Cedric de Coning is a Senior Research Fellow in the Research Group on Peace, Conflict and Development at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and he is also a Senior Advisor for ACCORD (African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes).

He has 30 years of experience in research, policy advice, training and education in the areas of conflict resolution, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and peace and conflict studies. Cedric has a Ph.D. in Applied Ethics from the Department of Philosophy of the University of Stellenbosch, and a M.A. (cum laude) in Conflict Management and Peace Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Steve sets the tone for the interview by introducing the types of global situations and conflicts that the international community is addressing today: how we respond to divide and/or violent societies where the context is complex and unpredictable and the situation changes rapidly. In these contexts, it is difficult to know appropriate strategy to move forward and any solution will need to be locally owned.

In this interview, Cedric and Steve cover several topics including:

  • The realities of being an “outsider” in complex contexts

  • The key elements of a strong adaptive approach

  • What to do when your process isn’t working

  • How to encourage adaptive programming in your organization

  • The role of “insiders” and “outsiders” in complex, often violent, contexts

  • When to use (and not use) an adaptive approach

  • How “outsiders” can support the building of resilience

  • What it would mean for the United Nations to take up adaptive programming

When Cedric was deployed as a United Nations Peacekeeper in the 1990’s, he learned that many of the approaches you come to the field with fall short of what people expect of you. After coming across the complexity lens, he adjusted his perspective to understand that uncertainty isn’t a problem but the natural state of affairs in many contexts, that nonlinearity should be anticipated. He says the gardening metaphor works best in these conflict environments: progress needs to emerge from within, which you can nuture, but you can not control the end result. Nature takes its time, certain processes can’t be rushed.

In Steve’s experience, people in the conflict had so much knowledge of what needs to be done and what projects would produce results, that it was ‘cringe-worthy’ when a foreign expert would walk in and prescribe a solution to the problem in a matter of days.

Steve discusses the difference between contexts: some need adaptive management and some don’t. This is often discussed using the cloud vs. clock analogy.

Cedric explains a few key elements of an adaptive approach:

  1. It is not about implementing a predesigned program

  2. Implementation with local counterparts

  3. Peacebuilder can propose options and examples

  4. Undertake variety of initiatives and monitor feedback

  5. Select which initiatives to continue with, and which initiatives to stop. Even those approaches that generate the desired results might not continue to do so for long, and all initiatives need to be monitored and will need to be adapted.

Sometimes progress or change doesn’t happen even when you’re doing the best you can. One option in this situation is to do a peer review— what would your colleagues have done in this context? It is possible that you just need to keep your foot in the door until the conflict unfreezes and you can actually see results.

Complexity and adaptive programming create a lot of space for local engagement. Peacebuilding as an outsider is essentially facilitation and knowledge sharing. No outsider has “the solution” to implement.

Steve discuss the example of Iraq and Afghanistan and raises the lack of understanding of the consequences of implementing a top down, militarily dominant approach and how many unintended consequences can fester due to this approach. Cedric asserts that these situations are actually examples of when you cannot use an adaptive approach because the real goal of the intervention isn’t to establish a self-sustainable peace.

Resilience is a necessary condition for of a self-sustainable peace. Societies need to have social institutions that can help it to manage shock or setbacks. This implies a certain degree of social complexity is needed in order to sustain the peace. Peacebuilders can help to create local resilience by strengthening local institutions and by empowering their agency.

What, concretely, makes a context complex and resilient and what can “outsiders” do to help build this locally?

  • Increasing networking and connections between networks

  • Not concentrating decision making and power in one node, but distributing it as wide as possible across the system

The United Nations could get much better at accessing what works and what doesn’t work, and deciding which projects it wants to continue with, and to prioritize those that show results. It is hopeful that more organizations will be getting involved in adaptive programming as the UN gets increasingly involved.