New peacebuilding and socio-economic development approaches in Asia


By Gorka Espiau, Patrick Duong, Itziar Moreno and Joshua Fisher

As in other regions, and despite political stability and high GDP rates, many conflict-affected and post conflict areas in Asia and the Pacific, face social and economic challenges that inhibit their ability to transform themselves. In fact, most of these areas are locked in “intractable” or “wicked” dilemmas, trapped between powerful external forces and self-harming dynamics. These extremely negative conditions present tangible obstacles to sustainable transformation (limited resources, physical and social impact of violence, lack of external investment) as well as intangible ones, primarily associated with the power of violent conflict to narrow our imagination. Faced with these dilemmas, we tend to accept that change is not going to be possible and that belief system limits our actions and options. This also impacts on countries’ commitments to implement the Agenda 2030 and ‘Localize the SDGs’.

Additionally, the ‘end of violence’ is normally considered as a prerequisite for real economic transformation due to the negative impact of conflict on investments, running operative costs and brand image. “Peace first and then reconstruction” seems to be the inevitable narrative, neglecting the intrinsic relationship between them. Despite the Agenda 2030 that highlights the interconnectivity of development challenges and the importance of a systems approach to integrate peace building, socio economic transformation and environmental sustainability dynamics within the Sustainable Development Goals, most of the interventions, including those of UNDP are still designed, managed and evaluated as linear projects rather than considered as interconnected elements of any long-term socio-economic transformation strategy.

The Basque case is an exception to the above-mentioned trends. At the end of the 1970s, the Basque area was emerging from forty years of dictatorship in which any expression of local culture had been repressed. The area was experiencing an industrial collapse that generated high unemployment and an international image directly associated with terrorist violence. Despite these circumstances, the Basque society managed to stop violence while transforming its economy and industrial base. It now leads international rankings in advanced manufacturing, education and healthcare, and has also generated a balanced distribution of wealth. While the tax system is similar to the European average, the Basque Country has enjoyed high income equality rates for decades. This data allows us to think that it is possible to tackle violence with the generation of wealth in a distributed manner.

The Basque experience presents therefore a unique case of systemic transformation under extreme circumstances that holds important lessons for the international community to encourage successful social transformation. This experience involves an interconnected set of interventions and their collective impacts. Among these are: the “Bilbao Guggenheim Effect”, the Mondragon Cooperative and extended social economy ecosystem, Michael Porter’s cluster strategy, the local advanced manufacturing and technology alliances, a basic income policy, the recovery of the Basque language, and the highest concentration of Michelin Guide awarded restaurants per square meter, among many others.

Compared to similar conflict situations, the key factor of this transformation seems to have been associated with an intangible component that enabled the development of an ambitious collaborative strategy and a permanent conviction that change was in fact possible with endogenous forces. The intangible or cultural dimension of this transformation (the “software”) can therefore be interpreted as the set of values and beliefs shared by the Basque society, expressed in collective narratives of change, ultimately conditioning the extraordinary strategic decisions that were taken.

According to the Basque experience, systems change only comes about when the entire community feels empowered to act in a different manner. These narratives of collective change can be found in all conflict areas that have undergone positive transformations. Clarifying if the community believes that change is possible or not is a key element that will condition the entire intervention. New tools for listening more deeply to the existing narratives and belief systems are therefore required. Instead of looking for rare ‘talent’ in exceptional individuals, the most advanced forms of peace and socio-economic transformations at the sub-national level set out to empower an entire community so that everyone can act in an innovative way. Understanding the area as a complex system and interconnecting the existing efforts must be a priority of any peace building effort.

The Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies (ALC-University of the Basque Country) in collaboration with AC4 (Columbia University) are already testing how to build such platforms as Social LABs in the Basque area, Colombia, Croatia, Perú, India, Mozambique, Quebec and now in Thailand. Experience from these early test cases demonstrates that deep collaboration is the mechanism that spurs social transformation. That collaboration is key in generating empathy and a collective identity across a society and reinforcing that with non-transactional (or not only transactional) exchanges of ideas leading to collective mobilization of human, financial, and social resources. However, because these processes and the contexts in which they occur are dynamic and constantly changing, this type of collaboration requires a constant flow of information across social networks to enable harmonized adaptation to change.

The building blocks to set up a Social Innovation Platform for Peace and socio-economic transformations at the sub-national level’ are: (1) new community listening tools, (2) new co-creation and prototyping capabilities on 5 different levels (community actions, small and medium scale initiatives, large scale public/private partnerships, service redesign and new regulation), (3) a portfolio approach to manage prototyping and scale, (4) the possibility to set up locally focused investment funds and (5) the integration of management, communication and evaluation strategies to enable a constant flow of necessary information across a society.

New LABS in Asia

Acknowledging the need to adapt the Basque experience to the local Asian contexts the UNDP (Bangkok Regional Hub) in collaboration with ALC-AC4 is exploring the possibility of launching 3 UNDP powered Social Innovation Platforms for peace building in collaboration with local authorities, business and civil society.

In early September we held a co-design workshop conducted in Southern Thailand with a variety of local and international institutions.

For UNDP, the ‘Basque approach’ is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, as a mean to prototype new approaches in Asia and the Pacific to sustain peace and enhance socio-economic development and thus ‘Localize the SDGs’. Second as a way to test UNDP’s capability to use collaborative platforms at the subnational/municipal level to ‘work out loud’, connect experiments, develop partnerships, mobilize investments and ultimately be recognized as an ‘integrator’ and amplifier of existing interventions (#NextGenUNDP). ALC and AC4 are also convinced that this exchange will help the Basque region to learn from existing practices in Asia, allowing collective intelligence emerging from distanced but connected parts of the world to tackle common challenges.

