On ICTs, hegemony and the liberal peace

Whenever academic literature mentions ICTs for peacebuilding, it’s either as a side mall mention in a broader exploration of ICTs for development (ICT4D) or of ICTs used for war, violence or hatred. Ioannis Tellidis and Stefanie Kappler’s recently published article “Information and communication technologies in peacebuilding: Implications, opportunities and challenges” is the first academic piece I’ve read that tackles ICTs for peacebuilding directly. This blogpost is not an attempt to summarise the article (it’s excellent in its entirety), but rather to pull out a couple of points in the framing that Tellidis and Kappler provide that particularly resonated with me from a practitioner perspective.

The authors begin by noting that the role ICTs play in peacebuilding is distinct from the role they play in humanitarian response and development. Specifically, they argue that ICTs play a role “towards inclusive, post-conflict peacebuilding and statebuilding” and can make “a contribution towards the transformation of conflict issues, contexts, structures and actors”. Furthermore, ICTs in peacebuilding are not just about early warning and democratisation (on which most attention has been focused); they can also play a role in “‘peace formation’ – the emergence of local, peaceful forms of subaltern power seeking non-violent, peaceful change.”

This opening framing recognises that a key function of ICTs in peacebuilding is to create opportunities for changes in the balance of power in conflict contexts. In recognising this, the authors shift the focus of their inquiry into the role of ICTs towards their effect on participation in power. They explain that it’s the participatory elements of new ICTs that are of special significance to peacebuilding. This very much resonates with my experience in peacetech projects, and the questions we ask in designing peacetech interventions. How does the introduction of ICT tools affect marginalised communities? Can ICTs be co-opted or controled by hegemonic power? Or can they instead lead to the creation of new power structures? And how does this all affect how and what peace is built?

What I like most in this article is how the authors go about answering these questions. In essence, they make clear that ICTs are just a tool and what matters is how we use them. In their words:

“Technology, however, is used by humans according to their realities – it is their use of it that ascribes meaning and importance to it – and that empowerment cannot be bestowed in the first place without hybrid interaction with the subjects – it must be claimed first and then facilitated.”

And more importantly, how we use ICTs says much about our political position, and specifically whether we ascribe to a (hegemonic) liberal peace.

“[…] this access and connection entails the risk of being limited to a promotional use of social media instead of creating a two-way communication channel through which local populations’ voices are heard and implemented into the policies and strategies of peacebuilding actors.”

In other words, ICTs can be used to reinforce dominant power structures. Being aware of this is critical for peacebuilders (perhaps even more so for those of us who carry out or support work in contexts outside our own). What (global or local) power structures are we perpetuating? Are we genuinely enabling empowerment towards a peace that can be locally owned? Or are we contributing to “peace wash” a context? These are the questions that keep me up at night. It’s a fine balance:

“ICTs have the potential to serve as mediators, transforming hegemonic input into resistive practices, while at the same time also implying the risk of promoting hegemonic practices in new channels. In the context of peacebuilding, this seems to be particularly problematic, given that the authority to build peace is usually not democratically given, but tends to derive its legitimacy from global top-down structures.”

And I love that Tellidis and Kappler, after cautioning about hegemonic power, are also hopeful that ICTs can transform how we build peace towards more locally owned, genuinely empowered processes:

“The representation of resistance and the grassroots mobilisation towards more inclusionary peace frameworks, we believe, is where ICTs can play a significant role in altering liberal peacebuilding’s input and transforming it through a decentralisation of power.”


Poem of the month: Charon (by A.E. Stallings)

When some, as promised, made it to dry land,
He profited, high and dry, but others, owing
To fickle winds, or a puncture, or freak waves,
Arrived at a farther shore, another beach
Lapped by a numb forgetting, still in the clothes
Someone had washed and pressed to face the day,
And lay in attitudes much like repose.
And Charon made a killing either way,
Per child alone, 600 euros each.

Peacetech: remarks at the Geneva Peace Talks

Last Friday, I had the pleasure to speak at the 2015 Geneva Peace Talks, organized by the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform. I was humbled to be in the company of such a great line-up of speakers, all addressing the subject “It’s time for peace”. This blogpost is a write-up of what I said.

The peace of the graveyards

I’m from Spain and as you know Spain had a fascist dictator, Franco, until 1975. In 1964, Franco celebrated 25 years in power with the slogan: “25 years of peace”. The counter-slogan from anti-fascist activists, like my parents, was “We don’t want the peace of the graveyards.”

