Good intentions are not enough to reduce conflict and lift people out of poverty. Many efforts– whether by charities, government agencies, civil society organizations, community groups, international aid agencies and even multinational companies– fail to make any sort of sustainable difference. But fresh thinking around resolving conflicts and sustaining peace and development can lead to success where traditional efforts have failed.
Steve Jobs famously said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” I’ve connected a lot of dots during the past 30 years of trying to generate sustainable peace and development in parts of the globe. Doing so taught me how to piece together the shared interests of a broad range of people and organizations and generate new thinking around resolving conflicts and development challenges by moving communities out of a seemingly endless cycle of poverty and violence.
What do I mean by connecting the dots? I mean understanding the bigger picture and where you fit in. Determining with whom you should be connecting, how you should be working with them, and how your combined efforts can solve the problem. I mean going beyond the understanding of how it all works to actually influencing things to work better.
Partial Problems, Partial Solutions
Sustainable peace and development means reaching a point where the root causes of entrenched conflicts are being effectively addressed and the quality of life is being improved for all parties to a conflict, not just a select few. A point where markets and social services are inclusive and inequality is declining.
I’ve worked on many a frustrating project or effort that sought to be a partial solution in search of a partial problem: a conflict early warning system without an early response system; loans for micro-enterprises without any accompanying training or services; vocational training programs for ex-combatants without any job opportunities; distribution of seeds to farmers with no food to eat. In many cases, the missing pieces from one set of efforts could, in fact, have been addressed by another set of efforts but for a lack of awareness of who was doing what.
Programs to reduce conflict and poverty are rarely afforded sufficient time and resources to look beyond their own target area and group to understand how their efforts affect, complement, or even disrupt other efforts to achieve the same goals. My experience with the flood of development assistance in Angola after its civil war ended in 2002 brought this home to me. I saw how little the efforts of different agencies complemented each other or represented a coordinated attempt to establish a path towards sustaining peace by redeveloping those areas most disrupted by the conflict. In some cases, development efforts exacerbated remnants of the conflict.
A Holistic Approach
So how do you connect the dots to solve complex problems? You look broadly at the entire system surrounding your targeted problem, be it a conflict or a market or a community. How does it work? Who is trying to change how it works and how do their own solutions relate to yours? Where is there room for collaboration and synergy? Look for opportunities to link with others and develop a shared vision for change that enables individual efforts to build upon each other. Linking people and efforts together and building a shared understanding of the problem is the best way to overcome it in a way that is truly sustainable and not reliant on any particular interest.
Aligning Interests Around A Common Problem
The Right People
You rarely find reliable consistency in the quality of thinking and effort within any single organization. Sometimes you get to work with good people and sometimes you don’t. When putting together a team, you learn to find good people by focusing on who they are, how they work and what they’ve done, rather than the organization they work for and its track record. Take a good project or organization and assign it to the wrong people and it won’t work. Find good people and they will find a way to achieve success, even if the implementing partner is weak.
People ARE the dots we want to connect. They can be clustered in organizations, industries, communities, or even regions, but the individuals you connect influence the interests you connect and finally, how well aligned your collective efforts are going to be. Look first and foremost for like-minded leaders who can start to form a consensus around collective solutions. Get the right people and organizations involved from the start and the resources will follow.
A Culture Of Collaboration
Most organizations see collaboration simply as a way to leverage their budgets to do larger projects. A genuine collaboration finds consensus and synergy around multiple interests, objectives and roles, recognizing that different organizations have different strengths when it comes to addressing problems. The key is understanding the problem you are trying to solve and the potential roles of others in solving it. Teaming up effectively requires understanding why people and organizations are better off working together.
However, even when people do recognize the value of cooperation, they usually have little understanding of how to overcome the organizational barriers to effectively working together.
Developing a culture of collaboration involves building the capacity to reach out to the right partners and understanding how to work with them. The Partners for Peace Network in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, for example, shows how the development of a local mechanism to link up common interests for reducing conflict and promoting peace can keep building upon itself by linking up more and more stakeholders interested in understanding and resolving conflicts. The network was designed to be a collaborative, collective effort from the outset, an organization structured to encourage members and chapters to reach out to others and combine their voices and actions in promoting peace.
Getting a Dialogue Going
People and organizations rarely convene on their own initiative. It usually takes a catalyst, an interested party who can reach out to others to take the first step in building cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. In the Partners for Peace example described above, the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta served as that catalyst.
Neutral conveners and facilitators are usually needed to bring various interests together and get a real dialogue going. They are among the key ingredients needed to generate collective action towards solving problems of poverty and conflict.
The Keys To Collective Action
Linking up with others to solve common social problems is not just a good idea; it’s a growing trend. As far back as 2011, John Kania and Mark Kramer’s article titled “Collective Impact” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review documented successful instances of joint efforts to solve social problems ranging from education to the environment. The article underscored a growing recognition that more effective means of working together are needed to:
Enable organizations to easily select a suitable provider of expertise, services, training, project teams and evaluators.
Mobilize support without enduring lengthy contracting and procurement processes.
Start a dialogue among those who share a common interest in solving a particular development or security problem and effortlessly move from dialogue to collective action.
Facilitate information sharing, learning and identification of best practices between peacebuilding and development program staff from different organizations and locations.
Disseminate insights across multiple networks and communities of interest.
Motivate individuals to participate in professional networks and affiliations outside of their current work roles and responsibilities in order to explore new concepts and expand their capabilities.
The Hāmākua Institute is partnering with the Access Facility of the Netherlands to explore how to more effectively link various efforts to generate sustainable peace and development. Both organizations are establishing new mechanisms to enable people to better team up with each other and demonstrating the value that neutral conveners and facilitators bring to new cooperative efforts.
Connecting the dots isn’t just about figuring things out or getting people together. It’s about making things happen when other efforts fall short. It’s about building enough momentum amongst enough organizations to move large groups of people past a vicious cycle of conflict and poverty into a new era of peace and development. Many like to think that lasting solutions to poverty and conflict can simply be determined and delivered by some mobilization of external resources. They don’t want to face the inconvenient reality that sustainable solutions really are attainable, but only from the lengthy and painstaking process of aligning the interests of the silent majority of people who stand the most to gain from committing their efforts towards a lasting peace and prosperity in their communities. If more attention is paid to mobilizing their efforts instead of just appeasing combatants, I believe there is a stronger chance that the solutions that many seek will sustain themselves.