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Adaptive Theories of Change for Peacebuilding

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Abstract and Figures

Practitioner communities for peacebuilding, governance, and private sector development in conflict affected areas (PSD in CAE) recognize that they need to understand dynamic local contexts, and they are beginning to discover how to do that. The aim of this paper is to articulate a user-friendly visual framework of analysis ("theory of change") that evolves continually throughout problem identification, search for solutions, iterative testing, and project evaluation within a specific context. It draws from an array of academic literatures that have something to contribute: qualitative interviewing and case studies, qualitative causal inference, value chain analysis, adaptive management, market facilitation, microfoundations of violent conflict, PSD in CAE, organizational trust, informal governance, and economic recovery in crisis. And here's the amazing thing: For dynamic local contexts, the methods for data collection and rigorous proof are pretty much like organizing a potluck dinner party. You already do this. You just need to write it down.
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Adaptive Theories of Change for Peacebuilding
2018 International Studies Association Conference
John Hoven <jhoven@gmail.com> (www.linkedin.com/in/johnhoven)
April 5, 2018
ABSTRACT
Practitioner communities for peacebuilding, governance, and private sector development in
conflict affected areas (PSD in CAE) recognize that they need to understand dynamic local
contexts, and they are beginning to discover how to do that. The aim of this paper is to articulate
a user-friendly visual framework of analysis ("theory of change") that evolves continually
throughout problem identification, search for solutions, iterative testing, and project evaluation
within a specific context. It draws from an array of academic literatures that have something to
contribute: qualitative interviewing and case studies, qualitative causal inference, value chain
analysis, adaptive management, market facilitation, microfoundations of violent conflict, PSD in
CAE, organizational trust, informal governance, and economic recovery in crisis. And here's the
amazing thing: For dynamic local contexts, the methods for data collection and rigorous proof
are pretty much like organizing a potluck dinner party. You already do this. You just need to
write it down.
I. Introduction
It was the first interview of a new antitrust investigation. Starting from clueless, we have just
three weeks to decide whether to open a full-blown investigation. As I had come to expect, my
initial hypotheses were not just wrong, but entirely wrongheaded. If the investigation continues,
our task is to articulate, reject, and confirm hypotheses of cause-and-effect in a one-of-a-kind
situation sample size of one, not even a control group.
Human relationships are one-of-a-kind situations. If we ignore that, we can study them
statistically, or with experimental comparisons. But if the unique situational attributes are
important for the project at hand, we need to investigate them with methods that are appropriate
for one-of-a-kind situations.
Qualitative analysis is the investigative tool of choice for one-of-a-kind situations. Qualitative
causal inference articulates and tests continuously evolving one-of-a-kind theories of cause-and-
effect. Interviewees and interview questions evolve, in contrast to static surveys. Follow-up
questions discover answers to questions you didn't think to ask.
In our everyday social interactions, we recognize that. When we plan a retirement party for
someone we know and care about, we design it for that specific individual. We have a desired
outcome and a tentative theory of cause-and-effect, and we ask around for evidence that
confirms or refutes the steps that are most important and least well understood. (Simple or
elegant? Who gives the toast?) We keep tinkering until we get it right.
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Process tracing (the dominant method of qualitative causal inference) is typically used for
backward-looking investigations explaining historical events or evaluating completed projects.
However, the essential basics can be readily adapted to forward-looking, fast-moving action
projects like my antitrust investigations.
For example, the development/humanitarian aid/peacebuilding community is currently using a
strategy called Theory of Change. One variant derives from social consensus-building, using
consensus-based assumptions rather than evidence, and typically only during the pre-
implementation planning stage of a project. Another variant is backward-looking, evaluating
completed projects by testing the plan's Theory of Change with evidence of cause-and-effect.
