Thoughts on a PeaceTech industry

Two speakers at Build Peace 2015 put forward the idea that there is great potential for the private sector to lead innovation in the use of technology for peace. Sheldon Himelfarb spoke about how the global ubiquity of low‐cost, easy‐to‐access technology is enabling the emergence of a new breed of social entrepreneur, creating market‐based peacebuilding opportunities that move beyond the historic purview of governments, foundations, and NGOs. Mark Nelson described peace technology as mediating technology that acts as an intervening agent, augmenting our ability to engage positively with others. He explained that he believes there is a powerful potential for good implicit in these technologies.

There is of course much potential in collaborations between peacebuilders and the private sector. But it’s neither straightforward nor implicit – here are some questions I think we need to ask of the development of a PeaceTech industry.


Graphic recording by Claudia Meier.

PeaceTech company? Prove it.

Mark Nelson talks of Airbnb as the largest peace technology company in the world. By enabling millions of strangers from different cultures to host each other, it achieves citizen diplomacy at a scale no NGO could dream of. It may sound like a compelling example, but I’m not sure we have the data to prove it. As Rodrigo Davies recently wrote.

It’s possible, but unproven that Airbnb’s success has led to greater cross-cultural and cross-racial contact, and therefore has promoted peaceful international relations. On the other hand, use of the platform could replicate existing cultural ties or encourage homophily, a trend that Ethan Zuckerman has observed among many online communities.

The problem is we don’t have the data to prove that Airbnb is having a positive (peaceful) effect on relations between citizens. Do people from certain groups get turned down more often, reinforcing their sense of exclusion? Maybe Airbnb increases inclusion of marginalised groups, maybe not. Are people more likely to rent to people who are like them, encouraging homophily as Ethan suggests? Maybe Airbnb increases inter-group contact, maybe not. There is no implicit good in the platform.

As a point of principle, I think we have to stop calling any company a PeaceTech company unless they can prove it. Airbnb probably have the data to answer at least some of these questions. I’m not so sure they would willingly submit to this kind of scrutiny without an incentive though. More generally, in order to recognize PeaceTech companies, it would be necessary to develop a “peace standard” – a set of questions that companies need to answer before they can be recognized as contributing to a more peaceful world.

Let the mission drive problem selection.

One thing that (successful) technology companies do very well is to remain focused on the problem they are trying to solve. This is a critical principle in user-centered design: you don’t want to build a technology in search of a user. Rodrigo Davies summarizes this nicely as “let the problem serve the mission” and points to a useful lesson peacetech or civictech initiatives can learn from this approach:

You can’t solve peace or civic engagement because neither is a single problem. They’re both, quite obviously, made up of thousands of interconnected problems.

He goes on to illustrate this point by describing the excellent work he and his colleagues at Neighborly are doing: they are building a community investment marketplace to allow people to invest in their city through municipal bonds. The single problem they are solving for is transparency and accessibility of municipal bonds to the broader publicly. They see this problem as a component of their broader mission: to increase civic engagement in American cities. And thus solving for a concrete problem serves their mission.

In my view, there is an important difference between Airbnb and Neigborly. Neighborly’s mission is to increase civic engagement in American cities – and they are tackling one subcomponent of that (access to municipal bonds). Before working on municipal bonds, they were tackling another subcomponent of their mission: they ran a crowdfunding platform that helped citizens and organizations come together to invest in civic and community causes. I would argue their mission drives their problem selection. Airbnb’s mission is to provide unique travel experiences – and they do so by tackling one subcomponent of that (access to unique accommodation). Any peace or civic value-added is a (welcome) by-product.

The difference between Airbnb and Neighborly is how they arrived at the problem – and this matters to how a company choses to resolve conflicts of interest (do they put profit first?) and what problems they chose to tackle (only those whose solution has a monetized value?).

PeaceTech Industry = peace-before-profit

There may be no problem in principle with peace being a by-product of great service provision that improves people’s quality of life. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for spending most of our energy in solving concrete problems that improve quality of life and, as a result, also build peace. A great example of this is ethical banking: we all need banking services, if these services are provided in a way that also builds ethical trade and business, then all all the better.

The problem is that at some point the most efficient way to increase service quality or solve a concrete problem may go against a mission value. As anyone with a bank account in an ethical bank will know, the returns on investment are lower than in large commercial banks. For ethical banking, ethics come before profit. The natural corollary would be that in a PeaceTech industry, peace comes before profit.

When Rodrigo shared his blogpost about Airbnb on Facebook, someone commented:

My friend and his partner just got turned away from a bed and breakfast booked through Airbnb when they showed up for check-in and were clearly a gay couple.

Airbnb’s response to this kind of incident is critical to deciding whether we consider them a PeaceTech company. Here is the relevant policy from Airbnb, which goes in the right direction. I don’t know how effective their flagging mechanism is at rooting out discrimination in practice. At any rate, the policy just says the company will not allow hosts to do anything illegal – it doesn’t say it will actively work to promote hosts who have a better “inclusion” record. It would be interesting to understand whether Airbnb would be willing to take unpopular measures that damaged their bottom line in order to promote inclusion or other peace values.

It’s not all industry.

The above may all sound very negative – which is ironic given that I co-direct a social enterprise that works at the intersection of peacebuilding, civic engagement and technology. I certainly think there is much that NGOs, international organizations and civil society organizations engaged in peacebuilding can learn from the private sector and from tech startups in particular. The dependence of peacebuilding initiatives on donor funding can make it hard to test new ideas, sustainably scale them and remain credibly independent.

What worries me is that the idea of a PeaceTech Industry is so alluring that we lose sight of the value-based calling that  brings many of us to peacebuilding. Celebrating the value that certain companies add, building peace as a by-product of their services, is an important contribution to peacebuilding. But we must be very clear about what values are promoted and how they are upheld. Investing in social enterprises whose mission is to build peace and that model after startups can also be an important contribution to peacebuilding. But there are some issues, some contexts and some activities that do not lend themselves to an enterprise model – situations where social justice must be served to preserve peace, and only a public or non-profit actor is viable or credible.

So the next time someone talks about a PeaceTech company, ask them what values it’s based on, how those values are upheld, and how the alternative infrastructures it fosters can complement existing civil society and public sector infrastructures for peace.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.