Added Value

Through our experiences contributing to build similar Social Innovation Platforms, we’ve seen the real added value of this approach to positive transformation. That values comes in the form of increased collaboration across a society, and can be summarized in 5 key elements (more here via Begovic M.):

1.From transactional to relational

Traditional projects and interventions are managed hierarchically. Platforms, on the other hand, are managed collaboratively and horizontally, and large institutions such as UNDP become conveners, facilitators and curators of the platform, selecting the actors that get to implement the process and benefiting from the network of companies that collaborate with the platform. The characteristics and expertise of the partners will determine the nature and scale of the projects. The co-creation process will make sure that all kinds of actors get involved, generating different types of interconnected prototypes.

2. From acknowledging demand to uncovering unexpressed needs

Traditionally, technical solutions are designed by “expert groups” in collaboration with local intermediaries, expecting social and economic change to happen naturally by local people following the advice and training given to them. Platforms challenge this top down approach, challenges and aspirations of local communities are interpreted collectively by a mix group of citizens, public authorities, climate experts, business and not-for-profit organizations. Technical solutions are co-designed with institutions and companies and responding to local dynamics.

3. From defining-problem default to mapping-solution default

Platform approaches invest significant resources in deeply understanding the community dynamics before designing the intervention. Working in this way, allows all the resulting initiatives to be directly connected with the real narratives of the community members at all levels, multiplying their impact.

4. From premium on executing to a premium on learning/adapting.

Traditional analysis generates a list of objective problems and challenges to address. Platform approaches complement quantitative data and empirical, tangible evidence with a list of social priorities and perceptions. This intangible information provides us with a rich, deep knowledge that is very difficult, almost impossible, to find with traditional analysis techniques. In order to harness distributed intelligence, platform approach combines impact evaluation and developmental evaluation methodologies, identifying specific indicators for each intervention.

5. From scaling projects to scaling processes

Traditionally, identified challenges are tackled by existing solutions or co-creating specific and linear projects with experts. Within this approach, identified challenges are tackled by an open innovation platform (a variety of actors, methodologies and interconnected actions). The prototypes generated by the platform are considered as a portfolio of interconnected investments to attract additional sources and offering a better risk management strategy.

Conclusions (so far)

The Basque experience indicates that a systems approach to socio-economic transformation in a conflict setting requires a strong connection between the operating narratives and belief systems, coupled with very specific and interconnected actions. Successful socio-economic transformation in conflict areas can therefore be co-created by generating a new narrative of transformation (change is possible) with a portfolio of collectively designed interventions that are structured as a Social Innovation Platform bringing together a variety of actors, methods and initiatives.

In the Asian context, the strategic goals of these platforms are to prototype a new integrated approach to peace building and sustainable socio-economic development in conflict or post-conflict areas for the UNDP. This new laboratory will test if the current “Peace first and then reconstruction” approach should be replaced by collaborative platforms promoting “socio-economic and peace building at the same time”.

References for the Curious-

Coleman, P., Redding, N. & Fisher, J. (2017). Influencing Intractable Conflicts. Chapter 85 in C. Honeyman et al. (eds.) The Negotiator’s Desk Reference. Volume 2, 2nd Edition. Washington, D.C. ABA Section of Dispute Resolution.

Coleman, P., Redding, N. & Fisher, J. (2017). Understanding Intractable Conflicts. Chapter 84 in C. Honeyman et al. (eds.) The Negotiator’s Desk Reference. Volume 2, 2nd Edition. Washington, D.C. ABA Section of Dispute Resolution.

Coleman, P.T., Liebovitch, L.S., and Fisher, J. (2019). Taking Complex Systems Seriously: Visualizing and Modeling the Dynamics of Sustainable Peace. Global Policy.

Espiau G., Engle J., Slade S., Bason C., Warnock R., Fisher J., Mataix C. (2018). Platforms that trigger Innovation. La Caixa Banking Foundation.

Espiau Idoiaga. G. (2006). The Basque Conflict: new ideas and prospects for Peace”. Special Report 161. United States Institute of Peace.

Espiau Idoiaga. G. (2017). Nuevas Tendencias de la Innovación Social. Nueva Revista Española del Tercer Sector. Nº 36. Madrid (pp. 139–168)

Fisher, J., & Rucki, K. (2016). Re-conceptualizing the Science of Sustainability: A Dynamical Systems Approach to Understanding the Nexus of Conflict, Development and the Environment. Sustainable Development 25(4): 267–275.

Fisher, J., Stutzman, H., Vedoveto, M., Delgado, D., Rivero, R., Quertehuari Dariquebe, W., Contreras, L., Souto, T., Harden, A., & Rhee, S. (2019). Collaborative governance and conflict management: Lessons learned and good practices from a case study in the Amazon Basin. Society and Natural Resources

Ibarretxe Markuartu, JJ. (2011). The Basque case. A comprehensive model for sustainable human development. Collection of International Studies. Ceinik. Number 10.

Liebovitch, L.S., Coleman, P.T., and Fisher, J. (2019). Approaches to Understanding Sustainable Peace: Qualitative Causal Loop Diagrams and Quantitative Mathematical Models. American Behavioral Scientist.

Let us know your thoughts! keep the conversation going here or see more from the UNDP Asia Pacific Innovation work here.



Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.