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.”


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Drones, ethics and conflict

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak on the Technology for Peace panel at IPI’s 44th Vienna Seminar. Ameerah Haq (Under-Secretary-General, United Nations Department of Field Support) was also on this panel, and explained how drones are increasingly becoming a feature of DPKO missions. As proof of the importance of this innovation, she recounted a story about the first flight of the MONUSCO drones, operated by UN peacekeeping troops stationed in Goma, North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Goma is on the shores of Lake Kivu, and the most common mode of transport between Goma and Bukavu are unsafe, overcrowded boats across the lake. On their test flight, the UN drones sent back real-time imagery of a boat that was sinking in the middle of the lake. The peacekeepers quickly deployed a few UN boats and saved many passengers from drowning.

Boat on Lake Kivu (CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Julien Harneis)

Boat on Lake Kivu (CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Julien Harneis)

That UN peacekeepers were able to undertake a rescue thanks to their new drones is laudable. But the key purpose of deploying UN troops to Goma is to guarantee the safety and protection of civilians in an area where violence from non-state armed groups is all too common. Why did Ms. Haq chose to share a story that was about a humanitarian action peripheral to the central purpose of DPKO missions? Is it early days and there wasn’t much else to share? Or was this the only story that could be shared because the others would compromise the intelligence gathering that drones are allowing the mission to undertake?

The second thought stayed with me. UN peacekeepers are actively collecting data on civilian (and military?) activities in the Kivus (and elsewhere). Does the local population get a say in what data is collected, and to what purpose? How relevant is this question in conflict settings? Do the same standards apply as elsewhere? Patrick Meier has been doing some great work on the ethics of humanitarian UAVs, but I wonder if we need a concrete discussion on the ethics of drone use for conflict prevention. OCHA recently published a policy brief on the use of UAVs by humanitarian actors where it directly recommends against using UAVs in conflict settings:

“Focus on using UAVs in natural disasters and avoid use in conflict settings: The use of UAVs in conflict settings is still too complex and hard to separate from military uses.”

I understand that OCHA may not want to complicate the still-nascent discussion on humanitarian UAVs by considering conflict settings. However, if drones are starting to be used for non-military purposes in places like the DRC, then we need to begin to discuss this. Here are three problems and two possible solutions to start a conversation on drones, ethics and conflict.

Problem 1: privacy and consent. The discussion around data privacy and UAVs centers on two issues: consent and the imperative to save lives. Consent is critical to any data collection and dissemination in conflict settings, whether via UAVs or otherwise. It is often difficult to meet Do No Harm principles because the unintended consequences of data collection in complex conflict environments are so hard to predict. An important way to mitigate this risk is to obtain the consent of those being surveyed who are most likely to understand these unintended consequences. But if the purpose of the MONUSCO UAVs is to allow peacekeepers to monitor a broader area than they can cover over-land, then how operationally viable is it to obtain consent for UAV-collected data? Humanitarian actors at times argue that the imperative to save lives trumps the need for consent in certain situations and / or at certain levels of data aggregation. This is an important argument to make in humanitarian crises, but how applicable is it to collecting data on civilian protection? It is much harder to draw the line on what is life-threatening in a conflict context. UAVs cannot detect intent, so how are imagery analysts to determine if a situation is likely to result in loss of life?

OCHA's DJI Phantom UAV (pic.twitter.com/lxjopMq8XR)

OCHA’s DJI Phantom UAV (pic.twitter.com/lxjopMq8XR)

Problem 2: fear and confusion. In describing common misconceptions about humanitarian UAVs, Patrick Meier argues that most drones used by the UN / NGOs are perceived by local communities as toys, not as threatening military equipment. In speaking with local peacebuilders in the Somali Region and in Pakistan, I wonder whether the same is true in (at least some) conflict contexts. There is significant trauma among local populations who have witnessed drone strikes that appeared to come from nowhere. There is also much greater suspicion of anything that looks like an instrument to spy, to relay information to places of power far away, and that might (even unintentionally) make them a target for military action. This blogpost by the IRC raises similar concerns about the difficulty that local populations may have in distinguishing drones-for-good in conflict settings. When the MONUSCO drones first started to operate, a consortium of NGOs working in the Kivus warned that they might (at least in the eyes of local beneficiaries) appear to blur the lines between military and humanitarian actors. The OCHA policy brief reinforces these concerns, arguing that painting and signaling humanitarian UAVs to distinguish them from military drones works well in natural disasters, but is unlikely to be sufficient to overcome the fears of local populations in conflict settings.

Problem 3: response and deterrence. Whether collected with UAVs, via SMS-enabled crowdsourcing or at community meetings, a key issue with any system that gathers data in or about a conflict is that it raises expectations for a response. This risk is especially concerning for MONUSCO, who have in the past been criticised for inadequate response to known threats to civilians. Is it ethical for MONUSCO or other UN /NGO actors to deploy UAVs if they do not have the capacity to respond to increased information on threats? One possible counter-argument is to say that the presence of UAVs is in itself a deterrent (just as the presence of UN peacekeepers is meant to be a deterrent). In fact, the head of DPKO has suggested that deterrence is a direct aim of UN drones. Other initiatives using satellite imagery to monitor violence, such as the Satellite Sentinel Project, have similarly argued that surveillance of conflict areas acts as a deterrent. But the notion that a digital Panopticon can deter violent acts is disputable (see for example here), since most conflict actors on the ground are unlikely to be aware that they are being watched and / or are immune to the consequences of surveillance.

Solution 1: education and civic engagement. Educating communities where drones are deployed is one way to address the issues above. OCHA’s policy brief indicates that it is important to increase “the degree of transparency, acceptance and community engagement of the UAV program”. An open conversation with communities can include considerations about the potential risks of drone-enabled data collection and whether communities believe these risks are worth taking. This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account. Still a question remains: what happens if a community, after being educated and openly consulted about a UAV program, decides that drones pose too much of a risk or are otherwise not beneficial? In other words, can communities stop UN- or NGO-operated drones from collecting information they have not consented to sharing? Education will be insufficient if there are no mechanisms in place for participatory decision-making on drone use in conflict settings.

Solution 2: from civic engagement to empowerment. Perhaps civic engagement in how outside actors use humanitarian UAVs is not sufficient. In my view, the critical ethical question about drones and conflict is how they shift the balance of power. As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs. Drones flown by communities as part of their own conflict prevention processes and activities. If you think that’s a crazy undertaking, consider that something similar is already happening for community-led, UAV-enabled disaster risk reduction in Haiti. And there is plenty that local peacebuilders could use drones for in conflict settings: from peace activism using tactics for civil resistance, to citizen journalism that communicates the effects of conflict, to community monitoring and reporting of displacement due to violence.

I’m guessing this second solution is not going to sit easily with most readers. If you think it would never fly because people would be taken for spies and military / government officials would be afraid of them, then doesn’t that reinforce the three ethical problems outlined above? The more I consider how drones could be used for good in conflict settings, the more I think that local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power.