Massively Parallel Peacebuilding: “Things You Can Do” Actions

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


In this video, Guy introduces the ten Challenges that make up our plan for "Massively Parallel Peacebuilding," and reviews some (not all) of the actions that are required under each challenge.  He explains, again, that no one person can do all of this--no one person can even do more than a very little bit of this. But if we all do one or two things for which we have the knowledge and expertise (or are willing to learn), and act within our own sphere of influence, taken together with massive numbers of people doing other things on this list--Massively Parallel Peacebuilding really can work.

Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Action List

This post highlights only 30 of the 120+ Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Actions that we have identified thus far. For a more complete picture, see the full Action List.

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability.

Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Name / Logo
See Syllabus for other MPP posts.
See full MPP Action List.

Slide 1.  This is Guy Burgess. For this post I want to tell you a good bit more about the "things you can do" actions that are at the core of this Massively Parallel Peacebuilding idea that we've been trying to explain.

Slide 2.  But first, I would like to offer one more precedent for a massively parallel approach to problem-solving – disaster response. While this is a picture of the Boston Marathon bombing, a similar sort of picture would emerge in pretty much any large-scale disaster, probably in pretty much any country. People quickly understand the urgency of the problem and they want to help. They go to the scene and look for something that needs doing that's not already being done (and that they can do or or learn how to do within the timeframe of the disaster), and then they do it. That's very much an emergent response to a community problem.

Slide 3.  Destructive, intractable conflict is similar. People understand the urgency of the problem and they want to help. What they're having trouble with is finding the things that need doing, that are not already being done, and that they can do or learn how to do.

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Slide 4.  Because the nature of the intractable conflict problem, this is a lot less obvious than simple disaster. Yet the theory of change underlying Massively Parallel Peacebuilding is pretty simple. We want to help and encourage people how to learn to do and do as many of the things that need doing as possible. 

Slide 5.  The way that we are trying to do this is by building a catalog (we call it an "action list") of things everyone can do to help. The list is broken into 10 categories built around major challenges with around 10 action items under each challenge. There are a substantial number of these subsidiary actions (things you can do) – we've identified well over 100 so far. While that might seem like a pretty daunting number, the whole notion behind "massively parallel" is it's the kind of thing that societies with millions of people do. When you're talking about populations that large, actually undertaking hundreds of things isn't really all that unreasonable. If you go back to the previous post, it's clear that within the environmental movement and even the peacebuilding movement, there are already folks pursuing hundreds of different actions related to those broad thematic areas. 

Slide 6.  In terms of motivations, we are first trying to appeal to the sense of civic responsibility – the responsibility that we each have to help maintain the society in which we live.  We also want to appeal to a sense of enlightened self-interest – if you understand conflict dynamics you will see that addressing these problems is something that directly benefits you.

Slide 7.  The first of the challenge that we highlight is a little bit different than all of the others. It is: "Figuring Out What's Going On" through conflict assessment and mapping. If you don't understand the basic parameters of a conflict, you are, not surprisingly, likely to make a lot of decisions that turn out to be pretty counterproductive. 

Slide 8.  Within this broad thematic area here are three examples of the kinds of actions we highlight. First, we need to identify the core issues in a dispute. Somewhat surprisingly, people often get that wrong. They think the other side is motivated by issues that are not really all that important, while missing the issues that are. That winds up cascading into a whole range of problems.  Another set of actions is the ability to accurately identify what we call "overlay issues." These are conflict problems that arise from the destructive way in which people handle conflicts and are distinct from the core issues. These include things like mis-communication, escalation dynamics, fact-finding problems, or just not knowing how to collaborate even when you want to. Another thing that people can benefit from understanding at an early stage is their areas of influence – what can they realistically do to influence the system. This is something that people need to understand that before they can start to prioritize their individual efforts and decide where they could really make a contribution. 

Slide 9.  The next broad challenge that we highlight is "Defending and Promoting Democracy." Here what we sre trying to do is help people block those who want democracy to fail so that they can, in some way, selfishly profit and dominate. 

Slide 10.  Within this defending democracy category, there are a lot more things that need doing. Certainly there is a need to resist the efforts of divide-and-conquer provocateurs who are actually trying to exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. There is a need for efforts to establish and (where it's established) protect the rule of law as a nonviolent mechanism for wisely and equitably resolving disputes.. There is also a need to delegitimize aggression, conquest, and human rights abuses. A whole range of projects could be imagined in each of these action categories. There are other actions within this broader challenge as well.