(Mayne 2015, van Es et al. 2015, Vogel 2015)
Real-time evaluation is a recent effort to bring continuously evolving, evidence-based, context-
specific learning to this practitioner community. It is currently used only during the
implementation phase of a project, after the project has been planned and launched. Here are
some key features:
• takes place while implementation of the respective program is still going on, thus
allowing immediate changes
• implemented in a fast and flexible way, typically taking only a few days instead of
weeks
(Krueger and Elias Sagmeister 2014: 62)
• carried out by external and independent consultants
• use qualitative methods, including stakeholder analysis, extensive interviews both with
aid providers and aid recipients (snowball sampling with “information-rich” individuals,
group discussions, etc.), broad field travel to sample sites, wide-ranging observation and
documentary research, thematic analysis, evidence tables to collect systematically the
data, and workshops to validate findings and prioritize recommendations.
(Polastro (2014: 122,123)
This paper aims to capture the essential basics of real-time evaluation in simple visual tools
which can be used with little effort, and little or no training, by practitioners and academic
researchers. These could be unskilled local residents who have direct contact with the problems
and opportunities. Or they could be skilled practitioners and researchers who are exploring
problems and opportunities in a prospective project, or in one aspect of an ongoing project. In
either case, the goal is to empower them to develop a continuously evolving, evidence-based,
context-specific Theory of Change that answers the question, "What happens, here and now, if
we do A, B, and C?"
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II. The Essential Basics
Start with the basics. Figure 1 is like the everyday
decisionmaking that we do in our heads. The key
difference is that we see instantly what we've gotten
wrong, and start to fix it.
Distinguishing between necessary causes ("AND") and
sufficient causes ("OR") prods us to rethink and revise
further. The AND/OR effect may be strict or
approximate:
Strict
Approximate
AND
All are necessary to
produce the effect.
Joint effect is more
than the sum of the
individual effects.
OR
Any one is sufficient
to produce the effect.
Joint effect is less
than the sum of the
individual effects.
Then comes the big leap: searching for evidence that
strongly confirms or refutes particular links in our
hypothesized chain of cause-and-effect. As you learn,
revise and replace them. (Vermaak 2007)
Think of a continuously evolving project as
a stage drama. The actors and the setting are
both contributing causes. Focusing on the
actors highlights actions that move the
drama forward. Focusing on the setting
highlights stable but equally significant
contextual factors. A visual Theory of
Change might emphasize either, or both.
Figure 1 derives mainly from the process-
tracing literature, which emphasizes causes
that evolve over time. (Collier 2011)
However, a contributing cause could also be
a stable contextual factor ("local
grievances"). For these factors, the arrows in
Figure 1 would represent causation, but not
a temporal sequence of causal events. (See
also realist evaluation and Maxwell 2004)
1. Articulate a chain of cause(s) and
effect(s). Distinguish between necessary
("AND") or sufficient ("OR") causes.
2. Focus on the contributing causes that
are most important and least well
understood. Search for evidence FOR or
AGAINST these critical links. As you learn,
revise and replace them.
3. Keep doing that, again and again.
Collect-analyze-design-act-evaluate at the
same time.
Figure 1.Real-Time Theory of Change /
Context-Specific Causality Made Simple
Contributing Causes
Intermediate
Causes
A does X
B does Y
AND
OR
C does Z
Evidence AGAINST
Evidence FOR
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Figure 2 derives from the business value-chain literature, which
typically emphasizes static capabilities leading to a desired outcome.
(Donovan et al. 2013) However, it could also represent a capability-
developing project, in which case the arrows would represent a
temporal sequence of causal events.
So Figure 1 and Figure 2 are alternative ways to represent a chain of
cause(s) and effect(s). "A does X" (Figure 1) is an Input (Figure 2), an
Intermediate Cause is an Intermediate Product, and an Effect is an
Output. The numbered bullet points of advice in Figure 1 apply equally
to Figure 2. That means we can look to the value-chain literature in
business and global development for additional insights on causal
relationships. (See, for example, Donovan et al. 2013, Gündüz and
Klein 2008.)
