Marshall Wallace: "How to Opt Out of Conflict" | MIT Center for Civic Media

Marshall Wallace: "How to Opt Out of Conflict"

This live blog of Marshall Wallace's talk on January 29, 2015 was created by Gordon Mangum, Ali Hashmi, Ed Platt, Dalia Othman, and Yu Wang, with Willow Brugh on edits and visualization.


Marshall Wallace specializes in studying the unintended consequences of peacebuilding processes. His book “Opting Out of War: Strategies to Prevent Violent Conflict” focuses on conflict prevention work and challenges myths and prevailing ideas about conflict prevention. It is in part based on his previous time as the Director of the Do No Harm Project.


Marshall Wallace opened his talk by asking “What if we gave a war and nobody came?” This may seem like a rhetorical question but actually happens all the time, and not just in pacifist communities. The communities who opt out are not immune to consequences of conflict, but they opt not to participate. Wallace and his team studied 13 communities that managed to stay out of conflicts. Tuzla in Bosnia is one example. Amongst other actions, as a symbolic response to its ongoing siege, the community in Tuzla rebuilt an orthodox church that had been bombed, even setting up lights to work on the reconstruction through night.


Marshall handed out an “Opting Out of War” framework that focuses on six patterns that define conflict options. These characteristics are visible everywhere, including in the US, not just in conflict zones:

1. Having Options: “Make an affirmative choice to opt out of war.” It’s important for communities to understand they don’t have to participate in the violence everyone else in engaged in. People who didn’t participate in violence often said “we had a choice,” whereas people who got swept up in conflict often said “we didn’t have a choice.” When people feel that they do have a choice a rapid process can emerge around how to avoid participating.

2. Identity: “Select a familiar and normal non-war common identity.” People can often find a relevant non-war identity. This can involve finding a time in their history when there were identities focused on peace. An example might be the idea that “Our ancestors were such good warriors that we don’t have to fight” or “We were always led by a Muslim, Serb and Croat in the past and should be now.” There are towns in Mozambique that identify as being founded by soldiers who chose to stop fighting and live together. When communities can find moments in history that justify non-participation it often works.

3. Opportunity: ”Maintain existing public services and economic activities.” Conflict destroys economic opportunities and structure and makes people concerned about their future. Communities often feel that “we didn’t want to give up the gains of the last 20 years by participating in conflict,” so they find a way to maintain existing services. As a case example Marshall cited a community in Afghanistan that actually expanded the reach of it’s power grid during that country’s prolonged conflict.

4. Dispute Resolution: ”Maintain internal order.” This is a key factor in dispute resolution. Marshall noted that communities generally put a lot of time and energy into dispute resolution processes. The question for organizations trying to intervene or for the community as a whole when confronted with the possibility of violence becomes “what is there already for dispute resolution and how do we make use of it to avoid conflict?” Using traditional mechanisms like trusted, respected mediators, maintains internal order.

5. Security: ”Maintain security and engage with armed groups.” Sometimes it can be extremely effective for a community to engage in dialog with fighters. Marshall cited examples of groups that made a case to fighters that the community should exist and their boundaries should be respected, such as some communities in the Philippines. The question of why armed groups abide by these agreements is difficult to answer. In interviews with actual fighters Marshall and his team found sentiments similar to “we could have gone in if we wanted to, but it didn’t make strategic sense.” These interviews centered on implicit codes of conduct which are not written but assumed to be existent.

6. Fun: ”Enjoy each other, celebrate, boost morale.” Marshall observed that fun is the best way to create social cohesion. “You’ve got to have fun with each other,” he said. As an example, in Tuzla a composer wrote new patriotic songs, extolling the virtue of neither side in the war, but of the community and all people. Community organizing and events as fundamental as eating together play a role in finding ways to have fun and engage peacefully with each other.

Wallace noted that a “thriving” community is doing all six of these things, and gave examples of communities which managed to avoid conflict by employing one of the six “opting out of war” options.

Applied Locally: Somerville

Wallace has been a resident of Somerville, MA for 30 years and said that it used to have a high crime rate, including frequent biker gang fights near bars. But the current Mayor is very open to new ideas and vigorous in creating feedback mechanisms. He emphasizes shared identity in a town situated between major universities and home to students and immigrants. An example of a shared social cause has been an anti-obesity campaign which has drawn national attention, including being cited by Michelle Obama. When there is a dispute, such as around future plans for Lexington Park, there was sometimes a split between residents who considered themselves part of “old’ Somerville versus residents who felt they were part of a “new” Somerville. This divide was so deep that “someone got killed” as a result of the “old” and “new” conflict. In the instance of the dispute over Lexington Park the Alderman (who was a founder of “Save Our Somerville”) and Mayor worked together to help resolve the conflict. This was an example of “maintaining internal order” while also finding commonality instead of difference in identity.

