Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Roles - Part 3



Newsletter #236 — May 17, 2024



Update on the MPP Roles - Focusing on Actors (Continued)

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

This is the third part of what is now a four-part series of newsletters exploring the various massively parallel peace and democracy building (MPP) roles. (We'd originally planned on only three parts.) This post, when combined with Part 1Part 2, and Part 4 (coming the week of May 20), this series will offer a comprehensive, but still reasonably succinct, summary of the full scope of the MPP approach. In this post we are looking at:

  • Issue Analysts — who help us understand the specifics of particular substantive problems and generate and evaluate possible solutions and 
  • Collaborative Problem Solvers —  who help us identify and pursue mutually beneficial ways of dealing with those problems. 

In Part 4, we will finish the list with:

  • Power Balancers —  who help us to wisely and equitably make tough decisions in cases where mutually acceptable solutions aren't achievable, and 
  • Defenders — who help us effectively oppose those who seek to inflame our differences and undermine collaborative democracy.


Issue Analysts

Virtually all of the big problems  facing democratic societies are extremely complex and require extensive technical expertise to understand well enough to find effective (or even remotely workable) solutions.  Issue analysts help decision makers, politicians, and the public better understand and sensibly deal with this complexity. We group them into four broad subcategories:

  • Technical Experts investigate, on behalf of the general public and democratic decision-makers, the extraordinarily complex challenges facing modern society. These are the people who help us identify things that are going (or could go) wrong -- things like climate change, inflationary pressures, or infectious diseases that can be very hard for the general public to see. They help develop sophisticated and often very high-tech solutions to these problems. Their analyses help non-experts  judge the relative risks of different choices, and evaluate the likely results of different policy options.  Examples include the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), the U.S. CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization (WHO). The programmers who are trying to draw public attention to the risks of AI and possible mitigation strategies are another example. Individual scientists also play a major role in helping us understand how to sensibly interpret climate and other predictive models. Especially valuable (though often criticized) are the skeptics who ask hard questions of the experts, forcing them to explain their thinking and respond to alternative lines of reasoning in ways that force them to improve the quality of their analyses and explanations. 
  • Technical Reporters (as well as interpreters and educators) play a key intermediary role in helping translate the technical jargon found in most scientific analyses into language that the public can understand. They also often emphasize the practical implications of studies and the reasons why they should (or should not) be seen as trustworthy.  In so doing, they help us understand "what the science says" as well as the many uncertainties surrounding the limits of that knowledge. They also help bridge other gaps that exist between between experts and the general public. For example, they help us understand how AI systems like ChatGPT work and what they can and cannot be expected to do. They can also teach us what we really need to know about statistics and how not to be misled by them. They caution us about the dangers of being overly certain about our beliefs regarding technical (and other) issues. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they explain the advantages of being hard on the technical aspects of a problem, but soft on the people involved in the debate over how best to deal with controversial issues.  
  • Evaluators help incorporate public values into the analytical process because science cannot do that. Scientists can tell us, within some range of uncertainty, the nature of the problems we face and they can estimate the likely consequences of options for addressing those problems. They cannot, however, say what policy is best for a community or a nation. That is a value judgment that should be made by the public (and its elected representatives), not by technical experts. For that, we need a process that involves the general public and, especially, the stakeholders who are likely to be most affected by any decision. So evaluators help decision makers take the science and put it together with an understanding of public values and priorities to try to determine which policy choices will, in specific circumstances, be best for specific groups and for the public overall.
    The International Association for Public Participation is one organization trying to do this by involving everyday citizens in the policy-making process. Government agencies are also often supportive of such efforts, as is evidenced by the EPA's document on public participation.   Citizen assemblies are an even more ambitious effort to improve the interface between experts and the public.
  • Science Reformers focus on holding scientists and technical organizations to high professional standards and protecting them from political pressures that undermine the quality of their work. There are increasingly frequent stories, it seems, of situations in which scientists have "faked" or misinterpreted data for their own or a particular group's benefit, as well as stories about a replication crisis in several disciplines. There are also stories of subtler forms of bias associated with political decisions about what questions to and not to investigate and what to publish and what to reject. These are all problems that must be strenuously policed.  They undermine the credibility of the entire scientific community, and have led an unfortunately large number of people to reject most, or even all, scientific findings. This has done a great deal of damage to the profession of science and the ability of the public to take advantage of scientific expertise. It also seriously impedes society's ability to address its most pressing problems, as all of them, in one way or another, depend on science to sort through the complex issues involved.
    Science reformers are people and organizations who are trying to reverse this damage by policing the scientific industry to make sure that studies are, indeed, properly formulated, conducted, and reported. These include those who are advocating reforms to the academic publishing process, recommitting universities to a politically neutral search for the truth, and challenging requirements that scientists make political "positionality statements." Beyond these relatively modest reforms, there are also bold initiatives like the University of Austin's attempt to build a restructured university that is guided by the values of intellectual freedom and pluralism.  Unlike many other universities that have rigorous speech codes and limits to what is "acceptable" research and teaching, the University of Austin "strives to build and sustain a community based on the lively clash of ideas and opinions." 

