Peacebuilding as a professional field has undergone dramatic changes since the end of the Cold War. From a simplistic conception of ‘negative’ peace, defined as the mere cessation of violence, it has evolved to encompass holistic strategies for addressing the root causes of conflict, rebuilding social ties, creating institutions capable of responding to citizen needs, ensuring equitable economic development, and instituting participatory decision-making processes. Parallel to this shift in peacebuilding paradigms have been the astonishing technological advances of the past century. One of the most stunning developments, for example, has been in mobile communication technologies: from being unwieldy and expensive tools of the rich, today mobile phones are owned by most adults in most countries. In 2005, Facebook was the preserve of students at a small group of elite universities; today the social network counts more than a billion monthly users.
The ubiquity of new technologies, and particularly information and communication technologies (ICTs), has made their integration into the field of peacebuilding virtually inevitable. With ever-increasing competition among an array of international and local peacebuilding organisations for funding there is a new emphasis on “innovation” and ICTs seem to fit the bill perfectly. “Traditional” peacebuilding programs rely on a wealth of tools that have a common aim of bringing together conflicting parties to transform their mutual interests into peaceful solutions. The potential of new technology to broaden the opportunities and spaces for such interaction is undeniable:
Technology can facilitate the collection and organisation of information to analyse conflict trends, for prevention and response. For example, the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative use big data to track violence and therefore create early warning systems that recognizes dangerous patterns that might lead to more intense conflict. Additionally, the past decade has seen the establishment of online “conflict maps” that enable geospatial tracking of violence through participatory data collection. Perhaps the most notable example is the establishment of the Ushahidi platform in Kenya to track electoral violence in 2008.
Technology can be used to connect, to unite, and to mobilise funds, people and influence to demand social change. It enables decision-making by stakeholders at community level, thereby resolving some of the tensions about the legitimacy of top-down, externally-supported peacebuilding processes. A notable example is the use of social media to coordinate the protest movements that led to the Arab Spring revolutions. Government attempts to block these platforms is a testament to their critical influence in promoting unheralded social change.
Technology can expedite the transfer of information to reduce the susceptibility of vulnerable groups to manipulation and calls to violence. Indeed, it can instead provide a safe space for debate and new ways of thinking to emerge and for the breaking down of stereotypes and building of trust. For example, Soliya operates an online platform that enables intercultural dialogue between youth from the Muslim world and from the Western world.
Technology can improve the efficiency and transparency of service delivery and therefore can facilitate accountability of peacebuilding mechanisms. Examples include the USpeak platform in Uganda, which enables citizens to directly contact their Member of Parliament via SMS, or Yowzit, an online platform that allows users in South Africa to rate and review public services.
Technology enables governments, donors and implementing organisations to collect data to understand and learn from the outcomes of ongoing peacebuilding programming. For example, Search for Common Ground uses mobile phone technology to collect SMS feedback on the quality of its radio programs and evaluate change in attitudes among listeners.
In short, new technologies, through their capacity to inform, connect and empower, are fundamentally altering relations and mutual expectations between citizens, government, policy-makers, and practitioners in the field of peacebuilding.
Yet, the ongoing challenges in establishing successful and durable peace in violence-affected areas cautions against excessive confidence in technology as a conflict panacea. New technologies can –and very often do –fail to have the desired positive impact on peace. They are not usually specifically designed for peacebuilding (in any case, many conflict-affected countries lack the technological infrastructure base to build upon), but rather are adapted to be integrated into existing strategies. This should immediately raise questions about their applicability and compatibility and should stimulate us to reflect on whether assumptions about technology’s effectiveness in empowerment, democratisation and participation hold true in fragile conflict settings. Furthermore, principles of Do No Harm are taking on increasing significance in peacebuilding programs; therefore policy-makers and practitioners must reflect more critically on whether technologies can instead become a source and tool of conflict:
Technology can suffer from a lack of local legitimacy: the so-called beneficiaries may perceive these unknown tools as an alien intrusion that challenges the traditional and valued face-to-face interactions that they see as critical to promoting healing and reconciliation. Practitioners may assume that target groups appreciate the value of technology in the same way and therefore will behave “naturally” when presented with new tools. Yet, oftentimes, after an initial period of excitement, they are faced with user apathy. In the case of monitoring and evaluation, again the parameters tend to be set by the program designers/policy-makers, who determine which change is significant and therefore worthy of measuring. Complex technology-based data collection tools may be developed which are incapable of capturing the subtle sociocultural transformations that indicate a move towards peace or continued conflict. In the desire to employ the most cutting-edge technologies, important local tools that can capture local narratives can be sidelined, particularly when the transmission of information is hierarchical (from beneficiaries to donors/implementers) rather than horizontal.