It’s a slogan that I still find relevant, a call to remember that a peaceful society is not one void of conflict, but one where all voices can negotiate a shared understanding of peace. It asks the question: who gets to decide what peace means? who decides what peace we are working to build?

Peacebuilding as civic engagement

So that’s an interesting anecdote, but you might be wondering what it’s got to do with the subject of my talk. I co-direct a social enterprise called Build Up that works at the intersection of technology, civic engagement and peacebuilding. The provocation we put forward with our work is that we need to re-interpret peacebuilding as civic engagement. And that technology plays a key role in that reinterpretation.

In other words, we believe that the key thing technolgy does is broaden participation in peacebuilding process, so that really what they are is civic engagement processes that deal with conflict. That also means that we can do away with the idea that conflict is something that happens in far-flung transition places or in the Global South. Conflict is in every society. Peacebuilding as civic engagement is needed everywhere, and technology is changing how it’s done everywhere.

Peacetech in the Somali Region and South Sudan

Since this may sound abstract, I want to illustrate it with two concrete examples of work Build Up is currently undertaking.

For the past 2 years, we have been working with Interpeace to support two local peacebuilding organizations in the Somali Region. The organizations we are working with have decades of experience doing qualitative research to understand what Somalis are thinking about the conflict. With the information they gather they run local peace processes and work to influence Somali policy makers.

So they do incredible work. We’ve helped them introduce a few technology tools that build on this. We worked with them to design a participatory polling methodology that introduced a mobile data collection tool linked to an online data management and visualization tool (read more about it here). We’ve also helped them come up with ways to share their findings and messages with more people. They were already doing paper reports and film screenings. Now they are also using social media, learning simple animation and making shorter films to be distributed online.

Perhaps you had an image of Somalia as a black hole where nothing works. In fact, it’s an incredibly resourceful place: there are more people online and on Facebook than you might initially think, especially since the fiber optic cable reached Mogadishu.

The second project I want to tell you about is one we implemented earlier this year in South Sudan. USAID funds the VISTAS program, which has been working on the Sudan – South Sudan border, supporting peace committees to make local agreements and manage divisions across the border.

These committees do important work. They convene elders to negotiate rights of passage and then drive around in cars and read out agreements over megaphones. But with this approach, there are only so many people they can reach and only so many voices that can be represented. In other words: the reasons why traders and cattle keepers want peace are clear, and they hear the agreements. But what about women? Or unemployed young men? They’re not at the negotiation table.

So we worked with one cross-border committee to identify a group of young men and a group of women, mixed Sudanese – South Sudanese, and then over three weeks, we supported these groups in making two short films.

None of the participants had touched a camera before. Only 5 of them could read and write. Many told us it was the first time they had been asked to express their opinion. Yet the films they made where entirely led by them. They planned the stories, filmed every shot, recorded every interview, and chose images and voices for the final cuts.

For the films’ opening night, we projected onto a white sheet strung up in the town’s dusty football field. Hundreds of people came to watch. The groups are now working to screen the films in other towns along the border, show them at video clubs, distribute them via mobile phones, and then make more films. (Read more about this here.)

Technology is just a tool

These are two powerful examples of projects that use technology to build peace. But you may be thinking, what of the risks? Isn’t technology also used for war and oppression? And of course it is, technology is just a tool – but for every negative use, I can probably come up with a positive counter-use.

On Facebook, we listen mostly to people we already agree with, which can make views more polarized, and hatespeech is rampant. But groups like Peace Factory are using Facebook to connect normal Israelis to normal people in Iran, Palestine or Jordan, and groups like Umati (Kenya) or Proxi (Spain) are using social media to monitor and counter hatespeech.

Technology can be used to cut off communications, as the government in Sudan has done, but also in Sudan a local NGO sets up a community communications system that links SMS to radio to help sustain local peace agreements. Videogames teach war, but Games for Peace uses Minecraft to bring Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together. Drones can bomb, or they can be tools for peacekeepers. And so on.

Peacetech can learn from civic tech

I think that what is happening with technology in peacebuilding is similar to how technology is affecting other areas of public life. And so I’m taking you back to Spain: with an economic crisis compounded by many corruption cases, Spanish people over the past few years have been asking themselves: who gets to decide what democracy looks like?

Many of the grassroots movements that started with this question are now turning into political forces to be reckoned with on the electoral arena. And in their organizing process, and in their ability to shift the public discourse, technology has played an instrumental role.