Collaborative Problem Solvers 

Collaborative problem solvers are the people who build on the efforts of those in all of the other MPP roles by identifying broadly supported and likely effective measures for dealing with common problems. They then work with stakeholders to pursue realistic and equitable options for effectively addressing those problems. We have found it useful to divide these problem solvers into seven major sub-categories:

  • Negotiators work in a wide range of settings to help their organizations find mutually beneficial ways of working through common problems. These individuals work with other stakeholders to identify the issues that need to be addressed and the interests that affected groups want to protect.  Negotiators then generate and evaluate possible courses of action and ultimately, ideally, reach an agreement  to pursue the most mutually beneficial option. These are the often unsung heroes who enable us to work together in widely varying contexts.  Many of them are the middle managers that David Brooks writes about as "the glue that holds society together."
    But all of us are negotiators in our own settings — particularly in the family and the workplace. So it is important that we all learn how to negotiate effectively.  Carrie Menkel-Meadow wrote a very basic book to help people do that. The classic, Getting to Yes is another such book. This article from Starts with Us explains how to negotiate without destroying relationships.  At the advanced level, the Harvard Negotiation Project and the Institute for Negotiation Innovation teach and help develop professional negotiators, who work in large-scale complex conflicts ranging from business negotiations to international negotiations. 
  • Mediators and related professions such as facilitators and conciliators are professional (and sometimes volunteer) intermediaries who help negotiators to work through disputes that they cannot solve on their own. They help the parties convene and facilitate meetings, communicate more effectively, earn mutual trust, work through emotional issues, identify mutually beneficial possibilities, conclude agreements, and then implement those agreements. Mediation can be informal, as when a parent helps her children resolve a dispute, but it can also be a very formal and structured process led by the kind of professionals affiliated with the Association for Conflict Resolution and  The focus can be on individual, small scale disputes, organizational and business disputes, or on helping whole communities improve their ability to handle the large stream of disputes that is an inevitable part of contemporary social life, as members of National Association for Community Mediation are doing. Organizations such as Mediators Beyond Borders take this one step further by helping bring these services to countries that may not yet have adequate internal capabilities and the International Centre for Dispute Resolution that has a team of mediators who do cross-border mediations.
    Some mediators also work to resolve very large scale, complex, and intractable international conflicts such as Ukraine or Israel/Palestine.  However, we are putting them below in the category of "Consensus Builders," as the distinction we make between mediators and consensus builders is that consensus builders work on larger scale, complex conflicts with more parties and more issues.  Israel/Palestine would seem to qualify, so see below for a discussion of international mediators. 
    We also put mediation trainers in this Mediators category. These are the people and organizations who are trying to make sure that the coming generation of young people has access to these skills and that managers and other professionals are able to keep their skills sharp.
  • Consensus Builders go beyond the negotiation and mediation of relatively small scale disputes to help those involved in complex, multi-party disputes develop a broad consensus on ways of handling complex clusters of interlocking issues that affect large numbers of people and involve multiple interest groups. The line between consensus builders and mediators is somewhat fuzzy since consensus building and mediation processes are very similar. Also, as we indicated just above, people and organizations engaged in complex international mediation usually use the term "mediation," rather than consensus building.  But, since their work is very large scale and complex, they seem to fit better here. Examples include individuals: William Ury would be one example, Jimmy Carter, when he was younger but still after he was U.S. President, was another example.  Sometimes states act as mediators of international conflicts, as both the United States and Norway did in the early 2000s with respect to Israel, and Qatar is doing now in the latest Israeli/Palestinian conflict. NGOs, such as International Alert and the Carter Center also do international mediation as do a wide variety of religious organizations such as the Quakersthe Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the Community of Sant'Egidio.  
    Most of the work of people and organizations that use the term "consensus building," such as the Consensus-Building Institute (CBI), the Keystone Policy Center, the Meridian Institute, primarily work in domestic (meaning one nation) settings.  But not always — CBI, Keystone, and the Meridian institute also work on international issues. They usually act as Track II mediators, however, not Track 1.  A clearer image of the kind of work that these organizations do is found in CBI's collection of online resources and its summary of ongoing projects. Further examples include this description of ways in which businesses can use consensus building techniques to help them navigate the deep differences that divide their customers
