How technology can shape the future of peacebuilding at the local level

By Helena Puig Larrauri

06 June 2014: Helena Puig Larrauri talks about the role that technology plays in peacebuilding at the local level, and the potential it has to change the future of preventing and resolving conflicts around the world.

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Thanks to these tools and the social and organizational forms they help create, local peacebuilders are now better equipped to challenge state-sanctioned or socially normative narratives and notions of identity.
This week, the Coalition Centre for Thai Violence Watch (CCTVW) is busy aggregating reports sent in from the streets of Bangkok to calculate a weighted index of violence risk, which will be published on their website and Facebook pages twice a day. The violence watch system is already very smart, and next week I’ll be joining a developer from Elva (a Georgian tech start-up) to work with the CCTVW team to make their processes and tools even more efficient. Every time I do work like this, bringing technology tools to local peacebuilders, I am reminded that highlighting this area of peacebuilding work was the impetus behind the Build Peace conference.

Rodrigo Davies, Jen Welch, Michaela Ledesma and I set up Build Peace to bring together practitioners, activists and technologists from around the world to share their experience and ideas on using technology for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. The conference had four broad lines of inquiry, each representing a function technology can play in peacebuilding: information, communications, gaming and networking. You can read more about how we came up with these four areas here and read a look-back on Build Peace 2014 here.

Alternative infrastructures for peace

The variety and depth of experience shared at the conference demonstrated that technology use is on the rise in local peacebuilding. That alone was inspiring, and generated enough interest that we will be organizing another conference next year. But perhaps more important is the over-arching narrative that these disparate experiences share: we are beginning to see alternative infrastructures for peace emerging that are (to a large extent) the product of tech-enabled initiatives.

Digital media tools provide new, creative ways for local peacebuilders to foster alternative discourses and challenge prevailing conflict narratives.
In particular, I think there are three alternative infrastructures that point to the future of peacebuilding at the local level. First, digital media tools provide new, creative ways for local peacebuilders to foster alternative discourses and challenge prevailing conflict narratives. These new visions can often compete with existing visions by being bolder and engaging more closely with their audience. Second, networking platforms provide new opportunities for local peacebuilders to foster positive contact between conflict groups, building digital trust networks. Third, online and mobile tools give power to local peacebuilders to counteract calls for violence and make peace viral.

Making space for new visions

Peace Factory

Digital media offers tools for collaborative media creation and dissemination: social media, blogs, wikis, citizen journalism, participatory maps, etc. Local peacebuilders are using these tools to bring new voices to the public domain. In Lebanon, Search for Common Ground ran a video competition that asked Lebanese youth to ‘Shoot [their] Identity’. Videos showcasing a diversity of experiences were posted online, with a prize awarded to the best video. In Israel, the Peace Factory runs viral campaigns on Facebook that encourage people to post messages of love and friendship across conflict barriers (Israel-Iran, Palestine-Israel, Pakistan-Israel, America-Iran, etc). In Sri Lanka, Groundviews is a website for citizen-journalists to offer alternative perspectives on governance, human rights, peace building and other issues. The site is credited with being the only source for controversial topics linked to the conflict and the only media outlet regularly challenging attitudes towards peace and conflict.

Creating digital trust networks

Online and SMS platforms can be used not just to transmit messages instantly, but also to form longer term relationships and regular exchanges (that may remain digitally-focused, or spill over into offline, in-person interactions). Local peacebuilders are using groups on social media, mobile chat rooms and dedicated networking platforms to nurture exchanges between groups that are divided by conflict lines. Soliya’s Connect Program is an online cross-cultural education program targeting young people in the West and in “predominantly Muslim societies.” Soliya facilitators accompany groups of ten students who meet online to talk about everyday life and culture, but also about controversial social and political issues. Run by the Parents Circle – Families Forum, Crack in the Wall is an online platform for conversation and engagement between families who have lost a family member as a result of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The platform organizes “Round Tables” for facilitated (and translated) conversation and also gives users the opportunity to watch videos uploaded by others showing their daily life, and to upload their own. In Cyprus, UNDP has built an online community of people and organizations working to transform the island’s frozen conflict. Mahallae records the history of peacebuilding and provides a space for collaboration on innovative projects.

