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.

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.

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.

Conflicts of the Future

The new issue of Building Peace magazine – Conflicts of the Future – is out. I wrote an article for this issue, which you can read here. In it I explore how we can think of the contributions that technology can make to peacebuilding by using the framework that John Paul Lederach’s “The Moral Imagination” provides. I conclude by explaining how new technologies can be tools of the moral imagination:

Conflict situations, Lederach tells us, are often constrained by the sense of inevitability often present in conflict. What peacebuilders need to do is provide spaces for the moral imagination to emerge. Moral imagination is the ability to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not exist. New technologies empower local peacebuilders to do what was previously impossible and can be effective tools of the moral imagination, shifting future trends in peacebuilding toward more local, impactful, and imaginative implementation.

Another two great articles to watch out for:

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa’s thoughtful analysis of the good and bad that technology can do for peace. He explains an important challenge for all of us to keep in mind:

Most policymakers now grasp the positive potential of technology, but there are less positive, more hurtful applications as well. The central challenge today, shared by the UN, civil society, governments, Bretton Woods institutions and others, is to outsmart technologies that help promote hate, hurt and harm and instead, imagine and promote technological content and initiatives to counter radicalization and build resilience.

  • This piece by Krista Wise and Adam Mukhtar on the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA) use of low-tech solutions to build peace by improving communication flows. The story they tell is a wonderful example of local peacebuilding, and I couldn’t agree more with their concluding statement:

For SUDIA, this enthusiasm is an important reminder that building peace is not a top-down process. There can be no peace without community engagement.

Digital activism and the strategic use of new media in Sudan

This week, MIT’s Center for Civic Media published an ebook – Global Dimensions of Digital Activism – that is also the start of a project to examine and understand why and how activists campaigning for social change make use of digital tools. The book and project are led by Ethan Zuckerman and Lorrie LeJeune, the director and assistant director of the Centre, and I’ve had the privilege of contributing a chapter on digital activism in Sudan. Other case studies in the first release include Rynda.org in Russia, the Opposition Coordinating Committee in Russia and Light Up Nigeria.

Another book on digital activism? Here’s why you should read this one.

There’s no dearth of books and articles about digital activism – whether arguing the revolutionary power of digital tools or on the contrary attempting to demonstrate that digital activism is weak and inefficient. What I appreciate most about this project (and why I think you should read the book!) is that it goes beyond an artificially polar debate of cyber-utopians versus cyber-pessimists. The book engages with the complex reasons that lead activists to engage with digital tools, explores the risks they consider taking and tries to track the evolution of strategies and tactics over time. By putting the experience of digital activists around the world (not just in Taksim and Tahrir) at the forefront, the book provides a richer, deeper understanding of how digital activism plays out in social change movements. Ethan does a great job of explaining this approach in the introduction (and he also puts out a call for activists / supporters who are interested in writing additional case studies).

I initially had many reservations about writing a piece on Sudan. I’m not Sudanese, not an activist in the social movements I describe. My knowledge and access are the product of personal contact, professional interest and what technical support I could provide my friends. It was only through the kind persuasion of my friend Rodrigo Davies, and later Ethan and Lorrie that I agreed to write a piece. They suggested that telling the story of a place that is not often written about and where activists themselves have a limited ability to report was important. Their intuition was later confirmed by the people I interviewed (some anonymously), and by the reactions once it was published.

Sudanese activists: want a user guide not a research piece? Go to Sawtna.net

So I’m glad to have told this story, and it’s a great way for an external audience to see into Sudan in a new way (it’s not all Darfur, oil and Muslim-Christian fighting, you see). But its use to Sudanese activists looking to use digital tools is limited, for two reasons. First, the chapter is in English and we currently do not plan on translating it to Arabic (although it is published under a Creative Commons license, so feel free). Second, the chapter provides an interesting retrospective look at what digital tools have and have not worked in Sudan social change actions, but it does not provide guidance or best practices tailored for Sudanese activists.

If you are looking for a more practical resource tailored to Sudan, make sure to visit Sawtna.net.

Sawtna_logo-EN_250px.fw_This online platform designed by and for Sudanese civil society activists explores strategies for using ICTs and social media for advocacy, campaigning, mobilization, dissemination of information, crowdsourcing and more. It combines information from global best practices and useful adaptations for the Sudanese context. And it is available in Arabic and English!

Re-thinking conflict early warning: perceptions in Cyprus and Sudan

[This post is part of a series on re-thinking conflict early warning.]

When I met with them a year ago, the board of the Iraqi Centre for Negotiation and Conflict Management had pretty clear ideas about early warning. Any system they set up to monitor overt threats or violent incidents that could trigger a conflict would be too slow. Journalists would get to these events faster; the limited time of the Centre’s mediators would be best spent keeping up with the news. Even if they did manage to set up a near real-time incident and threat monitor, they argued that these events were so close to the outbreak of conflict that it was often too late for preventive action. When we discussed what could help them move from reactive mediation to proactive intervention, they honed in on collecting perceptions data. They wanted to know how people on the street were feeling, what the pulse of a community was. What they needed was a more systematic way to tap into this pulse.