Slide 11.  The third big challenge is to figure out how to encourage people to more "Constructively Frame (or Think about) Conflicts." The idea is that you want to get people to approach conflict in ways that limit, rather than intensify, hostility, foster collaboration, and promote a sense of mutual respect and empathy.

Slide 12.  Within this broad category there are a number of things that need doing. For example, projects are needed that expose the false promise of decisive victory. Lots of us think that total victory is just around the corner and that, when we win, we won't have to worry about living with the other side. Virtually all intractable conflicts go on for a very long time, however and the parties need to learn how to live together as the conflict proceeds. Another way of framing things more constructively is by learning how to focus more on common interests and things you have in common with your adversary. This tends to put your differences in better perspective. Another example which I alluded to in an earlier post, involves recognizing and addressing the fact that the real enemy is destructive conflict dynamics, not so much the other side. 

Slide 13.  A fourth big challenge is to figure out how to "Reconcile (the Often "Unrightable" Wrongs of the Past, While Envisioning a Positive Future" that everyone would like for themselves and their children and grandchildren.  This requires a constructive way of addressing the usually difficult history of past conflicts. It also requires some sort of vision of a future society that almost everyone would like live in and work for – a society that, in the vast majority of cases, has never existed.

Slide 14.  Here there are a whole lot of things that need to be done. For example, reconciliation requires achieving a delicate balance between the pursuit of peace (i.e. the end of violence); the pursuit of justice (holding people accountable); truth (having a common history of what happened); and apology, forgiveness, and mercy. There is also a need to balance cultural security with cultural freedom so people do not feel threatened as they live in their culture, but do feel free to change cultural beliefs. This is a source of the great deal of tension around the world. People often also need to help imagine a more desirable, but still realistic, future. Given the challenges of today's world, we may need a vision for which there is no prior history or even precedent – we need creative new ideas for dealing with and living in a much more diverse world with a lot more underlying tension. 

Slide 15.  Still another challenge is "Limiting And Reversing The Escalation Spiral" which intensifies and polarizes conflicts in ways that make substantive problem-solving impossible and hate and violence much more likely and vicious. 

Slide 16.  Again there a whole series of things that need to be done to meet this challenge. For example, you need to counteract the provocateurs. These are the people who are actually, for selfish reasons, are trying to drive the escalation spiral. We need to encourage people to honestly examine and account for the "downsides" of escalation before deciding to go forward with an escalation-based strategy. People tend to incorrectly assume that they're going to win and it's not even going to be very expensive to do so.  It actually turns out that accurately anticipating these downside costs goes a long way towards getting people to be a lot more careful about intensifying a conflict. There is still a need for constructive mobilization strategies that heighten awareness of an issue and force people to address injustice without driving the escalation spiral in destructive ways. 

Slide 17.  Yet another challenge is "Promoting Accurate Communication." Often we think we are saying one thing, "A," but the other side is hearing something totally different, "Z" for example. We need to help people limit the misunderstandings due to poor communication skills, deliberate disinformation, and cognitive biases.

Slide 18.  Again there are a whole range of subsidiary tasks within this broad category. We need to develop and use processes that encourage and enable us to see ourselves as others see us. We often are completely unaware of the things that we do that make others so mad. Often these things are things that we didn't even really need to do.  Obviously, limiting these sorts of unnecessary actions would reduce tensions. We also need to figure out how to overcome the "narrowcasting" that characterizes today's media environment in which people focus almost exclusively on sources of information that tell them what they want to hear and reinforce existing prejudices. There is also a need to scale up constructive communication strategies. Our field is very good at facilitating constructive communication in small group settings. Through dialogue and related processes, we can produce real conversion experiences that break down evil stereotypes. We need to figure out how to do the same sort of thing with mass audiences. That's a big challenge, but it's one that we have to be able to meet.

Slide 19.  The seventh challenge involves strategies for "Obtaining and Effectively Using Real Facts." We need to understand that 2+2=4 and not 5. An awful lot of things that we try to do won't wind up having the desired results unless we make accurate assessments of the underlying facts. 

