Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding:
With Some Help From the Zebras

I was around when a group of academic and policy entrepreneurs married the new (at least to me) field of conflict resolution with the peace movement in the early 1980s. I had already spent years as an activist and had begun my academic career that focused on large scale political change. Not surprisingly, this intellectual and political marriage made a lot of sense to me whether I was wearing my academic or my activist hat.

Since then, many of those individuals and the organizations they formed have drifted apart. No one wanted us to do so. Basically, we all followed our passions and started to specialize. Some of us focused on conflict resolution often at a personal organizational level while others (myself included) engaged with peacebuilding at a national or even global scale. Few of us even go to both the annual conferences of the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) and the Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP). Similarly, academic programs tend to specialize as mediation has become a popular subject in law and public policy programs while programs like the one I am part of at George Mason University has turned its attention more toward complex and global conflicts for which mediation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can never be more than part of the solution.

Because I have close friends in both worlds, this drift into separate professional and political niches has gnawed on those admittedly rare occasions when I actually thought about it. However, it was only when I was took part in two conferences at Nova Southeastern University earlier this month and got to spend some time with Colin Rule of, that the urgency of getting us to work more closely together hit home.

Colin was especially helpful because he introduced me to a new book and reinforced my gut feeling that there is plenty of common ground to be found. Just before we met, the organizers sent out a review of The Evolution of a Field, a book of reminiscences written by 23 founders of the mediation half of the field. Second, although I knew about his own work using online dispute resolution, I had not seriously thought about how it could take our work to that clichéd next level.

A Common Challenge

Whether separately or together, we have made a lot of progress. The term win/win has become part of our everyday conversations because it is embedded in the ways we deal with each other at home, at work, and beyond. Similarly, as the transition to the Biden administration has shown, none of us who were active in the peacebuilding world could have anticipated that we would even occasionally get a seat at what Julia Roig calls the grownups’ table when public policy is made.

Still, we are a long way from reaching any of the more sweeping goals I had in mind when I joined the Beyond War movement, John Marks formed Search for Common Ground, or my colleagues created what is now George Mason University’s Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution.

We won’t get there if we either rest on our laurels or continue using business as usual. And we won’t get there if we don’t work together more than we have since I joined the board or directors and became the senior fellow for innovation at the Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP) in 2005.

There are actually lots of way that we can productively learn from each other (again), but to keep this post at least reasonably short, I’ll concentrate on what strike me as the two most important building blocks from each community and then add three insights that I’ve picked up over the last few months while I’ve lurked on the fringes of Zebras Unite.

To keep things simple, I’ll put the zebras and their dazzles (yes, zebras do gather in dazzles rather than the less glamorous sounding herds or packs) on hold and lay out the conflict resolution/peacebuilding part of my case first.

Transactional Work—Quick Wins for Real Needs

As I read Evolution of z Field and thought back over the last forty years, two conclusions leapt out at me about the progress made by colleagues who focus on mediation and other aspects of alternative dispute resolution that my side of the field could work on.

First and most obviously, they have enjoyed tremendous professional success–in some cases creating firms that are able to make a profit while making a difference, starting with itself. There are lots of ways of documenting that success. One that stands out from my vantage point it the ability of mediators and their colleagues to meet at least some of the real needs that their clients come to them with. Whether it’s a divorce or a community-level dispute, mediators and other ADR professionals have created plenty of what Chip and Dan Heath call “bright spots” or successes on which we could build something much bigger. I’ll return to the reluctance of these professionals to effectively do so in the next section. For now, it’s enough to note that they have had far more of these identifiable and successes than my AfP colleagues have. Emphasis definitely on identifiable and measurable.

Second, mediation practices and related organizations have succeeded in part because they’ve met the real needs of the people they work with. I, for one, have occasionally understated the importance of this kind of transactional work in which mediators help people solve discrete problems. After all, I’m interested in what I call wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that they rarely lend themselves to solution that are anchored in a single win-win agreement.

Transformational Work— Proactively Seeking Holistic Solutions

My side of the field tends to focus on disputes involving wicked problems and the like for which short-term progress is inherently harder to identify, let along measure. In using language that sometimes comes with pejorative overtones, we suggest that our work is inherently more difficult because it transforms the nature of the conflict itself rather than “settling” for “merely” transactional agreements that leave a lot hanging because they do not and can not address all of the issues that gave rise to the conflict.

