I’ve reached the point in writing From Conflict Resolution to Peacebuilding at which I have to talk about conflict mapping is a necessary tool in either understanding how conflicts unfold or effectively working to resolve them. The need for that was driven home in a course I’m sitting in on when it became clear that few of the students had had much experience in mapping conflicts. So, along with my friend Liz Hume, we began to bring them up to speed with one of two kinds of tools peacebuilders rely on. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and to some degree one needs to use both.

First we showed them how USAID’s Conflict Assessment Framework could be used to analyze the current tensions in the United States. Like most major development agencies, USAID developed a tool to help its officer do their work in conflict torn countries. As you can see, the CAF (as it is known)  asks its officers to focus on the the dynamics and trajectories a conflict takes. To understand the way a conflict unfolds, it has analysts start with the grievances found in a given society and the forces that “mobilize” around those grievances. Those grievances, of course, do not exist in isolation and need to be understood as an outgrowth of the ways its institutions (not just the government) perform, identity differences over race, religion, language and the like, and broader social structures.

In short, the CAF and similar tools give the people implementing USAID’s policies a group of categories in which to organize their data and a good intellectual “snapshot” of what the situation is like, including the issues its employees and their associates need to address.

Second, peacebuilders increasingly rely on systems analysis which turns those snapshots into the equivalent of an extended play video that shows how a conflict evolves over time . I’m personally drawn to the Systems Practice toolkit created by the Omidyar Group. After hours spent with sticky notes, white boards, and markers (which we made our students do a bit of), they end up with maps that look like this one the Peacebuilding Evaluation Consortium that AfP leads.

As you can easily see, it is a lot more complicated in part because it doesn’t have the convenient list of intellectual pigeon holes into which data from any conflict can easily be placed.  In fact, it is so convoluted that you will have a hard time reading all of those boxes and arrows even if you are reading this post on a 27″ monitor which I was using in writing it.

That’s not actually the point here.

Instead, I want you to see that systems analysis leads us to seek out and name all the causes (the words in the chart) and their effects (the arrows). Even more importantly, systems analysis leads you to see that every element in a system is directly or indirectly connected to every other one so that, literally, what goes around comes around.

Most importantly of all, systems theory draws our attention to feedback loops which are easiest to see in the three circles in the multicolored chart. To see why, shift your attention to this third, simpler example of a feedback loop which the Omidyar Group drew for a different project exploring the relationship between government performance and its impact on a population. It is presented here as a virtuous circle or cycle in a way I was taught American government in the early 1960s as reflected in all the + signs. To read it quickly, effective policy performance leads to satisfaction with the government, a trusting political culture, more citizen engagement, effective interest group activity, and even better public policy making later on. If you were to draw that loop today, there would be more – signs to reflect the current reality in which state ineffectiveness has led to growing dissatisfaction and polarization, more demands being placed on the state, and the gridlock we all worry about in Washington and other national capitals.

Systems analysis is also useful because while a group maps out a system, it is also likely to find two things that are not as obvious when using a tool like the CAF.

  • What the people at Omidyar call the deep structure or the single loop that does the most to hold the entire system together whether it is working well or not.
  • Points of leverage at which the entire system is most subject to change around which peacebuilders can most effectively plan their activities.

I will be presenting both in my book. At the very least, the students who will be reading it should subject any conflict they are studying to a CAF-like analysis. Ideally, they should draw systems maps as well. However, I’m not holding my breath since doing a map like the one presented here that our team “drew” required weeks of work by a team of experienced professionals.

Also published on Medium.