Building Peace through Information and Communications Technologies
Information and communication technologies can be a huge aid in the effort to build lasting peace, by helping people communicate, view information, make decisions, and understand each other better. Teresa Crawford and Skip Cole give a tour of the possibilities.
Peace is not created with a one-time act: the cease-fire, accord, or reconciliation is just a public point on a timeline between war and durable peace. True peace is built over time, with many different processes and approaches that move conflict into lasting, peaceful relationships. It requires action at many different levels, by different people, in different ways, and at different points in a conflict.
Activities can be as diverse as alternative dispute resolution (arbitration, mediation, negotiation), reconciliation, peacekeeping (both civilian and military), conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction, institutional and organizational capacity building, demobilization and reintegration, monitoring and advocacy, conflict transformation, psychosocial rehabilitation, and rule of law. These peace-building methods, as part of a cohesive long term strategy, target both the root causes of a conflict and the violence that may result.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs)– hardware and software that helps people communicate, understand data, and learn, via tools such as computers, the internet, mobile phones, and more - can be a tremendous help in implementing these peace-building methods. For instance:
In the Philippines, large scale demonstrations organized via cell phones and SMS were a major factor in forcing President Joseph Estrada to resign, thus bringing about change without large-scale violence.
- The United States Army ispiloting a hand held systemthat contains maps and descriptions of civilian and militia inhabitants to help them gain a deeper understanding of the communities in which they are serving as peacekeepers. These kinds of handheld human terrain tools are also being put to use by humanitarian relief organizations working in places recovering from conflict.
- During the fighting in Burundi, online discussion groups hosted by Burundinet and the Burundi Youth Council allowed Burundi of different backgrounds to discuss the situation, debate root causes, and figure out ways to move forward, after it became difficult to physically meet.
- The serviceVideoletters.net captures video messages from former neighbors and friends and broadcasts them via public access channels throughout the countries of the Former Yugoslavia, allowing those who lost contact in the wars to reconnect.
As with all technologies, these tools are just a means to an end. In order to effectively employ them, it’s crucial to start by thinking through the goals of your peacemaking efforts. What type of peace are you trying to build? With whom do you want to build the peace? Where do you want to focus your efforts? When is the most appropriate time to intercede? What do you want to achieve? How best can you reach your target audiences?
In general, information and communication technologies can be used in peacemaking efforts in six different ways:
- To provide information
- To help people process information
- To improve decision making
- To reduce scarcity
- To support relationships
- To help people understand each other
Let's consider how technologies can aid these peacemaking tactics one by one.
Information can be a huge boon in peace-building operations, by strengthening the ties between individuals and communities and improving their ability to share, learn and interact with one another. Greater information also means a better ability to understand situations and act accordingly. For example:
- Internet connectivity. The internet itself is a huge boon to information sharing. However, as connecting to the internet is a challenge in many places in the world, increasing information flow first means increasing connectivity. A number of tools enable users to connect to the Internet where commercial ventures can’t or won’t provide service. For instance, the Inveneo Communications System is designed to provide computing, Internet Access and VoIP telephony for areas with few resources and less then hospitable climates. The rugged communications hub can run off solar power, an electrical grid or be powered by other means such as pedal power. In the volatile northern provinces of Uganda, Inveneo connected relief organizations and greatly improved the efficiency and effectiveness of their work, while at the same time building a foundation for future use of ICTs once the conflict has ended.
- Mobile technology, cell phones and personal data assistants (PDAs). Personal communication devices can dramatically increase the flow of information, even in places where few other ICTs are available. For instance, in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa theUmNyango Project is using SMS technology to allow those with cell phones to access information and report violence against women and children, as well as violations of women's right to own land.
- Geographic information systems (GIS). GIS systems – software that captures, stores, and analyzes data tied to geographic locations - can be used to help track refugee movement, maintain observation of borders (which are often not obvious from the ground), and record where atrocities have occurred. Names and borders are often in flux in turbulent areas, making electronic maps constructed using geographic coordinates much more reliable than paper maps.
- Satellite imagery. Amnesty International is now inviting everyday citizens to monitor high resolution satellite imagery focused on 12 villages in high risk areas in Sudan, via the website Eyes on Darfur. While this is a new use of technology for Amnesty and its ultimate utility will need to be judged, one trend is clear - this type of technology will make it harder for regimes to take action in the dark.
- E-mail discussion lists and forums. Email lists and website forums can connect communities and encourage ongoing conversations, even among citizens directly involved in a conflict and those in the diaspora. Throughout the wars in the Former Yugoslavia, lists were formed both within ethnic communities and across them to improve the quality and quantity of information emerging from the conflicts. More formal online communities such as theeDemocracy Issues Forumsupport community discussions and debates, improve government transparency and engage citizens in dialogue about issues important to them.
- Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC is a solid, reliable method of facilitating anonymous, recorded group discussions over the internet. With a skilled facilitator and communication guidelines, IRC can be a very effective methods to allow groups to anonymously conduct negotiations or discuss sensitive issues. This and other chat tools, such as Skype and MSN Messenger, have been used to facilitate online discussions among both small and large groups.