Here is some advice on what to include in your Theory of Change:
Is the resultant ToC (or a summary thereof) depicted in a
diagrammatic form and does it include?
a. The long-term outcome or impact of the intervention
b. The anticipated short and medium term outcomes and the process of change
c. The intervention components which happen at different stages of the pathway
d. The context of the intervention
e. Assumptions about how change would occur
f. Additional ToC elements such as indicators, supporting research evidence,
beneficiaries, actors in the context, sphere of influence and timelines where
relevant.
(Breuer et al. 2016: 14)
A nuanced understanding of the specific conditions in each theater of intervention the
motivations of each party, the patterns of alliance and conflict at play, the history of
antagonisms is essential for peacebuilders to determine whom to approach, which
arguments to use, and, ultimately, what strategies to adopt.
(Autesserre 2014: 70)
The key to keeping an evolving Theory of Change manageable is to explicitly state what is
within the scope of your investigation, and what is not. Antitrust investigations call this "the
relevant market." Dramatists call it "the cast of characters and the setting." Qualitative case
studies call it the "boundaries of the specific context, or 'case'." This is not decided at the outset
of the investigation, when you are still clueless. It is instead a major focus of a continuing
investigation. It looks like Figure 3. In this example (based on Justino et al. 2013), greed refers
to wealth that groups fight over, grievance refers to injustices and inequalities, and conflict
entrepreneurs mobilize people into violence. We search for evidence FOR or AGAINST each,
and we revise faulty elements of the framework again and again, as we learn.
X
Y
AND
OR
Z
Inputs
Intermediate
Products
Outputs
Figure 2.
Value Chain
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III. Getting Started
A. Solution-oriented or problem-oriented project design
Figures 1 and 2 are implicitly solution-oriented, building toward a desired outcome. That
suggests one way to get started: search for successes to emulate from similar contexts, or even
from the same context. The search should include new and expanding businesses as well as
social change efforts. Ask a social, business, or government organization that is launching a new
venture:
What problems or opportunities are you responding to?
Why didn't you do this earlier? What new capabilities, relationships, or weakened
obstacles made it possible to launch this venture now?
In addition to those you have specifically targeted, what is the broader social impact of
your business?
Based on what you learn from their obstacles and successes, construct a Real-Time Theory of
Change that fits your context. Use that to help you decide who to interview next, and what
questions to ask. Gradually impose boundaries on the scope of your investigation, as in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Managing an evolving Theory
of Change with self-imposed boundaries
The boundaries of a specific context, or "case," are not prespecified. They are
discovered through investigation. That is because “at the start of the research,
it is not yet quite clear … which properties of the context are relevant....”
(Swanborn (2010) Case Study Research: What, Why, and How? p. 15)
Spillover
effects
Stable, well-understood
contributing causes
Conflict Entrepreneur
Evidence FOR or
AGAINST each link
Violent Conflict
AND
Grievance
OR
Greed
Framework of analysis
Boundaries of the
relevant context
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Alternatively, instead of searching for solutions to emulate, one can search for fixable problems.
The key is to depict problems as a chain of causes and effects, with Root Causes beyond control
of the project at one end, and Symptoms (Impact targets) at the other. Focus on Contributing
Causes in the middle of the chain, and look for potential solutions a Real-Time Theory of
Change to each one. (McVay and Snelgrove 2007, Miehlbradt and Jones 2007)
Over time, through experience and research, compile an ever-expanding list of problem types
and solution providers for various contexts. Identify attributes of various types, and use these as
searchable keywords in reports and databases. (This is how context-specific Theories of Change
scale up into generalizable Theories of Change.) Within a particular context, search for a fit
between a problem/opportunity and an entrepreneurial solution provider.
B. Issue-oriented Framework of Analysis
An issue-oriented framework of analysis can be a way to get started on a project, or a way to
develop one aspect of the project. For example, facilitating relationships requires a nuanced
understanding of current relationships in the relevant context. Figure 4 is a framework for
investigating any sort of relationship, individual or intergroup, social or commercial. It is
essentially the analytical model that the Antitrust Division of the US Justice Department uses to
investigate mergers that have anticompetitive effects. I used it for everything from chicken farms
to jet fighter radar.
