Putting relationships at the heart of peace and development

“If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

In quantum physics, the ‘observer effect’ suggests that an electron does not exist in isolation instead it only exists when it interacts or is observed by another photon.

Applying this observation to societal change, it got me thinking that a stakeholder’s power also does not exist in isolation and only becomes real when one stakeholder is interacting with another. Yet as international development practitioners, how often do we focus our attention away from the big issues and look closer at how people actually interact? What their relationships are made of? How much time do we spend trying to understand why a relationship is the way it is and what we can do to help transform them?

For the past 15 years, I have been working on conflict and development issues and found myself often preoccupied with the narratives that define conflicts or undermine sustainable development. I would often focus my efforts on understanding root causes of conflict, factors driving violence, weak governance capacity, or cultural practices that often marginalise certain groups.

However, as I used ever more sophisticated narratives to define these challenges, I found the common denominator in the search for peaceful solutions remained the same – the need to reshape the power and influence of one stakeholder over another, and to build relationships between them.

I found that it was within these power structures that people compete over the control of resources, that bargains are struck and formal and informal political settlements are shaped or broken. It is how these relationships play out that lead to divisions and create inequalities within society, increase the marginalisation of women or minority groups, and build mistrust between governments and citizens. Power imbalances and broken relationships for example, can lead to the allocation of limited resources away from essential public services, a continual struggle to implement effective systems of governance, and critically, to resentment and violence.

However, whilst these power plays can cause divisions, at the same time it is within these dynamics that alliances can be formed, that power can be challenged, that prejudices can be overcome and politically feasible solutions discovered. Therefore, an essential condition for any development intervention should be to analyse these interactions and explore opportunities for building relationships, between political elite, public officials, citizens, civil society and the private sector.

With this in mind, I began exploring methods and tools to help me understand these relational and power dynamics, strategically navigate them and find solutions to shape them in a systematic way. However, I found that many of these stakeholder or systems analysis tools had limited ability to describe the changing nature of relationships and power dynamics.

That is why I felt the need for a new approach, one that analyses the source of a stakeholder’s power and explores the factors that build or undermines trust in a relationship. An approach that can support the continuous monitoring of the changing socioeconomic and political dynamics. An approach that can help users to understand why stakeholders are not cooperating with others to resolve the developmental challenges they face. An approach that can assist users to explore who has the power to address these challenges and what we, as external actors, can do to transform these relations and shape peace.

Building on a mixture of conflict theories, I have developed a detailed analytical framework to examine a stakeholder’s different sources of power and the factors that undermine confidence or can build trust in relationships.

This framework needed a powerful tool to turn complex data into workable information. Here, peace and development met technology. For this ‘peacetech’ initiative, I joined forces with a software developer and experts in information design to develop a unique visual platform, called Dialectiq.

Together, we imagined a platform that presents the analysis in a simple manner, facilitates decision-making and helps to generate strategies for building politically feasible solutions.

Over the upcoming months, we will be piloting the Dialectiq platform on a range of peacebuilding and development programs to improve practitioners’ and organisations’ capacity to:

  1. Unravel complexity – Dialectiq provides the possibility to map out power and relationships on a visual interactive platform. This enables programmes to examine the source of a stakeholder’s power (i.e. economic, cultural, social), how their interests align with the programme objectives, and to identify which relationships are having the greatest effect on the programme’s outcomes.
  2. Find common solutions – Dialectiq allows programs to use the interactive map to isolate the factors that can transform relationships. This information is key to develop, adapt or improve the design of activities. Programs can explore which stakeholders have the power to facilitate this transformation and the interactive map can be used to identify common interests around which stakeholders can combine their different sources of power to build coalitions of change. Finally, the interactive map can easily be shared across the relevant stakeholders, which facilitates a process of forming a shared analysis and finding common ways to move forward.
  3. Support adaptive programming – Dialectiq can help programs adapt more effectively to the changing context. The platform provides a basis for live dynamics analysis that can be tracked as the context changes. This provides organisations with continual feedback loops as they learn more about the context and how their activities are affecting relationships and the impact on programme outcomes.

As we trial and test Dialectiq on a range of programmes and contexts, we aim to share what we find out through case studies and think pieces. We would love your feedback along the way to help us get better at what we do. To join us on this exciting journey and rediscover the potential of human relationships in peacebuilding and development practice, follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter or sign up to our newsletter.