- Radio. In the age of connectivity the lines between traditional media have blurred. Radio stations are now broadcasting via the Internet, and community-based stations find content to augment their local broadcasts by searching the web. In many communities, radio is the only link to the outside world. For instance, Search for Common Ground has launched Radio for Peacebuilding Africa, which aims to develop, spread and encourage the use of radio broadcasting techniques and content for peace-building. A joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station, Radio All for Peacehelps to bridge the divide between Palestinian and Israeli society through stories of interest to both.
Helping People Process Information
- Websites and information portals. Web sites can provide critical filters and viewpoints on the avalanche of information. For instance, theInternational Network to Promote the Rule of Law(INPROL) web site provides a central place where field practitioners can look up information and contact experts. TheProgram on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at the Harvard School of Public Health runs a Portal Development Unit, which gives policymakers and practitioners easy access to information on human security and conflict prevention and allows users to create virtual networks with counterparts to share common concerns.
- Data visualization tools. A visual representation can be critical in understand massive amounts of data. For instance, the Tunisian Prison Map plots the location of documented and secret prisons on a Google Map to illustrate the reach of a repressive government, and linking to information and video about the dissidents held at these sites. Another application, the Global Internet Filtering Map from the OpenNet Initiative, maps regions where information about particular armed conflicts, border disputes, separatist movements, and militant groups is banned by countries around the world.
- Online Dispute Resolution tools. Tools that map out the conflict and influences on each party can greatly help in processing information. Online Dispute Resolution Tools (ODR) frame arguments and help participants to resolve conflicts peacefully using online debate, negotiation, arbitration and mediation tools. For instance, the online tool Synanin can be used by groups to answer and debate questions, visualize the branches and forks of different types of arguments, and eventually reach consensus.
- Virtual command centers. Online command or operations centers can allow many people spread across different continents to look at the same information. Imagine a dozen people from different backgrounds (generals, ambassadors, Peace Corp workers, etc.) all looking at an online map. The map is overlaid with information about the region - locations of people, food, and rebel groups, the general level of disaffection, etc. – which they can collectively modify to make more accurate. As all the collaborators are working from a shared common model, they can begin to communicate better. This type of technology is not yet prevalent, but its use is expanding. For example, members of George Mason University's Peace Operations Program set up a similar Command Center for the Swedish government, which they called an 'Aquarium.'
Improving Decision Making
The state of peace or conflict is often greatly influenced by a single decision. Technology can help to improve decision making skills, the ability to see the critical information and likely results of decisions, and the environment in which decisions are made. For example:
- Games and simulations.Games and simulations can provide an incomparable learning environment. Players can learn what works in a safe virtual environment, and thus improve their decision making in the real world. Games can be used to increase skills, spread information, introduce concepts and generally increase awareness and understanding. For instance, the Center for Nonviolent Conflict created a game called A Force More Powerful to teach the skills required for in nonviolent conflict. The game simulates nonviolent struggles to win freedom and secure human rights inspired by history. Players can devise strategies, apply tactics and see the results.
- Online Dispute Resolution tools. In addition to helping to process information, ODR tools can facilitate better decisions. For instance,SpaceDebate.org, a website built is built using s ORR software called Open Debate Engine, allows users to publicly discuss the many aspects of space weaponization. A structured debate like this can make it much easier to see all the points of view and come to an effective decision.
Conflict has many possible causes, but scarcity of resources – food, water, money - is often a contributing factor. Technologies that alleviate or change relative scarcity can improve efforts to bring about peace. For example:
- Mobile phones. Easy communication technologies like mobile phones can greatly increase the efficiency of markets, especially in the developing world. For example, a fisherman can use a cell phone to find the market with the highest price and reduce the amount of wasted catch. According to a recent article in the Economist, fishermen's profits rose by 8% on average and consumer prices fell by 4% on average through better communication. As part of a peace process, militia members are often encouraged to turn in their guns for monthly stipends and training. This is a process known as demilitarization, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). It has been difficult to perform in parts of the world without a well developed banking sector. In West Africa, users of Safaricom'smobile service can now send money via cell phone which can greatly aid in conducting DDR operations and reintegrating ex-warriors into society.
- Handhelds. Simple, portable technologies such as handhelds can help monitor resources to prevent misuse or population. For instance, local water management boards are relying heavily on handhelds to help them better monitor water resources to ensure upstream consumers do not overuse or pollute water before downstream users can benefit. This method has shown promise in stemming some of the conflict in Central Asia where conflicts over water from two rivers which flow to the Aral Sea have threatened already fragile relations.
ICTs can be a tremendous help to those trying to maintain or form new relationships. The ability to communicate through the written word, photos, sound clips, video clips, and web cameras can keep people connected regardless of how far apart they are geographically. For example:
- Social networking tools.MySpace, Change.org,LinkedIn, Meetup, Ning, and other social networking sites help like minded individuals connect and collaborate on issues, causes and projects of shared interest. For instance, the peace movement in the United States has used these venues as a key way of finding new supporters, and organizing rallies, marches, and protests.