The Mercy Corps Iraq team (who support the Centre) is still in the process of rolling out its perceptions monitoring system (see this blogpost for an overview). But other teams working with peacebuilders and peace activists in conflict and post-conflict contexts have similarly found that perceptions monitoring is the best approach to conflict early warning. From 2007 to 2012, UNDP Sudan’s Crisis and Recovery Mapping and Analysis (CRMA) project carried out community-level perceptions mapping in six states of Sudan and ten states of South Sudan, in collaboration with the respective State Governments. The CRMA methodology built on existing tools such as Rapid Rural Appraisals, Conflict Analysis Frameworks, Vulnerability Assessments and Community-Based Risk Assessments to provide an evidence-base generated at the grassroots. Community workshops were run by the CRMA team in partnership with Government officials to gather perceptions about threats and risks. Each workshop gathered about 30 participants, from mixed backgrounds representing the community, over the course of two days. The workshops ran a variety of exercises, including  plenary fora, participatory mapping, mind mapping and focus groups. Community perceptions gathered at these workshops were then assigned a category and a geographic location, to allow for both thematic and geographic analysis.

TRMA

Participants map perceptions of threats and risks at a CRMA workshop in Sudan

Through its work, CRMA supported government and civil society actors to jointly identify priorities for intervention and response. The process fostered an open dialogue, strengthening the capacities of local actors to respond to potential conflicts in a timely and appropriate manner. For example, in South Kordofan, UNDP Sudan had carried out its community level mapping exercise in collaboration with the state’s Reconciliation and Peaceful Coexistence Mechanism (RPCM) – a body which (prior to the conflict that started in South Kordofan in 2011) was similar to the Iraqi Centre for Negotiation and Conflict Management. UNDP supported the RPCM to analyse perceptions data from the community level mapping exercise in order to inform its priorities for action. (I gave an Ignite talk about this work a few years ago.)

Analysis of the perceptions data collected by CRMA was always somewhat problematic: the perceptions are not collected from a random sample of people or places, making any statistical analysis impossible. At most, the analysis allowed for identifying some geographic and thematic patterns that mediators and planners should look into. In Cyprus, a joint initiative of SeeD and UNDP has developed a more complex model of interpreting perceptions for the benefit of peacebuilding programs. Their Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Index (SCORE) is made up of five pillars. Four of them collect background information on civil society actors, local governance, political parties and local media – they are important to the model, but less relevant to this discussion. The fifth pillar collects responses to a questionnaire on perceptions from a random sample of Cypriots. The questions provide numerical scores for 25 indicators of social cohesion and reconciliation, such as negative stereotypes, intergroup anxiety, ingroup identification, trust, shared vision, etc. Five of these indicators are further aggregated to give an overall social cohesion score; another five are aggregated to give an overall reconciliation score. Each questionnaire respondent is tagged by their location and demographic characteristics to allow for comparisons between geographic areas and between groups.

Using a combination of statistical techniques to explore this perceptions data, the SCORE team can provide useful insights for peacebuilding practitioners. The model identifies the factor contributions of each variable to the composite variables of social cohesion and reconciliation. For example, it finds that whether Greek Cypriots trust Turkish Cypriots are much stronger predictors of negative stereotypes than whether Greek Cypriots have been in contact with Turkish Cypriots. This suggests that peacebuilders should focus their efforts on confidence building measures over projects that increase contact. The model also shows correlations between any pair of indicators. For example, it finds that negative stereotypes and social anxiety have a strong positive correlation, suggesting that programs should discuss together the stereotypes groups hold and the threat they feel the other group poses to their culture and social structure. Combining these findings with observations about the different indicator values between geographic areas or between groups results in even more precise recommendations. For example, contact between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots has a much stronger effect on reconciliation in Limassol than it does in Nicosia, suggesting how peacebuilders should target contact programs.

The first SCORE questionnaire in Cyprus has been completed and preliminary analysis can be viewed in this prezi. The team is now developing an online tool that will allow the public to browse indicator scores and graphical representations of how indicators correlate with each other, helping them draw their own conclusions. Plans to roll out the index to other countries are also afoot.

The SCORE online platform, currently under development.

The SCORE online platform, currently under development.

Too often, early warning systems collect vast amounts of data whose analysis leaves actors on the ground none the wiser about what course of action to take in order to prevent conflict or respond to an evolving situation. Despite differences in complexity and approach, the CRMA and SCORE initiatives have in common their focus on answering the practical, action-oriented questions peacebuilders face. These questions are often about what people are thinking or feeling, the pulse of a community that the Iraqi mediators talked about. Focusing on ways to capture and analyse perceptions is one way to build conflict early warning systems that truly support preventive programming.