External program designers and policy-makers often assume that access to knowledge will lead to concomitant action. Therefore the bulk of peacebuilding support is concentrated on providing the technological tools to facilitate the transfer of information, with relatively little of the necessary assistance to beneficiaries to analyse and assimilate this information, in order to develop coordinated and coherent campaigns to engage meaningfully in the relevant processes. In fact, the absence of such assistance is often a deliberate omission, as it may require donors and organisations to challenge hegemonic political and social structures. On the side of government, external peacebuilding policymakers tend to assume that a greater quantity and quality of information about citizen needs will lead to better decision-making in favour of peace. Once again, this sets aside the political and social concerns (clientelist networks, nepotistic ties, patrimonial power structures, etc.) of key stakeholders, who may now have the ability to understand the grievances of their constituents but still lack the will to respond to these.
Technology can reinforce divisions and inequality, as in conflict settings it is often only accessible to those already in a position of power. Thus, for example, technology can enable governments to better control and repress their citizens. It can enable politicians and warlords to carry out propaganda campaigns and spread misinformation. Indeed, the availability of more information does not necessarily mean better information. It can instead mean more platforms for hate and destructive ideology to be spread, as in the infamous case of community radio stations during the Rwandan genocide.
Technology can inadvertently undermine legitimacy and trust in fragile governments: firstly, it can result in the creation of unrealistic expectations among beneficiary groups. Access to information through technology promises responsible and accountable service delivery, a promise that many post-conflict governments –well-intentioned or not –are simply not able to meet. At best, this may result in citizen apathy towards government. At worst, it can undermine the legitimacy of an already weak state, reinforce grievances, and hence lead to conflict. On the flipside, the promotion of technology to provide services that the state does not (such as financial services) can undermine the confidence that citizens have in budding state service providers. This is a clear risk, given that the belief that the state is unable or unwilling to provide for citizen needs is a common push factor for recruitment to violence.
Technology-based strategies can perpetuate the marginalisation of vulnerable groups: a certain degree of technological literacy is required to use most new tools. Technology-heavy interventions inherently discriminate against certain groups that have less access or ability to use these tools (rural populations, women, children, the elderly, disabled groups and minorities). As these groups already tend to be disadvantaged in any given conflict-affected country, an emphasis on technology can reinforce their exclusion from the peacebuilding process.
Though technologies can provide a peaceful virtual space for interaction, they can also represent a security threat. Full anonymity and privacy are increasingly challenging to obtain and many users of technology in conflict settings are unfamiliar with the tools and therefore unaware of the risks of transmitting information on these platforms. Questions must be asked about the ethics of encouraging beneficiaries to use such tools when they do not fully understand the implications of how their narratives will be shared and used.
These various challenges and risks remind us that, despite the undeniable positive potential of new technologies, peacebuilding interventions must always be context-driven and never technology-driven. The overall objective must always be to support an effective and durable peace process; technology is a means but cannot be an end, in itself. Our three panellists, hailing from diverse background, will analyse these opportunities and challenges as we ask ourselves whether and how we can integrate technology into peacebuilding:
Aaron Shneyer is the founder and Executive Director of Heartbeat, a non-profit organisation that seeks to unite Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians to transform conflict. His presentation will focus on the communicative potential of technology in peacebuilding, examining how music and popular media can change understandings, attitudes and behaviour and create meaningful encounters across conflict lines.
Andrew Dunbrack is a member of UNICEF’s global Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy management team. He will discuss the potential of technology to assist in the design and monitoring and evaluation of peacebuilding programmes. In particular, he will share UNICEF’s experience in data collection in Burundi and Uganda as a means to develop evidence-based programming and improved prioritisation in response to beneficiary needs for support and advocacy.
Dr. Yannis Tellidis is Assistant Professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University. He will focus on the potential for ICTs to empower marginalised actors to transcend the peacebuilding and statebuilding processes and lead to a more locally-owned, more representative transformation of the conflict. He will examine the risks and opportunities of using ICTs in conflict settings and their potential to foster more hybrid forms of peace.
We hope that this panel discussion will stimulate us all, as analysts, program designers and practitioners, to reflect more critically on the rapid technological changes that we are witnessing and how they can be best leveraged to bring about our shared goal of peace, writ large.
Kahl, A. & Larrauri, H.P. “Technology for Peacebuilding.” Stability: International Journal for Security & Development, vol.2, no.3, 2013.
National Democratic Institute. “Citizen Participation and Technology: An NDI Study.” NDI, 2013
Search for Common Ground. “ICTs for Monitoring & Evaluation of Peacebuilding Programmes.” Search for Common Ground, 2014
Welch, J.R., Halford, S. & Weal, M. “Conceptualising the Web for Postconflict Governance building.” Peacebuilding, 2014
The World Bank. “The Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Postconfl ict Reconstruction.” The World Bank, 2014