  • Peacebuilders take consensus building processes one step further by helping design and implement programs that go beyond the negotiation of agreements to broader efforts to bridge societal divides and transform hyper-polarized societies into more peaceful and, ideally, reconciled societies. In essence, they are trying to implement the agreements that mediators and consensus builders help develop. But they also work before violence breaks out to try to prevent it from happening, and while violence is occurring, to try to stop it from becoming worse and to set the stage for peacemaking (i.e., the negotiation of ceasefires or permanent peace agreements. Common strategies peacebuilders use include conflict assessment and early warning programs, dialogue, visioning, and problem-solving workshops, in post-violence situations, the demobilization and re-integration of combatants, trauma healing and reconciliation efforts, and many other strategies to calm down tensions, stop them from becoming violent, and helping disputing parties live and thrive successfully side by side. The Alliance for Peacebuilding (and all of its member organizations) offer one window into the diverse array of organizations doing this work. For another quite comprehensive list, look at the 100 organizations involved in efforts to promote and execute the Global Fragility Act.
  • Constructive Advocates work to defend their group's interests in ways that simultaneously respect, recognize, and help protect the legitimate interests of other groups involved in the conflict, including those on the other side(s).  Unlike mediators and peacebuilders who approach conflicts from a more neutral, intermediary perspective, constructive advocates are not neutral; they are primarily focused on defending the interests of their own group. Still, what makes their work so valuable (and often so exceptional) is that they recognize that, by treating their opponents fairly, they can strengthen their own position by limiting the intensity of opposition that they are likely to faceThey use what we call "constructive confrontation strategies" to argue for a particular cluster of interests, but they do so in an integrative, not divisive way.  This overlaps with Starts with Us' argument that less polarizing approaches increase political effectiveness. 
    These strategies include making an effort to understand what the conflict is really about and what is really going on, rather than just assuming it is the other sides' fault and insisting that they change. Constructive advocates examine their goals, interests, values, and needs, and try to figure out how those might be defended in ways that leave room for others to pursue differing goals, interests, values, and needs. They then try to work collaboratively, as much as possible, turning to the various types of force only when absolutely necessary, and when done through legitimate channels (such as legislative or electoral action or nonviolent protest and public information campaigns). In everything they do, they try to minimize escalation and maximize mutual understanding and respect. 
    Examples include FAIR, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism which has been championing a less divisive and more inclusive strategy for dealing with racism and other forms of discrimination. Another approach is Radical Moderation's new book, "Why Not Moderation? Letters to Young Radicals" which challenges the widespread disdain for compromise that one now finds on both the left and the right. Still, another approach relies upon conflict coaches to help people navigate conflict in less divisive ways. Finally, there is Amanda Ripley's effort to help us move beyond our tendency to define problems as simple "us-versus-them, we're right, they are wrong" situations and to see the complexity that is always there.
  • Global NGOs focus on developing, generally with respect to some specific group of issues, solutions that help protect society as a whole. While some NGOs are highly partisan and self-serving, we are focusing here on those that make a good-faith effort to carefully analyze a problem in ways that identify (and, in many cases, develop) promising solutions that equitably balance the competing interests of key stakeholder groups. They also work to publicize and promote their recommendations with the goal of persuading the larger society and its democratic decision-makers to adopt them. The work of these NGOs is often quite controversial, with different organizations taking very different approaches to the same cluster of problems. One of the goals of this project, and democracy more generally, is to encourage and support mechanisms for handling of these conflicts in ways which synthesize competing approaches into some sort of mutually beneficial compromise that combines the best of everyone's ideas. Among the many organizations that are making good faith efforts to find solutions to our most difficult problems are the following:  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, International IDEA, and The Carter Center. Also important are individuals and organizations who are doing interesting things at the national or global level on topics such as: increasing the capacity of the electric grid, reducing the amount of land required for the green energy, harnessing AI to increase the government's ability to serve the people, less divisively teaching US history and it's tragic episodes, and strategies for limiting the adverse effects of social media.
  • Philanthropists provide critically needed funding for a wide range of problem-solving efforts as well as the broader array of MPP-related  activities. Their highly competitive vetting process also plays an important role in assuring that the many MPP-related projects that are philanthropy funded are well conceived and executed. Monitoring and evaluation requirements further help assure that we continue to learn from these efforts. Some individuals are looking at ways in which philanthropy might be able to work within and, perhaps, help bridge political divides. Others include Hewlett's effort to fund pro-democracy efforts (like many of those highlighted here), David Stid's Inquiry into the relationship between social justice advocacy, bridge-building, and philanthropy, Christine Emba's questions about the moral basis of philanthropy and the role of long-term thinking, and the Peace and Security Funders Group.

We will finish up this series next week with Part 4, looking at Power Balancers, those who help us to wisely and equitably make tough decisions in cases where mutually acceptable solutions aren't achievable, and Defenders who help us defend ourselves and democracy against those who are trying to profit by exploiting our fear, anger, and difference.

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