ Large (PWL). He goes on:

For peace to serve as the supraordinate goal of diverse practitioners, it must be redefined so as to avoid utopian critiques or a trade-off between peace and justice. In this regard, consider the following definition:

“Peace is a state of human existence characterized by sustainable levels of human development and healthy processes of societal change.”

I kind of understand the search for a supraordinate goal for all development practitioners. But then again I am not sure if one single supraordinate goal would bring us any further in working in complex adaptive systems. It is a bit like the question for the meaning of life. The supraordinate goal implies that there is an ideal state of a system where it is in complete equilibrium and fulfills the vision formulated in our goal. In my view, this goes against the fundamental basics of complexity theory itself, which basically says that the only systems in a stable equilibrium are dead systems. But I guess that’s rather a detail.

Ricigliano advocates for a shift of mind towards systemic peacebuilding. He introduces the basic aspects of complex systems, i.e., the interaction and relationships among parts, the interconnectedness of parts, the feedback and dynamics, and emerging patterns. He differentiates between ‘stepping in’, i.e. the analysis of the parts, their interaction, relationships and interconnectedness, feedback and dynamics, and ‘stepping back’.

The practice of stepping back from the parts far enough to see patterns or wholes is a way of incorporating lots of complexity yet still yielding a manageable and useful narrative.

With his considerations on systemic approaches, Ricigliano develops a ‘systemic theory of peacebuilding’ based on the three-part model of general system change developed by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn. Katz and Kahn identified three major components of complex social systems: norms, values, and roles. By using other references from the literature on systemic changes and his experiences in peacebuilding, Ricigliano redefines the three elements to use them as a framework for systemic change in the peacebuilding context as follows:

  • Structural: This refers to systems and institutions designed to meet people’s basic human needs.
  • Attitudinal: This refers to shared norms, beliefs, social capital, and intergroup relationships that affect the level of cooperation between groups or people.
  • Transactional: This refers to processes and skills used by key people to peacefully manage conflict, build interpersonal relationships, solve problems collaboratively and turn ideas into action.

He calls this the structural, attitudinal, and transactional (SAT) model. All three levels are interconnected and for systemic and lasting change to happen, change must take place at all the three levels. Ricigliano sees the transactional domain as a lever for driving systemic change since it is seen as the most accessible place to start a systemic change process.

I am wondering if these three domains hold also true as framework for systemic change in other fields than peacebuilding. According to Ricigliano’s logic they should, since he defines peace or ‘Peace Writ Large’ as ultimate goal of all development initiatives. I would be interested to test this on a real world example, such as in economic development.

At the end of part 1 of the book, Ricigliano asks what would be needed to promote the SAT model. Here, he points out one aspect that I find profoundly important:

The means used to promote a certain goal must be consistent with the goal itself.

This means to make the peacebuilding system more systemic, we have to look at the peacebuilding system as a complex system and adapt our strategy accordingly. Ricigliano identifies two ‘Systems Shifts’ that need to be considered for the peacebuilding system to be more systemic:

Systems Shift 1: From Solutions Focused to Learning Focused. The most important realization for me is that we should not see a system as ‘broken’ and look for a solution (an engineering approach) but we have to realize that a system is what it is. A system cannot be broken, it always works. Maybe not as we would like it to, but it works. Seeking solutions to fix problems, as Ricigliano points out, gives the appearance that situations can be controlled and that we can thus impose our will on them. But complex systems cannot be controlled and hence, there is no way we can ‘fix’ them. The key thing is to work with, not against, the energy and motion in the system.

The response of the SAT model to this insight is to propose a new type of project cycle based on ‘planning, acting, and learning’ (PAL). Hence, Ricigliano promotes the fact that we need to analyze the system and try to learn from it as we go to find the best-adapted means to bring about change in the system. As a consequence, our projects need to be transformed from problem solving projects into learning projects.

Instead of monitoring and evaluation processes that force agencies into pursuing predetermined outcomes and punishing ‘errors’, learning requires peacebuilders to be ‘error embracing’.

Systems Shift 2: Linear Change (Adding Up) versus Nonlinear Change (Interacting Out). Ricigliano points out that many programs are still operating under the erroneous notion that change happens through a linear process and program impacts will add up to long-term systemic change. Alas, reality teaches us otherwise.

