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

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

Our Films, Our Peace

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

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

And so the people on the border — northern and southern, “Arab” and “African”, Christian and Muslim, Misseriya and Dinka — understand perhaps better than anyone else the interdependence of the two nations. In fact, the Misseriya nomadic groups and Dinka cattle herders and farmers have been forging peace agreements for centuries, providing rights of passage to the Misseriya through Dinka land. The agreements are very important for avoiding violence in a volatile environment, and also provide a foundation for continuing trade regardless of politics between the two nations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which she replied:

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

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

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

Cross-posted from the Build Up Medium.

Poem of the month: On Marriage (Khalil Gibran)

Then Almitra spoke again and said, “And what of Marriage, master?”
And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

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 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. Edit (September 1, 2015): the paper has now been published in full by the ICT 4 Peace Foundation.

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.