Building a Platform for Peace

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Sean McDonald is the chief executive officer of FrontlineSMS and director of the FrontlineSMS: Legal project, following a diverse career in international development, legal services, and the U.S. Senate. 1

mobile-solutions-eco-small Peacebuilding is fundamentally about managing relationships, and there is nothing that technology effects more: Whether it is the relationships between institutions, ideologies, or individuals, the invention and adoption of new technology platforms change the way we interact. Every new tool, from the mobile phone to Facebook, increases the number of voices that can be involved in the dialogues that affect us all. Few disciplines have as much to gain from new technologies as peacebuilding does; it is incumbent on all practitioners to identify both the peacebuilding and technological platforms that offer the greatest opportunity for effect and, ultimately, a more peaceful world.

Peacebuilders all over the world have taken advantage of the new communication dynamics to reduce violence in contentious situations.

Whether by necessity or design, peacebuilders all over the world have taken advantage of the new communication dynamics to reduce violence in contentious situations. Specifically, new technologies are being used in a wide variety of contexts to improve early warning systems, create inclusive dialogues, and organize response systems, directly reducing the risks and effects of violent conflict. In Southern Kivu, Uganda, peacebuilders used Voix de Kivu—a project that combines FrontlineSMS, a text messaging (SMS) platform, and Ushahidi, a mapping platform—to enable citizens to warn each other about impending violence in real time. Similarly, Radio for Peacebuilding, an organization formed in the late 1980s to report on conflict prevention using a radio platform, now uses SMS-contributed content to shape its peace-promoting programming, building a constituency of (and empowering) women who have historically been excluded from the dialogues that most affect them. During the Arab Spring, activists used Facebook to organize protestors, warning them of impending government crackdowns and violence.

Both peacebuilding and technology programs rely on good design. Those making design decisions, however, usually focus on the problems each approach solves, ignoring the choices those same decisions rule out. Peacebuilding programs are no different. Every choice, whether the context is governance, natural resources, or sports, includes and marginalizes groups of people. Choosing a location isolates those who live far away. Natural resource management programs exclude those without access to or knowledge of their rights. Using sports as a vehicle for peacebuilding excludes populations who are not interested or cannot participate in them. All aspects of peacebuilding programs are designed to target a population and address the drivers of conflict, but they inherently exclude populations who are not directly involved.

Technology programs are no different. Communication platforms are intended to remove barriers, but in doing so, have made design decisions that favor specific groups. Every new communication platform, from the printing press to the television to the mobile phone, has profoundly affected how we relate to one another. Common languages enabled people to communicate with one another, but require the ability to hear. The written word allowed the communication to be asynchronous, but requires the ability to read. Shipping and postal systems let communication be remote, but require roads, addresses, and proximity to a shipping center. The telephone let that remote communication be instantaneous, but requires the audience to buy devices. The printing press, radio, and television allowed a few to communicate with many. The Internet and mobile phone allow many to communicate with many, and not only are people communicating in different ways, but the increasing reach of each of these tools means that previously disconnected populations now can participate in the dialogues and decisions that affect their lives. The adoption of new forms of communication, whether through technology or peacebuilding paradigms, is not just a change in habit, but a process of social transformation.

Like peacebuilding, each technology platform offers strengths and weaknesses in terms of social transformation. The value of communications platforms is directly proportionate to the number of people and organizations that use them. So for example, by 2011 Facebook had 1 billion registered users, making it the world’s largest online social network. During the same period, 2.3 billion people had access to the Internet, enabling them to engage over e-mail, online forums, and other web-based services. The most transformative of these platforms in 2011, though, was the mobile phone—with more than 6.6 billion active connections, 3.2 billion unique users, and more than 7.8 trillion text messages sent. Each platform has its idiosyncrasies, enabling different depths of interaction with disparate groups of people. The growing reach of all of these tools, when used effectively, presents the opportunity to connect the world’s most vulnerable populations to participate in the dialogues and decisions that have historically excluded them. The process of designing a platform best fit for engagement, whether through peacebuilding or technology, depends on the target audience for the intervention.

This is not to suggest that new communication tools are used exclusively to promote peace. In Kenya, Nigeria, and other places, individuals have used technologies to spread hate messages, political parties and their lobbying interests have used them to scare people away from the polls, and governments frequently filter the Internet to deny citizens access to information or oppositional perspectives and track social networks to track and harm activists. Technology-empowered programs also create their own set of concerns—among them, issues of data quality, security, and practical inclusion. But the way we communicate is changing, and it is vitally important to figure out how to embrace these changes and new tools to build the foundations of a more peaceful world. It has never been more crucial to invest in the tools, communication platforms, and relationships that bring peace to those who need it most.

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