As a local example of engaging with groups Wallace cited the change in the longstanding gang problem. A new police chief went to high schools and identified the gang tables, then sat down and talked to the members. He offered an exchange: if they refrained from violence the police wouldn’t harass them. In a relatively short period of time gang related murders all but disappeared.

An example of creating fun can be seen in the city sponsored “summer streets” events. The city also encourages civil society groups to create community events. The city also recognizes the value of creating places where people can get together. Artisan’s Asylum recently promoted a snowman building event and snowball fight in Union Square. These are various examples of how Somerville might be seen as a thriving community using the above criteria.


Q: Informal agreements to maintain peace are quite common in Eastern countries. Are there historical examples where Western communities have declined to participate in conflict?
Wallace: Yes, some communities in Mississippi decided not to participate in the civil war and abolished slavery to maintain peace with the Union for example.

Q: What happens to these communities when the war ends?
Wallace: During the course of the fighting they didn’t want outside help because that changes the dynamic. The community often feels that if they receive outside resources it will change the fighter’s calculations and potentially make them a target for violence. The downside for communities that do manage to avoid conflict is that they are often neglected after the war because they sustained less damage, so they get less resources. These communities would appreciate more aid, and shouldn’t we be rewarding the communities that are doing something right and managed to avoid the conflict?

Q: Why do some communities opt into violence and some opt out? What’s the tipping point?
Wallace: Opting out seems to be more possible when some communities are able to think about the oncoming violence much sooner than other communities. When people are caught by surprise by violence they are less likely to be able to opt out.

Q: Do communities gain appeal as a magnet for people interested in opting out of violence?

Wallace: It varies. In Tuzla, the mayor received international recognition, but was a member of a less popular political party in Bosnia, so had very little national influence.


Two frameworks

Communities have dividers and connectors. Interventions will always support either dividers or connectors. People who a good job at intervention look for changes in dividers/connectors over time, and look for ways to influence those changes. They then observe, re-evaluate, and iterate. He lists five potential patterns for providing resources. For example, aid criteria can favor one group and increase local tension. Losers of a conflict, for example, typically get more aid because they have greater need, which can lead to further conflict.

“Are the dividers or connectors getting worse or better?” Communities examine their context using this question and reassess their strategies accordingly. The losers of the conflict have more needs. Peace is a continuum, and it’s important to understand needs of all parties in the conflict.

Wallace said that putting resources into one community can increases tensions with other groups. Because losers usually get more resources this can actually lead to tensions and outbreaks of additional violence. This happens even post-conflict. When things are getting worse we need to examine the dynamic and consider how to rebalance it. For example, if the distribution effect is causing tension we should provide resources to both sides. But we can’t assume the needs are the same on both sides and that we should just give the same things to each side.

Challenges of logging change and communicating knowledge

Wallace said that one of the biggest challenges is doing context analysis over a period of time. Too often, it’s done at the beginning of a project, and then not looked at until after the project. Or, different people will do an analysis and not share it with each other. If it isn’t done on an ongoing and shared basis one can’t effectively compare the before and after situation and judge the effects of the program.

We don’t share our successes or communicate them (even to officemates sometimes!) Yet the internet exists in part to solve communication and data visualization challenges. In this case, what would Do No Harm look like as software? Wallace demonstrated software he has been working on called “Landscape.” It allows teams to set up dividers and connectors and rate them periodically as getting better or worse. By tracking this over time you can see changes that are aggregated across a team while also seeing individual ratings if you so choose. When we see change over time we start to problem solve around it. Marshall also said it would allow people who are far away (like funders) to get both a wide and very granular view of how things are going and whether they are getting better or worse.

“Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different…” CS Lewis

Questions Pt. 2

Q: I’m reminded of Stuart Kaufman’s work. When you have an example, for example in Karachi, when a conflict is forming, what is the starting point?
Wallace: Ask what are the major dividers or major grievances? Also look for connectors. Where do the groups come together? In physical spaces? Through Industries? Places where women from both groups gather? Find these and try to expand their influence. Even a small shared cultural thing like street theater can be used to show people ways to come together.

Groups have to be the “right” size for conflict to break out. If one group is too big or too small it is much less likely. This has been modelled by Yaneer Bar-Yam at the New England Complex Systems Institute. You can either merge groups or reinforce border as possible solutions.

Q: What is a connector?
Marshall: Here are some examples: Shared religion. The role of women in peacebuilding. Groups who worked together pre-war. Some are strong, some are weak, but they can all be used to help peacebuilding efforts.