Figure 5 applies this to the micro-foundations of violent conflict. ActorA is a conflict
entrepreneur an individual or entity whose desires and key capabilities support a strategy of
violent conflict. ActorB is a participant, by choice or by force. GoodA and alternatives to GoodA
are causes and remedies of violent conflict that appear prominently in the peacebuilding
literature. These illustrate
at least five potential micro-behavioural channels that may explain the correlation
between low GDP and violent conflict. The first is the low opportunity cost of fighting:
individuals that are unable to find regular employment may be attracted by the
opportunities offered by rebel groups and other organised armed groups. Second …
greed- and grievance-based motivations. Even when individuals hold jobs, they may still
join armed groups because they may anticipate earning more at the end of a successful
fight (greed). Third … discontent with the way society and the economy is organised
through the current government (grievance). Fourth … poor countries in general have
low capacity to protect civilians against violence, but also to suppress armed struggle.
Hence, joining armed groups may have to do with the need of individuals to protect
themselves and their families, because they realize that the government is unable or
unwilling to do so. Finally the belief that the government is too poor to defeat armed
rebellion and, therefore, individuals do not have to fear the government if they join armed
groups… (Justino et al. 2013: 15; cf. Gündüz and Klein 2008)
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competitors to ActorA
&
substitutes for GoodA
capable potential
competitors to ActorB
competitors to ActorB
&
substitutes for GoodB
Figure 4. Economic and Social Relationships
capable potential
competitors to ActorA
Actions
Attributes
● capabilities
- self
- via outsiders
desires
ActorB
Actions
Attributes
● capabilities
- self
- via outsiders
desires
ActorA
GoodA
economic good
- standard quality
- nonstandard quality
(informal, traditional)
social good
GoodB
economic good
- cash (pay now)
- credit (pay later)
social good
What does each entity get out of
the relationship? (GoodA for
ActorB, GoodB for ActorA)
Why do they value those goods?
(desires)
How are they able to provide
those goods? (capabilities)
What capabilities rely on
outsiders?
What alternative competitors and
substitutes does each party have?
What opportunities exist? (new
substitutes and potential
competitors)
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Figure 5. Micro-foundations of violent conflict
ActorA
Conflict
Entrepreneur
Actions
Attributes
● key capabilities
● desires
ActorB
Jobless Youth
Actions
Attributes
● key capabilities
● desires
GoodB: fighters
GoodA
income
comrades
alternatives to GoodA
employment
spouse
ActorA
Conflict
Entrepreneur
Actions
Attributes
● key capabilities
● desires
ActorB
Discontents
Actions
Attributes
● key capabilities
● desires
GoodB: resources
GoodA
grievances
alternatives to GoodA
opportunity
(based on Justino, Brück, and Verwimp (2013) "Micro-
Level Dynamics of Conflict, Violence and Development:
A New Analytical Framework," Households in Conflict
Network (HiCN) Working Paper 138)
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Availability of good alternatives is a powerful constraint on predatory conduct, so it is helpful to
be reminded that state action is rarely the only option for peacebuilding. In particular, for-profit
business relationships can build security, stability, and trust across conflict divides. That
peacebuilding strategy is prominent in the academic literature on Private Sector Development in
Conflict Affected Areas (PSD in CAE) (Avis 2016, Banfield et al. 2006, Curtis et al. 2010,
Fowler and Kessler 2015, Gündüz and Klein 2008):
Continuing contacts and shared stakes in joint business activities are an important factor
in normalising relationships and peaceful encounters in the midst of violent conflict. Such
contacts mean that individuals continue to encounter one other and interact as business
partners, colleagues and friends, which goes a long way towards countering negative
group stereotypes
It is apparent from a number of the case studies that market spaces, usually
informal and created spontaneously on borders between two parties to a conflict, play a
vital role by providing ‘neutral spaces’ that require predictable and trustworthy behaviour
from all participants if they are to continue to interact and reap the benefits. Some case
studies suggest that these continuing relationships have ‘normalising’ effects on the
individuals involved and extend to interaction in other areas over time (for instance,
joining in the other’s family celebrations etc). (Banfield et al. 2006: 128-9)
Here are a few examples:
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Informal markets such as Arizona in Brcko district provide spaces for inter-ethnic
economic cooperation at the same time as securing livelihoods
ISRAEL/ PALESTINE
Logistics zones at border crossings between Israel and Palestine are set up to
overcome access problems and facilitate continued cross-border flow of merchandise and
economic co-operation between businesses
PHILIPPINES
Paglas Corporation and La Frutera Inc. invest in marginalised areas of the ARMM to
establish a banana plantation that offers jobs to Muslims and Christians alike, including
ex-combatants, promoting reconciliation and religious tolerance in the workplace
(Banfield et al. 2006: 5)
Figures 6 and 7 are visual models of cause-and-effect for relationship-building across conflict
divides:
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Figure 6. Economic interactions build relationships across conflict divides
Private Sector Development Intervention
Greater economic interaction among parties to conflict
Higher levels of trust
Increased economic incentives for peace
Reduced conflict
Adapted from Fowler and Kessler (2015, Table 3); cf. Curtis et al. (2010)
Either…
3. Early encounters
2. Opening stance
Trust, active distrust, or
suspended judgment.