Counteracting calls for violence

Peace Txt

Too often, technology tools are used to actively solicit and organize violent actions. Local peacebuilders are using the same tools as violent groups to counter negative campaigns by mobilizing collective expression of positive messaging.
Too often, technology tools are used to actively solicit and organize violent actions. Violent groups are known to recruit using social media. Calls to violent action spread fastest over mobile phones and the internet. Local peacebuilders are using the same tools as violent groups to counter negative campaigns by mobilizing collective expression of positive messaging. Kenyan NGO Sisi Ni Amani runs the PeaceTXTprogram, which aims to contact people in at-risk areas in order to propose a moment of reflection at critical times when calls to violence are spreading. Community informers identify such critical times and report to the Sisi Ni Amani team, who then consider whether a targeted SMS could interrupt escalation. In the aftermath of the London 2011 riots, vInspired ran the ReverseRiots campaign. The campaign provided a digital space for young people to share a positive action they had taken in their community, allowing them to take pride in positive behaviour and showing others in the community that not all youth were rioters. HarassMap is an SMS reporting system for women experiencing sexual harassment in Egypt. It is helping women reclaim spaces and counteract sexist messages that spread easily on social media.

From technology, to civic engagement, to peace

Powerful technology tools are increasing in the hands of local peacebuilders, and this is resulting in a proliferation of innovative initiatives. But does this collection of technology for peace initiatives really constitute an alternative infrastructure for peace, comparable to larger, better resourced and more traditional peacebuilding institutions? Daniel Kreiss describes socio-technical infrastructures as “the technical artefacts, organizational forms, and social practices that provide background contexts for action.” As a technical infrastructure, technology for peace is a series of tools that allow local peacebuilders to communicate with more people in more ways, collect better information and sustain relationships on digital platforms. As an organizational infrastructure, it is a means by which communities build new participatory processes, foster deeper collaborations and assume collective responsibility for building peace. As a social infrastructure, it circulates ideas and creates consensus about the importance of civic, grassroots engagement in peacebuilding.

What’s really interesting about tech-enabled peacebuilding initiatives is that they shift the balance of power. Thanks to these tools and the social and organizational forms they help create, local peacebuilders are now better equipped to challenge state-sanctioned or socially normative narratives and notions of identity. Technology can shape the future of local peacebuilding. The Build Peace team has set up a small organization – Build Up – that will focus on supporting the emergence of these alternative infrastructures.

As we look into the future, there is one question that I’m still wondering about. How will these alternative infrastructures work with more traditional infrastructures for peace? Or as my colleague Rodrigo likes to ask: can an alternative method of getting something done not only get it done, but also exert influence on an existing (sometimes broken) method?

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Comments

Sommerlad on June 6, 2014, 2:35 p.m.

Great work, Helena!!!! Complimenti!

Noel Dickover on June 6, 2014, 8:26 p.m.

In answer to your last question, "How will these alternative infrastructures work with more traditional infrastructures for peace?", I think the answer lies with engaging more with "traditional" peacebuilders, both to expose them to alternative options, and then to work closely with them to provide the scaffolding they need to experiment with these new options. This approach means things like BuildPeace are critical for advancing the state of practice in the field, but more is needed. Access to resources, and more critically, pathfinders who can help with the experimentation process. More fundemental is the change in funding needed - something that allows more experimentation before project design and metrics are set.

Judith Omondi on June 6, 2014, 8:44 p.m.

This is great work Helena. Please keep us engaged on these developments and how we can best utilise new areas of technology to enhance what we already started with CRMA in South Sudan.

Peter Mwamachi on June 9, 2014, 7:06 a.m.

I think it is very possible for the Alternative infrastructures to be compatible with the more traditional infrastructures as you put it and not just work but produce real results. The process of fusing these infrastructures for me is the key. Once its gotten right then the two should complement each other and fill in the gaps since none is 100% perfect. The use of technology has really gained currency and to overlook the alternative infrastructures is a folly but then again in settings where they have hitherto not been employed it would have to be on an incremental and complementary basis.

Olalekan Augustine Babatunde on June 11, 2014, 1:25 p.m.

Helena, good work. Here in Africa, to accept change takes time, especially what technology offers. A lot are still illiterate and ignorant. Many still do not know how to send sms, not to talk of using smartphones. They only make use of voice call. So traditional peacebuilders need to be carried along in each step of the way. Trust and confidence building is paramount. They need to trust who, what, why, where and others in the dissemination of information and communication.

Ruairi on June 11, 2014, 2:40 p.m.

It's fascinating reading about the different ways technology can be used to build peace at the community level. I would encourage any groups working in this area to consider entering our competition for local peacebuilders on this page: http://www.insightonconflict.org/tomorrows-peacebuilders/ . We're keen to find innovative peacebuilding groups and so have a particular interest in the new ways technology can be used for peacebuilding.

Miguel Angel Prieto Vaz on July 4, 2014, 11:06 a.m.

thanks Helena for sharing this reflection. I think that technology can be an enabling or disabling factor for peace depending on the capacity of power actors. It is another tool in the kit of the actors. Peace activist should take advantage of its benefits (and "Build Up" can be rellevant for this) but nothing prevent war actors to use them as well. Besides, we have to acknowledge that a lot of people affected by violent conflict do not spend a lot of their time in the digital world. Therefore, impact of tech initiatives may be quite limited for them.