Why are some conflicts impossible to solve? Where do we begin to look for resolutions to civil wars and the Israel-Palestinian conflict? These seemingly impossible problems are the center of Dr. Peter Coleman’s new book The Five Percent.
At the end of Conflict Resolution Month in Colorado, Coleman, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, spoke to an audience at Korbel’s Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy this past Thursday October 27th about what are known as intractable problems. These are the big problems, the international conundrums. Five percent of conflicts last at least 20 years, and those five percent are responsible for almost half the wars and over 75% of civil wars in the world.
Solving these conflicts is not Coleman’s goal, but he rather hopes to define new ways to understand the process of conflict resolution. The Five Percent draws on a variety of fields beyond conflict resolution and peace studies, including complexity science, psychology and applied math to map these conflicts.
“It is very difficult to make sense of something that is so complicated and changing all the time,” said Coleman. Putting up maps on interrelated factors in a conflict, the complexity was apparent; many looked like giant spaghetti bowls of intractability.
Reducing conflicts down to simple sides can mean missing unintended consequences. “We tend to respond in ways that don’t really help, but feed the problem, and that creates a perfect storm,” said Coleman.
Mathematical concepts to model how a conflict can collapse into intractability drew on data from studies done at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. Appreciating the complexity of a conflict can help in finding unique solutions such as islands of agreement and fostering grassroots approaches already working.
“It’s hard to affect change when what you do is predictable and political,” said Coleman, noting that what he is really advocating is a new way of approaching peace processes.
“How we think about change has to change,” said Coleman.
-Sarah Crozier, MA Candidate, International Development