Slide 20.  Here, again, there are range of possibilities. One of the things that we really need to do is help both experts and the public disentangle factual statements from values. Another thing that's really needed is joint fact-finding process where if you have a disagreement regarding key facts, you get the parties to work together to jointly determine who is right or to what degree both sides are right. If you can make joint fact-finding work that is a way of diffusing an awful lot of difficult conflict problems. Everybody, I think, could also benefit from a course in how to decode misleading statistics or how not to get lied to with statistics. It is, unfortunately, a real easy to present statistics in misleading ways. Still, it is not too hard to sort through things and figure out what the data really means.

Slide 21.  Yet another challenge is "Working Together Collaboratively." There are certainly lots of opportunities, even between groups who are in quite serious conflict with one another, to identify areas in which they could both benefit by working together.

Slide 22.  Again, this requires a lot of subsidiary efforts. There is a need for a series of projects that would demonstrate to people who haven't even thought about the possibility of collaboration that there are some really quite significant benefits that could result from collaborating (even in the context of a difficult ongoing conflict). Another set of strategies worth exploring is the development of back channel negotiation techniques where unofficial negotiators can explore possibilities for working together, even before the leadership is willing to consider such things. Also needed is the development of verification measures to help limit the "doublecross" problem which undermines an awful lot of otherwise very promising opportunities to pursue a compromise agreements.

Slide 23.  The ninth challenge focuses on "Promoting Good Governance" and this includes the development of institutional structures that encourage and facilitate collaborative efforts to address social problems, but also includes the ability to make tough decisions in wise and equitable ways when collaboration fails.

Slide 24.  In this context, there are lots of things that need doing. Strengthening civic education is one example. People need to understand how the system works and how to use it to protect their interests. Governmental structures are also needed to protect the Commons from those cases where the pursuit of individual self-interest threaten the interests of the larger society. There is also a real need for electoral reforms that will ensure meaningful elections that give people meaningful choices in determining their future. 

Slide 25.  The tenth and final challenge is "Promoting the Invisible Hand." We need businesses that provide quality employment opportunities and affordable goods and services to all, and especially to those who, to one degree or another are being "left behind" by current economic practices and conditions.

Slide 26.  In this context to there are lots of things that need doing. For example, we need effective mechanisms for providing consumers with more accurate information on which to base their buying decisions. We need programs that encourage businesses to produce goods and services at affordable prices for the economically disadvantaged. We need mechanisms that encourage socially-responsible business practices and remove some of the incentives for exploitive business behavior. 

Slide 27.  So all of these come together in a big list of things that we need to do if we want to get a handle on the conflict problem. One of the key ideas behind the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding concept, is that there is not a single "right answer" for solving the conflict problem (which might be drawn from the above list). Instead, the conflict problem requires an "all of the above" approach that simultaneously tries to do all of the things on our list. The key is figuring out a practical way to mobilize such a broadly based effort.

Slide 28.  In the next post, we will address another set of problems that are also critically important. We call these the second, third and fourth order problems. They encompass a whole series of problems that, in one way or another, can prevent us from implementing the solutions to these first-order problems embodied in the then challenges I just talked about. Again there are series of steps that can be taken limit these problems and, thereby, promote and strengthen the capacity of a society to deal with intractable conflict.

Photo Credits: 

Slide 2:  Boston Marathon Bombing – Source:; By: DSC03160; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Slides 3 and 4: Protest outside Trump Tower, Chicago on November 9, 2016. By Albertoaldana; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Slide 6: Mediation Silhouettes – Source:; by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project; Permission: Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US).  Uncle Sam Wants You – Source:; By:  James Montgomery Flagg; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 7: US Satellite View – Source: Permission: Public Domain. US Weather Map – Source:; Permission: Public Domain

Sldie 9: Shield – Source:; By: IO-Images; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons.

Slide 11:  Window Frame – Source: Permission: CC0 Public Domain

Slide 13: Group Silhouette – Source:; By: geralt; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 17: Head Icon – Source:; Permission: CC0 Public Domain.

Slide 21: Handshake – Source:,_by_David.svg; By: David, The Noun Project; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Slide 23: Gavel – Source:; By: Chris Potter; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic .Ballot – Source:; Permission: CC Public Domain.Justice Statute – Source:

Slide 25: Adam Smith – Source:; Permission: Public Domain