U.S. sanctions and digital activists

For all its marble-floor, golden-curtain glamour, the Rotana Hotel in Khartoum does not take credit cards. Neither, for that matter, does anywhere else in Sudan. The U.S. placed a trade embargo on Sudan in 1997, which prohibits the import and export of goods, technology or services between Sudan and the U.S. The embargo is an addition to sanctions imposed in 1993 on property and interests of the Government of Sudan, which the U.S. listed as a state sponsor of terrorism for hosting Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal. Both fall under the Sudan Sanctions Regulations (SSR), administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Much has been  written on the crippling effects that trade embargoes have on countries. Aimed at changing the political calculus of governments, embargoes stifle economic growth, and negatively affect social and humanitarian conditions. In Sudan, I am in constant awe at how business owners go about their affairs, how education facilities get what they need, how manufacturers manage spare parts. Of course, that’s not just about the embargo, but it certainly doesn’t help. Sanctions on government assets have some degree of targeting; trade embargoes are a blunt tool that punishes the entire population of a country.

And that includes people working for social change in Sudan. The embargo has a particular effect on anyone trying to use technology for the social good. Try buying server space or purchasing a domain name without a credit card. Don’t get clever and think you can use PayPal: if you try accessing your account from Sudan, you’ll lose access (and it’s very hard to get it back). If you’re a coder, most online resources including Net Beans and Google Code are blocked. If you’re a mapper, you can’t download Google Earth or any Esri products. You can also forget about doing surveys using Survey Monkey, that too is blocked. If you want to collaborate remotely, you can’t download Dropbox or Skype. If you are… well, anyone using a computer really, you can’t download virus checkers like McAfee.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Of course, there are alternatives to most of these products. Or you can use a VPN to access them, if you have the patience for the slower connection that results. For products that are one-time downloads (Skype, Dropbox, etc), you can ask a friendly khawaja (foreigner) or anyone traveling out of Sudan to download them and bring them in. (And in case you are worried, bringing in free download products for personal use is covered by an exemption.) Or you could download them from an alternative server that is not in the U.S. Once installed, there is no problem using them. But good luck getting updates.

Most digital activists are creative about work-arounds and find a way to do what they need. What is most frustrating is that it’s not always clear what is covered by the embargo. Individual companies post the policy that covers embargoed countries, like here or here, but there is no comprehensive list of what is blocked. Worse still, it seems that some companies are forced to block additional items as their lawyers discover new needs to comply with the embargo. Take Google products: Gmail and Google Docs are available; Google Earth and Google Code are not. Until recently, Google Apps were available, and a number of Sudanese NGOs and civil society groups had accounts with them. Like many other international NGOs, they ran their organization email, calendars, etc via Google Apps and used various other support tools. On January 1 this year, they arrived in their offices to find that the embargo had extended to Google Apps. Let the work-around begin.

Just to be clear: this is not Google’s fault. Or any other company’s fault, they are complying with U.S. law. This is also nothing like the current debate on collaboration with the NSA: the embargo is a public, transparent policy and there is no question of it being unconstitutional. It may be a bad policy, but that’s a different story. In fact, in my experience, most companies are willing to find ways to support the use of technology products for the social good if they can. For example, it’s possible for companies to allow use of their technology by NGOs working in some parts of Sudan under the Specified Areas exemption, which covers South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Abyei and Darfur.

But wait: the Government of Sudan also censors internet services, so how do we know a particular tech product is blocked by U.S. sanctions and not by Sudan? It’s easy: ready the error message.

googleerror

blockedsite

Over the past years, the number of civil society groups working with technology to change Sudan for the better has grown. Take a look, for example, at the current response to flooding organized by digital activists under #Nafeer. The trade embargo makes their work more difficult, more time consuming – and that comes on top of an environment that is already tough because of the tight hold the Government keeps on civic space. What really gets me is that these difficulties don’t seem to be outweighed by any positive impact sanctions could have on expanding the space for civic action. The last time the OFAC published a report on the effectiveness of the Sudan Sanctions Regulations in 2009 they acknowledged that:

“[…] the most meaningful measure of a sanc­tions program is whether and to what extent it is exerting pressure on relevant decision makers such that it affects their behavioral calculi. That said, it can be notoriously difficult to measure regime thinking and attribute the impact of sanctions. Even when regime-level behavioral changes do occur, it is difficult to identify the precise role that sanctions might have played.”

A trade embargo won’t be what brings social changes to Sudan. Change will come from within, and digital activists will play an important role in it. The trade embargo as it affects technology products gets in the way of their good work. At the very least, the U.S. administration should consider extending exemptions to technology products that are commonly used by civil society. It’s not impossible to exempt certain products from the embargo; in fact there is already one that is exempt. Sudan is the world’s largest producer of gum arabic, with 70-80% of global production. Gum arabic is an essential ingredient to all soft drinks, it’s the strange glue that holds them together. In 1997, when the trade embargo was first introduced, the food industry lobby negotiated an exemption for gum arabic. If you can do it for Coca Cola, why not do it for civic activists too?