Peacebuilding Reboot

Sheldon Himelfarb is the president and chief executive officer of the PeaceTech Lab and the founding director of the Centers of Innovation for Media and Technology at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has developed and managed peacebuilding programs in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa, and received the Capitol Area Peace Maker Award from American University (Washington, DC). Sheldon tweets at @shimelfarb. 5

In December, I met three inspiring girls in Mumbai, India. They were all about 13 years old and they had come from Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, to demonstrate the mobile app they had developed to counter gender violence. The app sounded an alarm, sent a help message to friends, and shared their location—it was simple but effective.

Theirs is a case study in the democratization of information and capital flows around the world. Working on a shared laptop, they accessed Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s do-it-yourself app-maker program to build their prototype. Connecting via Skype with the PeaceTech team in Washington, DC, they receive weekly development assistance to prepare their app for release on the Google Play Store. With help from friends and fans around the world, they are crowdsourcing funds to share the app more widely and perhaps even make a small profit.

A few months earlier, I met a 28-year-old activist from Syria named Dlshad Othman. Dlshad had made headlines with Aymta, a mobile app he created and launched with modest personal startup funds, that tracks the trajectory of missiles fired in Syria and sends a warning to Aymta’s subscribers. But Dlshod did not stop there. Determined to save lives through technology, he also created two other applications: Uvirtus, a system that allows Syrians to securely post videos of the conflict to YouTube, and Collabase, a suite of collaboration tools bringing together human rights activists in the Middle East.

These young entrepreneurs for social good represent a sea of change taking place in the conflict resolution field. The past three decades saw an increasing professionalization of our field: exponential growth in university degree programs, NGOs, and international organizations with dedicated programs in conflict resolution, as well as the development of taxonomies and metrics to gauge effectiveness.

The next three decades may be characterized by exponential growth around the world in projects for, and by, people like the Dharavi girls or Dlshad. Some might see this shift as the antithesis of professionalization; I see it as a reboot. Conflict prevention and peacebuilding are getting a new cast of characters and an exciting new script.

This script includes the birth of the peacetech industry, where democratized access to information and capital produce innovations that save lives and create jobs. It includes the story of a hacker space (community-operated workspace where technology enthusiasts meet and innovate) launched in Baghdad with a $30,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, giving young entrepreneurs a place to share ideas for solving Iraq’s problems and build a business while doing it.

Such information and capital access is slow in coming to war-torn countries, but it is coming nonetheless. Conflict zones that were once information and technology wastelands yield vast new information on human sentiment—the DNA of conflict—thanks to the penetration of social media, cellphones, and other data sources. Extraordinary progress in machine learning and predictive analytics is revolutionizing conflict early warning, while local communities are pioneering creative response strategies to tackle age-old drivers of conflict from religion to resources, corruption to gender. PeaceTXT,, Hollaback, LRA Tracker, Groundviews, YaLa, Exchange 2.0, UProxy—the list of peacetech projects is exploding.

Fueling the peacetech explosion is a new type of funder. The overwhelming majority of conflict resolution work in the 1990s and 2000s was funded by governments. Today’s peacetech projects are launched by digital humanitarians bootstrapping their own startups, often with financial or in-kind support from technology companies and foundations created by technology titans and their families: Gates, Omidyar, Skoll, Bezos, and Case, to name just a few. We are also seeing a rethink of traditional nonprofit models, as organizations like Ushahidi, Frontline SMS, and Development Seed have created for-profit entities designed to produce revenue even as they remain true to their ideals of using tech for social good.

The burst of innovation in violence prevention by individuals and local communities is unprecedented. It represents the mainstreaming of conflict management and a new potential for broad participation in peacebuilding throughout society, with the ever-greater effect on lives saved that comes with scale. Realizing the full potential of these trends, however, requires one more shift in the way we, as peacebuilders,work.

“Some might see this shift as the antithesis of professionalization; I see it as a reboot. Conflict prevention and peacebuilding are getting a new cast of characters and an exciting new script. This script includes the birth of the peacetech industry, where democratized access to information and capital produce innovations that save lives and create jobs.”


The bread and butter of conflict prevention and peacebuilding continue to be promoting rule of law, sustainable economies, good governance, and social well-being. Peacebuilders help displaced people in conflict zones return to their homes–which might be occupied by members of an opposing ethnic group–without violence. We facilitate peaceful elections in communities that may never have held elections before. We help negotiate compromises over scarce resources, like water, between angry communities.

Peacebuilders have evolved from a nexus of professionals from abroad to increasingly local facilitators, citizen peacebuilders, technologists, and NGOs, but the work remains rooted in complex human dynamics. In preventing violence, realizing the bounty of democratized information and capital flows will require cross-discipline expertise, combining the knowledge of social scientists with data scientists, the knowledge of conflict experts with technologists and engineers. We will need institutions and processes that prize radical collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurship to empower this modern facet of growth.

At the U.S. Institute of Peace, we have recently launched the PeaceTech Lab, a place where technologists and peacebuilders from conflict zones can work shoulder to shoulder every day, creating new tools to reduce violent conflict around the world. It is reminiscent of the storied Bell Labs, founded almost a century ago, where unrelenting commitment to cross-discipline collaboration was key to its success in developing technologies that changed the world.

For 25 years, I have watched and benefited greatly from the professionalization of conflict management and peacebuilding. We have seen dramatic increases in demand from policymakers, generals, and activists for the skills and experience of conflict resolution practitioners, and this dynamic seems poised to continue. The reboot we are seeing foretells a new world, where information and capital flows are democratized along with the skills and knowhow for preventing and defusing deadly violence.

Although it may not seem like it from the daily news of insurgencies, terrorist attacks, and beheadings, we have already reaped some of the benefits according to the macro trends captured by experts like Steven Pinker and others, who count casualties across the generations, military and civilian. Of course, the positive trends could be reversed, given the power of technology for mass murder and destruction. But I am optimistic. As Bill Ury, co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, remarked recently, “wars are predictable and preventable.” Perhaps now, we can train ourselves to predict and prevent.

(Feature Photo Credit: Steve Evans via Flickr)
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