Peacekeepers in the sky

A few months ago, Patrick Meier wrote about common misconceptions of Humanitarian UAVs. This post is part of his broader interest in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for humanitarian response (Patrick founded UAViators, the Humanitarian UAV Network).  I responded with comments specific to the use of UAVs in conflict contexts, to which Patrick answered (as did Sanjana Hattotuwa). What we both agreed on was that the use of UAVs in conflict settings is complicated by a number of issues related to perceptions, politics, ethics and empowerment.

We’ve just co-authored a paper (commissioned by IPI) that tries to unpack some of these issues in the specific case of the use of UAVs for peacekeeping. It’s not got all the answers, and it’s not meant to – we want to spark more debate on this topic. We pay particular attention to questions around the data privacy of civilians (non-combatants) and the keystone humanitarian principle of informed consent, which we believe have so far largely been ignored. You can read the full paper here; a shorter version of it will appear on IPI’s website in the near future.

We are not peacekeeping or military experts, so our assessment of the use of UAVs to a military operation will inevitably fall short of other experts. What we hope to bring to this discussion is an ethical exploration based on an understanding of grassroots action and how the introduction of new technologies can alter the balance of power. In the case of UAVs and given the multidimensional nature of peacekeeping operations, we believe it is important to assess their use from this perspective too, and not only focus on military utility.

Next week, Patrick will be speaking at the Build Peace conference about lessons from humanitarians UAVs for peacebuilders. His talk (and the rest of the conference plenary sessions) will be livestreamed: follow #buildpeace and @howtobuildpeace on Twitter to get the livestream links and join the conversation.

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Poem of the month: Dance Me to the End of Love (Leonard Cohen)

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love

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The future of resources, narratives and collective intelligence

I’ve been absent from this blog for a few weeks, but in that time I’ve been thinking through and deepening some of the threads I’ve explored here before. Rodrigo Davies and I were recently awarded a prize in the GDN Next Horizons Essay Contest for an essay where we explore how two parallel data revolutions are affecting development programming. First, we posit that the Open Data movement has pushed organizations – governments, non-profits and companies – to publicly share information and allow public scrutiny. Second, we suggest that the increasing availability of free, open source and user-friendly information technologies is enabling a growing number of civic actors to collect, process and analyse their own data.

The essay explores the processes that are being set in motion in the development project “marketplace” by these twin data revolutions. It describes three ways communities and organizations are building on these developments – by organizing and leveraging new resources, creating new narratives, and building collective intelligence – and provides illustrative examples from civic engagement and peacebuilding. We then argue that these new ways of doing things present networked, decentralized alternatives to established ideas, and are beginning to exert some pressure on incumbent processes and stakeholders.

I’ve written about alternative infrastructures as they related to peacebuilding before. In fact, it was Rodrigo’s research into civic crowdfunding that first introduced me to this way of thinking about the effect technology has on social change processes. As we have continued to talk with colleagues in the civic engagement and peacebuilding fields about this idea of alternative infrastructures, it’s become increasingly clear that there is an opportunity to engage with and support the growth of alternative infrastructures into ones that complement incumbent infrastructures. In the essay, we argue that to do so, development organizations must learn to allow communities to shape their priorities about where and how aid is deployed and focus programming on creating an enabling environment for this organic process to happen in a constructive, democratic manner.

That’s what we say in the essay, but I think the issue of alternative-to-complementary infrastructures transcends the development sector. The emergence of communities that want to engage in social change and that leverage technology to organize is by no means restricted to the development sector. Nor is it only the (often exaggerated) tale of protest movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy. From direct investments in US municipal bonds to the rise of new participatory political parties in Spain, it’s becoming the way we can collectively speak truth to power, engage with existing structures of power and shape them with grassroots initiative. It’s an uncertain and radical future – and one we should all be excited to be a part of.

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Poem of the month: L’Éternité (Arthur Rimbaud)

Elle est retrouvée,
Quoi? — L’Éternité.
C’est la mer allée
Avec le soleil.

(this one is borrowed from elepé.)

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Poem of the month: Tercera presencia del amor (Gabriel García Márquez)

Este amor que ha venido de repente
y sabe la razón de la hermosura.
Este amor, amorosa vestidura,
ceñida al corazón exactamente.

Este amor que es harina
que es infancia de sueños en la frente,
que es líquido de música en la frente
y es lucero nostálgico en la altura.

Este amor que es el verso y es la rosa.
Y es saber que la vida en cada cosa
se nos repite cada vez más fuerte.

Tan eterno este amor tan resistible,
que comparado al tiempo imposible
saber donde limita con la muerte.