In systems, change to an element in the system or to a relationship between two elements causes a chain reaction that spirals out from the initial intervention in the system. (…) So, rather than adding up, changes in a system ‘interact out’, meaning that they cause multiple and often unpredictable ripple effects throughout the system.

The response of the SAT model in this case is to build what Ricigliano calls ‘Networks of Effective Action’, realizing that no one organization can affect an entire system on its own.

Here again, Ricigliano also gives practitioners outside the peacebuilding field rich material and insights that can help us to make our work more systemic and in the long run more effective.

Having introduced the basic understanding of systemic change models and his SAT Model, Ricigliano introduces in the second part of his book a very elaborate methodology for systemic peacebuilding assessment and planning that is largely based on the systems thinking school. In Ricigliano’s words, part 2 of the book takes up the challenge of how to listen to a system to plan interventions meant to nurture systemic change. This part also contains vast resources not only for people working in peacebuilding but also for practitioners in other fields. The methodology introduced by Ricigliano has a big similarity to a methodology I have used for assessing systems and potentials for change, lately in an assessment that I did in Kosovo. Nevertheless, with his rich background of experiences from all over the world, Ricigliano makes the methodology very tangible and I could still add a lot to my understanding of how to use it.

In part 3, after having introduced us to how to listen to the system, Ricigliano maps out methods to catalyze systemic change. Compared with the two other parts, this third part is most specifically tailored for peacebuilders and in my view less accessible and less directly useful for other practitioners. You can feel that Ricigliano is on his thematic home-turf here. The introduced methodology mainly focuses on negotiations between conflict parties and how to best organize, design, facilitate or support these negotiations in a way that is compatible with the SAT model. Nevertheless, I could gain more insights in this part that can be applied to other actors, not only combatants in certain African or Asian countries, such as businessmen.

All in all, a really well written book that describes in many details a methodology to approach peacebuilding in a more systemic way, based on a rich backpack of experiences that Ricigliano brings along from his work in the peacebuilding field. The methodology can easily be adapted to other areas of intervention, such as economic development or the development of social services, keeping in mind that the goals that all development people share are not that far apart: to create a better world for all people.

Holism vs. targeting in complex systems

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend about the question whether any form of targeting of our interventions towards a specific group of people or topic is already limiting our ability to come up with solutions that are fully adapted to the system. The concrete issues we were talking about were the poverty orientation of the development sector in general and as an example the focus on women economic empowerment as a form of development in particular. The hypothesis we had is basically that if we enter a system with predefined clients (e.g. ‘the poor’ or ‘poor women’) in the first place, our solution will always by biased in order to directly and quickly cater those clients’ needs. This argument goes into the direction of the silo thesis, i.e., that development organizations basically have their topics, such as human health, water and sanitation, markets, etc., and that, regardless of the system or problem they encounter, their solution always has something to do with their topic.

In contrast to that, systems theory tells us that we need to take a holistic view on the system and not limit ourselves to one specific domain if we want to really understand how a system works. So if we only look at the problem of how women get their water and come up with the solution of digging a well in each village, we might miss the whole actual problem women are facing. As a consequence, the entry point for us to support the women might be somewhere completely else, for example local governments, traditional structures, etc.

Then again, what we as development practitioners want to achieve – be it in the short or the long run – is to reduce poverty and also to improve the situation of women, which, in many instances, suffer an even more dire fate as their male counterparts. Not to talk about the incentive structure of the funding of international development which clearly favors quick wins with specific target groups.

I did some more thinking on the topic and I guess the important differentiation we need to make is between what we look at during the system analysis and what we define as target state of the system. In the first, i.e., the system analysis, we have to be open and holistic and take into account all kinds of influences. The only thing we need to do is to set the appropriate system boundaries to frame the system and the level of aggregation that is useful for our work. But only once we have analyzed the system, we should hone in on our target variables, e.g., the poverty or the economic empowerment of women and see how we can influence the system so these variables change in a way that seems favorable to us.

Hence, holism and targeted interventions don’t have to be a trade-off per se. The trade-off, in my view, starts when we are designing the interventions. At that point we have to choose between interventions that have a short-term effect on our target variables or we have to appreciate the dynamics of the system and choose interventions that work with the system. The latter often have the price tag of only showing results after longer periods of time – although that is not necessarily always the case.