And this phenomenon of greater participation, greater empowerment via technology disrupting traditional processes is not just about Spain, and it’s not just about political activism. It’s happening in governments through civic tech movements too. Citizens are talking directly to governments, on their own terms. And governments are setting up web platforms, apps and social media campaigns to reach citizens.

But this change towards greater participation through technology has not yet reached formal peace negotiations. Peace negotiations continue to take place in closed rooms, between governments or warring parties, away from the people most affected, and with limited participation from civil society.

The examples I gave earlier, the many other examples of peacetech that are out there, they’re all happening among civil society. It’s true that the more effective ones manage to connect with ongoing governance / conflict management processes – like the example I gave you from Somalia. And this is very important, but it’s quite limited.

What is the e-governance of peace processes?

In other policy areas, the civic tech movement has meant that it is no longer acceptable for governments to fail to communicate and consult with citizens regularly: technology makes it easy and cost effective, removing any permissible excuse. I think we need a peacetech movement that does something similar for peacebuilding, and I think we need this urgently.

Peacebuilders on the ground are demonstrating how technology makes it easier to broaden participation. They are using technology to reinvent peacebuilding at the grassroots, in track 3. We can use this experience to also re-invent track 1 formal negotiations. We can start using technology to connect the conversations of conflict-affected communities directly to formal negotiation tables in Addis Ababa, New York, or Geneva. We know from past experience that if these two tracks are not connected, what is signed at negotiation tables won’t take root on the ground.

However different the contexts might be, I see digital activism, civic tech and peacetech as part of a global paradigm shift that leverages technology to disrupt what otherwise remains an unquestioned status quo, dominant power structure, a majority’s perspective as the only truth. Because people don’t want the peace of the graveyards.

Poem of the month: Fosterling (Seamus Heaney)

At school I loved one picture’s heavy greenness –
Horizons rigged with windmills’ arms and sails.
The millhouses’ still outlines. Their in-placeness
Still more in place when mirrored in canals.
I can’t remember not ever having known
The immanent hydraulics of a land
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone.
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.

Heaviness of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

Hacking for peace in Barcelona

On September 26 and 27, we are orginizing the Barcelona #peacehack to hack problems of peace and migration. If you are a developer or a designer based in Barcelona, you can sign up now to join us.

What’s a #peacehack?

#peacehack is an initiative of International Alert that brings together technologists, designers, developers and peace practitioners to create solutions that can be used to stop violent conflict and help build peace. Alert is partnering with several groups to organise simultaneous hacks in five cities around the world over the weekend of 26-27 September 2015 as part of the second Talking Peace Festival. In Barcelona, the #peacehack is organized by Build Up and supported by Data Pop Alliance, Catalan Agency for Cooperation to Development, Consulate of Colombia in Barcelona, PuntoJES, Impact Hub Barcelona and Impact Hub Madrid.

At the start of the hack, peacebuilding practitioners will present several challenges they face in their work. Hackers will then choose a challenge and work (individually or in teams) to build a prototype technology solution… in 36 hours.

Challenges for the Barcelona #peacehack

The Barcelona #peacehack will focus on peace and migration. Over the past few months, we’ve been talking to practitioners based in Barcelona and elsewhere about challenges they face in their work. We have a seven very different challenges for hackers to put their brains and skills to:

  1. Help refugees fleeing Syria to keep in touch with family and friends
  2. Find ways to educate about and denounce human trafficking
  3. Simulate migration movements from Syria to raise public awareness of its causes
  4. Create the mobile version of a board game about population displacement due to conflict
  5. Design a collaboration platform for projects and ideas for PeaceStartup
  6. Build a prototype of a crime prediction model using crime and transit data from Bogotá
  7. Improve a system for identifying and dismantling rumors and stereotypes online

Want more details on the challenges? Check them out here.

And there’s a prize!

On Sunday afternoon, hack teams will present their prototypes to a panel of judges made up of technology and peacebuilding professionals. The team that presents the best solution will receive a trip for two people to Build Peace, an international conference on peace and technology. Here’s a video of last year’s conference to get you inspired.

Want to join us? Sign up here. You can also follow the event on Twitter using #peacehack.

Cross-posted from the Build Up Medium.

Poem of the month: Love after love (Derek Walcott)

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Our Films, Our Peace

There are no cinemas on the Sudan – South Sudan border. But plenty of people watch films. In the market towns that deal in cross-border trade, people gather at video club shacks to watch football matches and Bollywood films. You can also pay a couple of pounds at a market stand to charge your mobile phone and have a small video clip bluetoothed onto it.

