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.”

Onwards!

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