I’m curious about your thoughts on this topic and whether it makes sense what I am writing here.

How to plan in uncertainty?

I haven’t been very actively writing here recently. I think I got trapped in the question ‘what meaningful could I write that is not already out there?’. Well, anyway, just a short post today with some thoughts that I have carried around for a while. I just came across a post on the Aid on the Edge blog that was talking about South Africa and the uncertainty of its future:

We human beings do not like uncertainty. We seek to understand what events portend, taking comfort in coming up with an answer. (…) Yet sometimes there is more wisdom, and more comfort to be taken, in acknowledging a more humbling truth – that which of many alternative futures (including ones we cannot imagine) will come to pass is unknowable, is a product of decisions and actions that have not yet been made. This understanding of change as something ‘emergent’, evolving, which can unfold in far-reaching yet ex ante unpredictable directions, is the key insight of ‘complexity theory’ – an insight which can offer a useful dose of humility to governance prognosticators.

The question that comes to my mind when reading this is how to handle the tension of the uncertainty of the future and the deeply institutionalized need for planning in development institutions.

I have worked with a systems dynamics approach combining causal loop diagrams with a method called the sensitivity analysis. It helps us to determine the relative importance of impact factors in a system and characterize them as active, critical, passive, and buffering. Together, these two tools allow to select impact factors that could be targeted by development agencies in future projects.

Now, what is the value of causal loop diagrams? Some people say that they are not more than an improved version of linear causal chains, but still not able to reflect ‘real’ complexity, i.e., the unpredictability of complex systems. Loop diagrams still work with cause and effect relationships, the cause and effect between two factors that can be connected with other factors to eventually build a loop. Yet, complexity sciences say that in complex systems cause and effect are hard to determine, so why bother?

I think that the causal loop analysis and the sensitivity analysis allow us to evaluate the factors that are most relevent and focus on them. They further illustrate some of the more prominent feedback mechanisms of the system that could amplify or hamper our interventions or that we could even use to change some of the dynamics of the system in our favor. They also cater the need of planning or at least of establishing a rational base for planning.

But yeah, we have to avoid falling back into the ‘we can predict the future’ trap, trying to build a prefect model of a system (just remember, models of complex systems have to be as complex as the real thing to accurately simulate it). Complex systems remain inherently unpredictable and our actions need to be tuned to the reactions of the system to any intervention. The above mentioned tools help us to make sense of the dynamics of a system and to select the more promising interventions. They do, however, not release us from the need of an experimental (or may I call it evolutionary) approach to solving real problems in real systems.

I would appreciate any thoughts on that in the comments!

Presentation on System Dynamics at the SEEP Annual Conference 2011

I was very lucky to be invited to present my work using the Systems Dynamics Analysis methodology at the SEEP Network‘s annual conference last week in Arlington, VA.

I presented the methodology based on the work I did in Mongolia on the problem of pastoralism and pastureland degradation. Based on my presentation and my script I prepared a special version of the Prezi I used with more text so it can also be understood without me presenting. This extended presentation can be accessed here.

The main goals of the presentation were to show the participants a concrete and practical tool that improves our way of looking at systems and their dynamics. Especially, I presented the loop analysis as an alternative to the widely used tools based on linear causal chains.

My presentation of the Systems Dynamics Analysis was well framed by Lucho Osorio from Practical Action who was setting the scene introducing the concept of working in complex realities and how Practical action uses the participatory market mapping to better reflect the reality as well as Tjip Walker from USAID who gave an insight perspective of how USAID is approaching the issue (he was actually also involved in organizing the event on complexity within USAID on which I wrote here). This short article gives an idea of the whole session.

The feedback I and my fellow panelists received was very encouraging. Many practitioners approached us with a clear message: these concepts of complexity and the system dynamics analysis are seen as very potential to better reflect the realities in the field and improve not only the ability to plan better and more effective interventions, but also to improve the ability to show and report the more intangible changes on a system level.

This positive feedback gives us enormous motivation to go ahead with our work on how to better embrace complexity in our work in international development and beyond. I am keen to report in this blog how this work is progressing.