Failure to understand/accept/
accommodate the other;
suspicion DISTRUST.
5. Consequences
Dissolution, or decline/violation
[requiring a trust repair effort
see feedback loop]
5. Consequences
Maturity [subject to positive outcomes;
trust may break down at a later date…]
4b. The breakdown
4a. The breakthrough
Trust repair efforts
Understanding/acceptance/
accommodation of the other;
compatibility or tolerance TRUST.
1. Context
Parties’ cultural preconceptions; preferred modes of thinking and conduct;
degree of cross-cultural awareness and capabilities; motivation to adapt.
Figure 7. A staged model of trust development across cultural boundaries
(Dietz et al. 2010: Figure 1.3)
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It is also necessary to understand what sustains relationships. That is governance, the focus of
Figure 8. The bullet points are generic mechanisms of governance that appear prominently in the
literature. They serve as starting points for investigation. In any specific context, they will be
revised, amplified, or dropped. Over time, more general mechanisms evolve "bottom up," by
developing "typologies of contexts" that behave similarly, and then describing what happens
"under these conditions." (Stern et al. 2012: 3.40)
Figure 8. Governance of Long-Term Relationships
Actions
Attributes
● capabilities
- self
- via outsiders
desires
ActorB
Actions
Attributes
● capabilities
- self
- via outsiders
desires
ActorA
GoodA
economic good
- standard quality
- nonstandard quality
(informal, traditional)
social good
GoodB
economic good
- cash (pay now)
- credit (pay later)
social good
● Future benefits, desires, capabilities
Commitments
Trust (interaction, norms, signals)
Contracts, formal and informal
● Monitoring compliance
● Mechanisms for enforcing compliance
○ Moral (individual self-enforcement)
○ Relational (end, or not begin, a
relationship
External mandates/coercion
- Reputational
- Legal
- Organizational sanctions
● Incidents of noncompliance
Actions
Attributes
Enforcer
Actions
Attributes
Trust Broker
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Figure 8 is a visual checklist for questions like these:
What future benefits, desires, capabilities, and commitments sustain the relationship?
What mechanisms exist to monitor compliance? What do they monitor?
What are the mechanisms for enforcing compliance?
o Morality (self-enforcement)
Morality is nature's solution to the problem of cooperation within
groups… Empathy, familial love, anger, social disgust, friendship,
minimal decency, gratitude, vengefulness, romantic love, honor, shame,
guilt, loyalty, humility, awe, judgmentalism, gossip, self-consciousness,
embarrassment, tribalism, and righteous indignation… All of this
psychological machinery is perfectly designed to promote cooperation
among otherwise selfish individuals… (Greene 2013: 26, 61)
o Relational (parties decide to enter or end a relationship)
At least two mechanisms are commonly used to sustain agreements
implicitly. The first is relational, which means that both parties expect to
benefit from a continuing oneon–one relationship… The second is
reputational and involves group enforcement. (Lafontaine & Slade 2010: 6)
o Reputational or legal (enforcement by others) (Powell & Stringham 2009)
If the enforcement mechanism is reputational or legal, what are the attributes and actions
of the Enforcer?
o What incidents of noncompliance have occurred?
