The final aspect of we stink more than we think builds from this last observation and offers a shift in approach. 'Termites' as metaphor focuses on how insects face the coordination paradox: how do whole collectives cohere around purpose without centralised control?
One answer came from the study of insects that, as they travel, leave a scent which permits others to pick up and subsequently build on. The technical word for this is stigmergy: indirect coordination in the environment that stimulates subsequent agency. Social network analysis applies a similar lens to observe shifts in collective human behaviour. In terms of peacebuilding, when people travel, talk, interact with ideas, and then repeat this over time, coherence and wider shared meaning emerge without central control. What we leave in the trace of a thousand conversations may have greater and wider power than what a few share behind closed doors.
Navigating inclusivity in peacebuilding may not be about access to a single locus of power but rather the stitching of a thousand trace-leaving conversations that cohere toward action. Niall Ferguson provides a useful comparison between hierarchical and social network ways of organising agency. He makes the case that the former, often portrayed as official history, has dominated the latter. He also suggests that the less visible webs of human relationships have always been present and wielded significant impact on social behaviour.
Kenneth Boulding noted a basic theory of change: If it exists, it’s possible. He suggested we look for existing examples of what we seek to build. With reference to inclusivity, we may have overlooked important experiences that indicate this shift in metaphor. Here are three:
- The Boroma Grand Guurti in Somaliland, which took years to prepare through a small, travelling set of elders moving across and returning to many conversations with local sub-clans led to an open gathering that greatly reduced violence across a war-torn region (see work by Ahmed Yusuf Farah and by Lederach and Lederach).
- In Colombia, the process in Medio Magdalena of the Association of Workers and Campesinos provides an approach of transformative conversations within a context of armed conflict (see work by Alejandro Garcia and my book, The Moral Imagination). Initiated by those most under threat, creative approaches to conversation conducted by small groups travelling and engaging across deep and violent polarisation led toward unexpected capacity for transforming the conflict landscape.
- The Natural Resource Conflict Transformation Center–Nepal has focused on longstanding local conflicts over land, water and forest use. They developed a modality of embedded members of the groups in conflict travelling together to sit with polarised communities, over and again, until consensus emerges for how the wider collective can move together toward joint conversation.
What might these initiatives highlight following a different understanding for action in pursuing greater inclusion in peacebuilding?
First, they do not rely on convening representatives around a table. They build on spider-like travelling, moving across communities and locations to spend time in collective, repeated, sustained and mostly publicly open conversations. We could call this itinerant movement across the affected landscape.
Second, their processes are circular and repetitive. Those travelling seek ways to stitch conversations, ideas and relationships even when people are not physically together. The process leaves a scent, a trace. Stitching focuses on re-building a more meaningful conversation and eventually a trustworthy process. It represents iterative and deepening conversations.
Third, while not taking place in a single location, the conversations build and create connective tissue over time. This focuses less on events than emergent, growing and collective understanding. The accumulative impact has capacity to frame and hold a meaningful platform for action and behaviour change. This ‘stimulating’ trace left in the environment has capacity to evoke collective movement.
The termite shift can be summed up in three words: itinerate, iterate, evoke. From collective listening, action emerges without centralised control and with potential for wide, rippling effects.
In conclusion, for the practical negotiator, I am certain these reflections ring both odd and too abstract. Metaphor shifts always require a different mental model. Paradoxically, robust inclusivity requires the capacity to imagine how each metaphor – tables and termites – organises agency in ways that may in fact cross-fertilise and create interdependency. Each metaphor contains elements that ultimately make the other more successful. However, in peacebuilding one metaphor has been so dominant it has limited our ability to imagine the other exists. Inclusivity has paid the price for this blindness.
For inclusivity to rise toward more meaningful practices, we need to expand our metaphors. Reliance on the table and representational approaches will remain limited and inadequate. Our shift, before, during and after national negotiations, should robustly imagine and develop the practices of travelling and stitching a multiplicity of trace-stimulating, sticky conversations.
It may be the only way we embrace the scent and avoid the stink.