That said, we can point to two things

First, perhaps because we are less inclined to think of ourselves primarily as third party neutrals, we tend to be more entrepreneurial. One consequence of not defining our role largely as third party neutrals, we are not inclined to to sit and wait for people to bring their conflicts to us. Put in more positive language, we have been more proactive in identifying conflicts and then exploring how we might help. In the last decade or so, that has led us to emphasize locally led or grassroots based peacebuilding in which people on the ground who are directly affected by the dispute take the lead in addressing it. Nonetheless, many of the people I work with—like Julia Roig of the grownups’ table fame—have sought creative new ways of both addressing conflict and doing so in ways that mobilize lots of people.

Second, there is good reason to not think solely or even primarily in transactional terms when dealing with issues like systemic racism, climate change, or the threat to democracy. Complex problems require holistic solutions that envision ways of taking bright spots to scale locally, nationally, or even globally. The more audacious among us speak glibly of paradigm shifts in our cultural norms, public policies, and almost everything else in between.

Be More Like the Zebras

While we could each take these lessons from the other and apply them directly in our work, I actually found it more useful to think of ways of combining them into initiatives that neither “side” of our field has undertaken but could help us both experience exponential growth and change society as a whole. To be fair, these did not appear on my mental radar screen all of a sudden. Rather, they are things I’ve been thinking about for some time that got reinforced when I sat in on Zebra Unite’s discussion of their framework for what the called Labor and Learning: Birthing the New Economy on Friday.

The Zebras are not peacebuilders. Instead, they are a new group of investors and entrepreneurs who want to fix the damage caused by unicorn companies and create their version of the McArthur Foundation’s tag line of a “more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” For reasons that I don’t fully understand yet, the Zebras are farther along in creating something that we could adapt and replicate by reintegrating the conflict resolution and peacebuilding space if we:

Think in terms of conflict ecosystems. The authors in Evolution of a Field all acknowledge that the conflicts they work on rarely take place in a vacuum. Even the simplest mediated disputes typically have to be put in their larger contexts if a mediated (or other) solution is going to last. Yet, even the most holistic peacebuilder rarely thinks in terms of the entire ecosystem of which the conflict is a part or that we will need to address all of it. At times, that might require giving the highest priority to something other than the conflict itself as I have been arguing of late when I talk about a peacebuilding pivot.

Grow around your core beliefs. One of the things that has most impressed me about Zebras Unite is that they walk their talk. They act on the seemingly obvious conclusion that the new economy (or a more peaceful world) will not simply emerge if we keep doing the right thing. It has to be purpose built in ways that are wholly consistent with the values that inspired them in the first place. It is almost certainly no coincidence that the founding Zebras are young(ish) women who use birth metaphors and refer to themselves as doulas. It is almost certainly no coincidence that many of them are serial entrepreneurs who are trying to avoid the worst excesses of the unicorns, most of which are run by their male contemporaries. Even if I’m wrong about the gendered nature of the Zebras, they have gone a lot farther than we have in realizing that bright spots are only bright spots that have to be expanded. Perhaps because I’m helping create one on innovation and reconciliation, they are creating labs in which their colleagues can experiment with new tools for creating the new economy. Finally, unlike the unicorns they so dread, that growth has to be consistent with the founders’ core values and assumptions, something they share with most of us in the conflict resolution and peacebuilding world. That has led them to develop an overarching business model and set of specific strategies for funding, investment, leadership, profit sharing and more for their own organiation, the likes of which I haven’t seen in any conflict resolution or peacebuilding network.

Build broader coalitions together. I’m drawn to the Zebras, too, because they also see something more clearly than we do in the peacebuilding and conflict resolution worlds. That’s probably the case because they formed their organization to complement a wide variety of things they were already doing in their other careers in journalism, higher education, environmental consulting, systems analysis, impact investment, and more. Given their long-term goals, they do put economic change more squarely at the heart of their agenda than I would. Still, they recognize that they will have to be part of broader initiatives producing every more sweeping forms of social, political, environmental, and economic change.

And Have Fun?

While sitting in on the Zebras’ launch of their manifesto for this year, I was reminded of the fact that those of us in both halves of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding world have a tendency to take ourselves far too seriously. Whether it’s in the language they use to describe themselves (zebras, dazzles, and doulas, for example) or in the way they run their on line meetings, they have a lot of fun doing their work.

We could all learn from that, too!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.


Also published on Medium.