Reinventing how we live together (by Helena Puig Larrauri & Sanjana Hattotuwa)


(Photo: Thaths)

Critics of peacebuilding find the concept problematic.

To some, peace is a deeply conservative notion: it can mean compromise; it can mean ‘keep quiet and don’t rock the boat.’ We believe that there is a global movement (with regional variance) in which technology plays a key role to reinterpret peacebuilding as civic engagement.

At every level of polity and society, whether it is consciously articulated or carelessly and uncritically applied, technology for peacebuilding is taking root.

Looking beyond the status quo

Sometimes keeping the peace can be synonymous for simply maintaining the status quo– appeasement and submission may seem like a durable peace– but in the long term, they are not. This is often the case when peacebuilding is conflated with peacekeeping, and main actors are focused on ensuring a peace agreement is not violated. On the Sudan-South Sudan border, the Misseriya nomadic groups and Dinka cattle herders and farmers have been forging peace agreements for centuries, providing rights of passage to the Misseriya through Dinka land. The agreements are very important for avoiding violence in a volatile environment, but the process of sustaining this delicate peace is sustained by a hierarchical structure of power dominated by older men.

This locally-initiated peacekeeping arrangement maintains a status quo and ignores the voices and concerns of women. The arrangement therefore represents a limited notion of peace. In a recent United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded pilot, a team of women living in the border areas used a participatory video process to produce and disseminate a short film that shows what peace means to them, and how peaceful coexistence is critically linked to the availability of water. Their voices, jointly calling for greater water resources, are moving the peace discourse beyond the status quo and into a future of interdependence.

Building a positive peace

Johan Galtung makes a distinction between negative peace (avoiding violence) and positive peace (overcoming not just direct violence, but also structural and cultural violence). Galtung’s positive peace reaches beyond the conservative notions of peace-as-status-quo. It lays emphasis on looking beyond peace agreements and towards deep and sustained coexistence and interdependence.

However, this notion of positive peace can also be problematic if it pushes a particular agenda that does not represent all voices. In the Somali region, politicians and institutions seeking to build peace through democratic elections have worked under a number of assumptions about the preferences of Somalis for particular voting arrangements. An Interpeace-funded project used technology-enabled, participatory polling to debunk these assumptions and begin to redefine what kind of positive peace Somalis want.

For example, the polls found that most people do not support the clan-based power-sharing formula called the 4.5 system.” This ran contrary to the assumption of policymakers working to establish democratic systems, most of whom worked under the assumption that a clan-based system would be the only way to gain broad acceptance for democratic processes. Galtung’s positive peace is important, but just as important is to understand that there are many personal perspectives on what positive peace is.

The personal is political                

National and international actors all too often interpret peacebuilding as a value-free activity. In this sense, the problem with peacebuilding is similar to the problem often seen with technocratic policymaking and development as a whole – it claims to be “post-political” and neutral when it is anything but.

It is in fact subject to a normative consensus that is not made explicit. And in the same way that this subtle consensus lessens the options in democratic systems, it lessens the options in peacebuilding contexts. In too many settings, peacebuilding is given over to technical experts, policy-makers, mediators, and peacekeepers, who neglect engaging with the communities on just what peace is actually being built.

In 2010, USAID funded the development of a Cuban-equivalent to Twitter, a social media platform based on text messages: ZunZuneo. Initially, the platform sought to provide Cubans with a cheap, simple way to connect on social issues – football, TV series, common interests. But from its inception, the project’s aim was also to provide a channel for political discussion and (possibly) political mobilization.

The controversy surrounding ZunZuneo turns on one key point: USAID went to considerable length to hide its involvement in the project. Setting out to open up space for dialogue through a technology platform can certainly support building peace; hiding that you are doing so raises questions about just what peace you hope to build.

Peace: By whom and for whom?

The challenges associated with attaining peace (and peacebuilding) described above boil down to two questions: What peace do people living in violent conflict want? For whom and by whom is this peace being built? A peaceful society is one that is structured in such a way that it encourages us to take the risk to invent, every day, new ways of living together. So for peace to exist, it has to engage in debate all the agendas for peace in a society.  With this in mind, technology can play a critical role in peacebuilding by offering new avenues for alternative discourses to be formed and heard.

In Sri Lanka, Groundviews (and its related initiatives, Maatram and Vikalpa, operating in Tamil and Sinhala respectively) bears witness to systemic violence and a democratic deficit that endures post-war. Through the use of mobile and online platforms for storytelling, Groundviews amplifies voices and viewpoints that have been otherwise marginal, peripheral to, or violently erased from, policymaking. The website, as well as the commentary on it, is a fuller record of contemporary history – with competing narratives, within a framework for civil yet critical discourse.

This works to highlight the rich tapestry of opinions, identities, and ideas in a country often (for expedient political ends of political parties) portrayed as mono-ethnic and mono-religious.Groundviews, through technology, helps contributors and readers imagine what can and should be, when often, realpolitik stymies the country’s post-war potential.

A new paradigm for peacebuilding – through technology?

Technology works for peace when it provides access to discourse and governance processes to more people, and does so in a way that is both disruptive and constructive: communities that can document violence, individuals who can capture efforts they and others make to strengthen peace, groups that can communicate more effectively within their own borders and beyond. Through a spectrum of apps and services on the web, Internet, and mobile devices dealing with conflict transformation, technology can create the templates for peacebuilding’s critical ideas to take root. These information and communication technologies (ICTs) bring about innovative frameworks for the imagination to escape violence, and safe spaces for broadening discourse about conflict transformation.

From Occupy to Podemos to #IllRideWithYou, initiatives for change and civic engagement are increasingly happening outside of established institutions. By leveraging technologies that amplify people’s voices, these new initiatives are more inclusive, more dynamic, and more meaningful on the ground. We see the links between civic engagement and peacebuilding, including the positive function technology can play by broadening avenues for discourse. It is our view that this new paradigm for peacebuilding is parallel to this new paradigm for civic engagement. While many challenges remain, technology enables this paradigm shift, even if it does not necessarily cause it.

We believe technology is at its best when it helps to demystify peacebuilding and the structures of power. Keeping the peace and uniting people across divides is not the only goal of technology in peacebuilding – it may often be to challenge what otherwise remains an unquestioned status quo, dominant power structure, a single story as history, a majority’s perspective as the only truth.

*This post originally appeared on Building Peace Forum’s blog