IV. Scaling up with support software
Scaling up will require software to support these tasks:
sorting data into an evolving Theory of Change
collaborative editing by analysts working together on the same ToCs
learning from ToCs in similar contexts
mass customization still context-specific, but instantly adaptable to a variety of contexts,
and well integrated into large-scale data analytics and decisionmaking
A simple device to achieve these goals is a visual file cabinet. It categorizes document excerpts
by coding them with a location in a GIS information map (Figure 9). It's like mapping a business
site on a geographic map. Navigation is as simple as GoogleMaps. Users can pan in any direction,
zoom in and out, view all of the document excerpts that have been coded to a selected region,
and so on i.e., all of the seven tasks identified by Shneiderman (1996):
Overview: Gain an overview of the entire collection
Zoom: Zoom in on items of interest
Filter: filter out uninteresting items
Details-on-demand: Select an item or group and get details when needed
Relate: View relationships among items
History: Keep a history of actions to support undo, replay, and progress refinement
Extract: Allow extraction of sub-collections and of the query parameters
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Figure 9. GIS file cabinet/information map
Highlight a document excerpt (text, table, image, etc.).
Click on an object in a visual analytic framework provided by the user.
Database links document excerpt to that object. Unstructured data, meta-tagged for context,
is now organized in a structured database.
GIS treats the image as an information map of geographic objects. Users can pan in any
direction, zoom in and out, view all of the document excerpts that have been encoded into a
selected object, and so forth. That facilitates development of a visual analytic framework for
qualitative analysis that evolves as we learn.
Integrate local and global GIS databases to enable bottom-up and top-down learning.
GoodB
(local acceptance
for US military)
GoodA
(no floods, support
for village & Khan)
● key capabilities
● desires
ActorB
(Khan & villagers)
● key capabilities
● desires
ActorA
(US PRT)
In any relationship, each party gives
something and gets something. Here,
ActorA gives GoodA and gets GoodB.
ActorB gives GoodB and gets GoodA.
In March 2010, Sher Khan, the tribal elder of
Yargul village … complained to the Kunar
Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) …
that recurrent flooding damaged Yargul
homes, crop fields, and roads.
To reduce improvised explosive device
(IED) casualties, the US military had
installed steel grates over ... aqueduct
culverts. ... [T]rash flowed into the grate
during downpours, creating a makeshift
dam … that submerged the village.
Kunar PRT…hired Sher to pay villagers to
remove the trash … By May, rain runoff …
flowed through the aqueduct unimpeded.…
homes, crop fields, and roads were not
submerged….Sher was “appreciative of the
PRT CAT supporting his village and
empowering him in front of his villagers.”
“Ultimately, what we wanted was to make
sure that the people that lived next to the
wall weren’t going to throw a grenade over...
we really really don’t want to upset these
guys that live right next to our wall.”
Source: Carlson (2011).
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V. Conclusion
The development/humanitarian aid/peacebuilding community recognizes the need to understand
the unique concerns and capabilities of each local context. The next step is to discover a way to
do that.
Qualitative analysis is the investigative tool of choice for one-of-a-kind situations. Qualitative
causal inference articulates and tests continuously evolving one-of-a-kind theories of cause-and-
effect. Interviewees and interview questions evolve, in contrast to static surveys. Follow-up
questions discover answers to questions you didn't think to ask.
Real-time evaluation adopts that strategy, but it relies on skilled evaluators and it is currently
used only during the implementation phase, after a project has been planned and launched. In
contrast, this paper articulates a user-friendly visual framework of analysis ("theory of change")
that evolves continually throughout problem identification, search for solutions, iterative
hypothesis testing, and project evaluation to answer the question, "What happens, here and now,
if we do A, B, and C?"
15
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