- Online collaboration tools. Tools such asGroove, Citadel, Zimbra,Basecamp, and others allow geographically dispersed teams to maintain their own shared workspaces where they can share files, set up threaded discussions, and more. For instance, Infoshare in Sri Lanka used a customized version of Groove to help bring together parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka into a shared, online, secure collaborative workspace.
- Cell phones. Mobile technologies such as cell phones are also very useful to support relationships, especially in countries which use various forms of censorship to control communications. Cell phones are a key way to facilitate a “smart mob” - a highly networked group of people that can react extremely quickly in changing circumstances. Smart mobs organized via SMS have had impact across the world: in the Phillipines, large scale demonstrations organized via SMS are credited with bringing down President Joseph Estrada. In South Korea, groups of students organized using SMS to protest the intense entrance exams for elite universities.
- Telecentres. Most of the technology implementations described above have been virtual, accessible via the Internet or other communications devices. But in addition, Telecentres and Community Technology Centres have in some communities become an important physical meeting place where community groups can gather, plans are hatched, campaigns are developed and connections are made to diaspora and international solidarity communities. In Colombia, a community run telecentre supported by IDRC served as a hub for a fast growing peace and protest march. Communicating via e-mail from the telecentre protesters were able to connect with other supporters throughout the country. Telecentre.org, an initiative of Microsoft and IDRC (International Development Research Centre) is working to support and expand the global telecentre movement. Not everyone agrees that the access to information and community building aspects of telecentres are good things, however. In May 2007 gunmen raided Al Wafa Net, an Internet cafe, in the Khan Yunis camp in Gaza. They held the 17 young men who were using the computers at gunpoint and destroyed the computers.
Helping People Understand Each Other
Increased understanding – of different cultures, languages, and concerns – can go a long way toward reducing conflict. Communication technologies, especially the internet, can make distant situations more understandable and other people seem more like us. For example:
- Translation software. Literally understanding each other’s language is a first step to deeper understanding. While the tools for automated translation are in its infancy, it will be important to watch how it develops. The United States Department of Defense has invested millions in the development of handheld translation devices to aid soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Translation is not an easy challenge: sometimes words appear to translate across language barriers, but secretly hide deep cultural differences of perspective.
- Blogs. Reading informal accounts of events or lives through a blog can be a powerful way to understand different cultures and ways of life. The Global Voicesonline network, for instance, was formed to highlight, support and amplify the voices of those who are often underrepresented by traditional media. The network focuses on supporting bloggers who blog in countries and on topics that rarely get mainstream coverage.
- Social networking tools. Millions of people have put up personal profiles, with statements, photographs, and more on web sites such as MySpace andFlickr. Like blogs, these profiles can help to understand people who are different than us, and show the similarities across cultures and geographical boundaries.
- Multimedia. Audio and video can have an enormous impact on bridging real or imagined divides between people. For instance,Videoletters.net uses video to capture messages from former neighbors and friends looking to reconnect with friends lost in the wars in the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, or reconcile with others. Initially the producers would track down the lost friends and reunite them via video or in person, but the greater impact of the project came when the videos were broadcast on public access channels throughout the countries of the Former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia- Hercegovina, for instance, Pale's mayor recorded a video letter to mayors across the former Yugoslavia, while the mayor of Srebrenica, where 7,000 Muslims were massacred in 1995, sent a conciliatory message back. WITNESS, a pioneer in the use of video for activism, recently partnered with Global Voices to launch a human rights video hub. Video can be submitted by anyone on topics ranging from violence against women, disputes over land use to state sponsored violence.
Building Lasting Peace
Technologies can’t create peace. But they can certainly contribute to an environment where people can more easily communicate, understand the current situation, visualize the implications of their actions, understand each other’s point of view, and form meaningful relationships with people who are geographically or culturally distant. All of these are important aids in the peace-building process, as we move, one step at a time, towards a world of lasting peace.
For More Information
Bombs and Bandwidth
An online book that explores the ways in which information technology (IT) has become central to the way governments, businesses, social movements and even terrorist and criminal organizations pursue their increasingly globalized objectives.
ICT for Peacebuilding Blog
A blog devoted to ICT For Peace issues
UN ICT4Peace Report
The UN ICT Task Force publishes and distributes a ICT4Peace report
Del.icio.us Links for ICT4Peace
A collection of links related to ICT for Peace issues
The MobileActive site provides many examples of the use of cell phones and SMS for organizing
This article is part of a larger ICTs4Peace research project funded by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase peacebuilding capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.
Ronald "Skip" Cole is a Senior Program Officer for the Professional Training Program at United States Institute of Peace. He has extensive experience in the field of simulation, both in terms of content and technology. He was a nuclear reactor operator in the Navy, has worked for a number of private sector firms (including Arthur Andersen) and has teaching experience. He has a master’s in biophysics and computational biology from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in global management from the University of Phoenix.
Teresa Crawford is the Director of the Advocacy and Leadership Center at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an community development organization based in Vermont. Since 1998 she has worked withThe Advocacy Project and as a strategic technology consultant in over 30 countries helping community based
groups make better use of information technology in their work.
Copyright United States Institute of Peace. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.