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Mobile crowdfunding for the unbanked

Last week I was in Khartoum, delivering a training course that was part of SUDIA‘s National Youth Democracy Leadership Program. The training brought together 24 young activists from across Sudan, exposing them to new methods, tools, and ways of thinking. They were an inspiring group, you can get a glimpse of their energy here. Whenever I work with activists in Sudan, I am amazed at their creativity and resilience in the face of a tough, unforgiving environment for civic participation. Of the many stories I heard this past week, there’s one I am particularly intrigued by: it’s the story of how you run a crowdfunding campaign without a credit card.

The Statue of Liberty

Thanks to Rodrigo Davies who first told me about it, I always explain crowdfunding by telling the story of the pedestal of the State of Liberty. This was a great entry point in Sudan too, many of the activists at the training have collected micro-donations for their projects in some way, mostly through membership fees or by organizing a performance / event. From there, it’s easy to understand how the mechanics of crowdfunding build on traditions of community micro-donations, and capitalise on online communications to give rewards and recognition, and to build a community around a project.

So with that basic understanding, I told them about Indiegogo, Kickstarter and other similar platforms. They were interested, but the platforms are of limited use to them. Sudan is subject to economic sanctions from the United States that make it impossible for Sudanese banks to interact with international payment systems. Credit cards don’t work in Sudan. You can only access PayPal via a VPN. Some Sudanese banks issue debit ATM cards, but they are still quite rare and wouldn’t work for online payments anyway. Besides, the vast majority of Sudanese don’t have a bank account at all.

We still talked about how they could use crowdfunding platforms to gather funds from people outside Sudan – diaspora or foreigners with a connection to Sudan – as long as someone could receive funds in a foreign bank account and then bring them to Sudan. I showed them three successful campaigns that have done this (here, here and here). There can be some legal difficulties, but it works. Other than that, I told them, there is no way to run a civic crowdfunding campaign in Sudan.

But there is another way: phone credit.

Sharia AlHawadith

Over the course of several conversations, I learned that Sudanese civic activists regularly use phone credit to gather micro-donations. How they do this, and why it resembles online crowdfunding platforms so much, is best illustrated through a group that is using this process very successfully.

Sharia AlHawadith (Emergency Street) is the popular name for the street in Khartoum outside the Gaafar Ibnauf Children’s Specialised Hospital, the leading referral hospital for children’s health issues in Sudan. Over the past decade, the Sudanese government has been cutting back funding to the public healthcare system. The Ibnauf Hospital is one of many that has been seriously affected by these cuts. Although many consultations are still free, thousands of families with limited income now have to find ways to pay for basic tests and medicine to treat their children. In response to this situation, a group of young people (who call themselves Sharia AlHawadith) began to organize support for families in need.

The basic mechanics of their support for treatment go like this. Sharia AlHawadith volunteers sit on the street outside the hospital. A family comes by and requests a specific treatment they need (proven with the note from the doctor). The volunteers take their details and post them on a dedicated Facebook page, together with a phone number that people can send phone credit to. Once they have enough credit, the volunteers go to a local mobile kiosk and exchange credit for cash at a small fee. They then accompany the family to pay for the needed tests (to make sure the money is spent on the stated purpose). They often post the final outcome (test funded, child receiving treatment) as a comment to the original Facebook post. Contributors will sometimes also post comments of support.

So there you have it: specific ask, limited timeline, public recognition (though no rewards as such), community building – a crowdfunding campaign.

(On top of crowdfunding for treatment, Sharia AlHawadith also post requests for blood donations when there is a shortage following an emergency or accident. If you want to learn more about their remarkable work, AlJazeera has written about them.)

Mobile crowdfunding for the unbanked

Other civic groups in Sudan are also using Facebook pages and phone credit to raise funds, and this is becoming increasingly common. I haven’t done the research to back this up, but I’m going to guess this is not just a Sudan phenomenon. True, Sudan is an extreme case because of sanctions, but there are plenty of other countries where large parts of the population (not just low income, also middle income) do not have access to credit cards. Leveraging phone credit to raise funds makes a lot of sense – and it’s part of the mobile money revolution that is giving access, opportunities and power to people who have been left out of banking systems. (For more on this topic, take a look at GSMA’s blog on mobile solutions for the unbanked.)

So if micro-donations using phone credit are happening already, what’s the point in giving this process a name that originates in a different context? I think what intrigues me is how much the mechanics of the process resemble the structured campaigns of online crowdfunding platforms. It makes me wonder whether a platform for mobile crowdfunding could support the work of activists in places like Sudan. The platform could mirror the components that make up an online crowdfunding platform – pitch, rewards, donation tracking, updates to donors / the community – but with SMS / IM functionality that allow for no-internet or low-bandwidth interactions. Payments would happen via phone credit and would be automatically tracked in the platform.

If anyone has heard about a platform like this that already exists, I’d love to hear about it.

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Poem of the month: Dragonfly (Basho)

Crimson pepper pod
add two pairs of wings, and look
darting dragonfly.

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