There’s something miraculous about these border trade towns. The South Sudanese state of Northern Bahr ElGhazal borders the Sudanese states of Darfur. Too far from Juba and the East Africa trade routes that bring goods from Kenya and Uganda, it receives most goods from Khartoum and other parts of Sudan. When the borders between the two embattled states close, the people on both side suffer.

And so the people on the border — northern and southern, “Arab” and “African”, Christian and Muslim, Misseriya and Dinka — understand perhaps better than anyone else the interdependence of the two nations. In fact, 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, and also provide a foundation for continuing trade regardless of politics between the two nations.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to what they say. Given the choice to make a film about a topic that united them, here’s what a group of young Misseriya and Dinka men produced:

Majok Nyithiou is one of these miraculous border trade towns. Near the disputed Abyei territory, at the entry point of a main Misseriya route, and in an area claimed by both nations, it is a strategic location for the Dinka-Misseriya Joint Border Peace Committee. The Committee convenes cross-border peace conferences, supports negotiation of migration and trade agreements, and then disseminates these agreements among local people. With patrchy mobile phone network and radio service, what that looks like is a couple of landcruisers loaded with a sound system, touring village after village for weeks.

Michaela Ledesma, Mia Bittar and I had come to Northern Bahr ElGhazal at the invitation of the VISTAS program to explore whether films, and specifically participatory video, could play a role in their work supporting efforts to reinvigorate cross-border economic ties, restore and improve relationships, and address divisions between the communities on both sides of the border.

When we were in Majok Nyithiou, the Committee members shared one difficulty: their peace conferences and dissemination don’t involve women and young men as well as they would like. And this is important, because women and youth are peace actors in their own right, with their own vision of the future and of how peace is built.

Empowered to chose what they wanted to say about peace, a group of women shot this film that shows peaceful coexistence is critically linked to the availability of water:

The films above were made by two mixed Misseriya-Dinka, Sudanese-South Sudanese groups — one young men, one women — working together with our support over a three week period in March 2015. None of them had touched a camera before. Only 5 of them can read and write. Many told us it was the first time they had been asked to express their opinion. A principal strength of participatory video methodologies is engaging hard-to-reach, marginalized groups. We adapted this methodology to a peacebuilding context. If you’re interested in learning more, you can download our 1st edition of a “Participatory Video for Peacebuilding” manual.

The films you see here were their idea. They planned them out on paper, filmed every single shot you see, recorded all the interviews, and chose what images and voices would go in the final cuts. We facilitated the process, guided them in the use of cameras and sound equipment. We also took their paper edit (where they had picked the shots / voices) and executed it in the editing software.

The films’ premiere in Majok Nyithiou — on a white sheet strung across the dusty football field — drew hundreds of people. The groups are hoping to tour the films to other towns along the border, maybe show them at video clubs. They would also like to make more films, and have kept all the equipment. They’ll need to learn editing on a computer so they can finish films on their own; we’re hoping to go back and work with them on editing skills in the near future.

On our last day in Majok, we sat with the two groups to talk about how the filmmaking process had changed them. It was evident it had been incredibly powerful for the individuals involved. One of the women told a story that sums it up. On the day of the film screening, she put on the group tshirt, which said “Our Films, Our Peace” in English, Dinka and Arabic. Her son looked at her, and mocked:

What are you doing with that tshirt? You can’t even read.

To which she replied:

I might not be able to read, but I know how to make films.

On the surface, it may appear that this initiative had a strong, direct effect on the empowerment of the people involved, but only an indirect effect on peacebuilding. But that would be a misunderstanding of the context. The Dinka-Malual and Misseriya have a very conflicted history. Majok may be peaceful now, but it hasn’t always been, and it’s rare that these two groups speak with one voice. The young men and women who made these films were already exceptions in their community, people willing to speak up for peace. Their deliberate choice to make films that celebrate the fragile peace in Majok underscores their role as peacebuilders. They have a strong desire for their community and leaders to hear this.

These films contributed to transforming a group of peace advocates, who now have a powerful tool to develop and amplify their own voice. As the Joint Border Peace Committee knows, peace is not just built through agreements between leaders. It takes many voices, together creating a new discourse of peace. The voices of these young men and women, jointly celebrating peace and calling out problems the two communities share, are moving the political discourse beyond the status quo and into a future of peaceful interdependence.

Cross-posted from the Build Up Medium.