Q&A: Communicating peace

Paul Currion

What exactly is ‘peacebuilding’?
Peacebuilding isn’t just about high-level diplomacy, but also the combined efforts of different groups at different levels that make peace possible and durable. But it’s important to recognize that those efforts don’t always mesh smoothly. In Darfur, for example, both human rights and humanitarian organizations both have an interest in building peace. But the advocacy work of human rights groups – which can be highly critical of the Sudanese government – is not always supported by the humanitarian aid agencies, which need the cooperation of the government if they are to continue to help the people of Darfur.

Darfur has also shown the scope of ICTs to help in these situations – but also their limitations. The Crisis in Darfur and Eyes on Darfur projects (see page 8) both harness geospatial data to present a picture of the situation that simply would not have been possible even five years ago. These are valuable educational and advocacy tools for people not working in the field, but they don’t necessarily have an impact on the humanitarian assistance operations in Darfur itself.

How can small organizations or individuals use ICTs to contribute to peacebuilding efforts?
Peacebuilding efforts have the most impact before and after armed conflicts, so it’s vital that we look at how ICTs can support peace initiatives now, rather than when war breaks out. One of the biggest challenges for us is to see how we can extend the reach of technologies to help the communities affected by conflict. Strengthening community links, developing economic activities, improving lines of communication – all of these are essential. The real strength of the newer technologies is that more people now have access to them and can use them more creatively. If you have a radio set, you can only tune in to whatever is being broadcast. But if you have a computer with an internet connection, you can set up your own radio station over the web, share your experiences on a blog, contribute to a software development project for disaster management (such as Sahana), or document human rights abuses on websites like Ushahidi.

Has the technology used in peacebuilding changed over the years, if so, how?
Technology has completely transformed our approach to peacebuilding. This really started in the 1990s, with the advent of projects that introduced radio, television and video elements into peacebuilding projects. One well known example is the Video Letters project, which promotes reconciliation between people on different sides of a conflict through the exchange of video messages. Since the end of the 1990s, the spread of the internet and cellphone networks have started to change things even more – not just improving access but also increasing the versatility of communications. The best example of this is the use of SMS as a cheap and simple notification system. We saw this most recently in Kenya, where people used mobile phones both to provoke and prevent the post-election violence.

But it is important to remember that older technologies are still very effective. Radio in particular still has much wider coverage than almost any other form of mass media or personal communication. We need to make sure we take advantage of existing technology, even when we’re excited by the new possibilities. We also need to bear in mind that communications technologies can be used both to promote and to undermine peace. The experience in Rwanda, where radio broadcasts were used to incite the hatred that led to the 1994 genocide (see page 7), showed that everyone involved in peacebuilding needs to stay alert to these sorts of uses, and be ready to combat them using their own technical capacity.

How is the use of technology for peacebuilding likely to change in the future?
Geospatial technology will transform the way that people look at the world. Tools like Google Earth and Google Maps offer access to mapping technology for free. Projects like MapAction and CartONG are beginning to show how that technology can be used in the field. Mobile phones will become ever more versatile, and will be used in many different ways during conflicts. More affordable computing and better web access (probably through mobile phone networks) will also provide greater opportunities for people to start building their own approaches to peacebuilding.

Hardware has become more durable, portable, energy efficient and cheaper, which means that smaller organizations can have better access to ICTs. However, I worry about internet connectivity and electricity supply. The problem is that we live in a patchwork world where some areas are extremely well covered and others not at all. This patchwork could increase the differences between people who have access to technology and those who don’t, leaving behind those most in need.

What is important is not the technology itself, but how people use it. In the future, many new peacebuilding initiatives will emerge from the people who are themselves affected by conflict – and it will be technology that will make many of those initiatives possible.

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is a consultant specializing in information management for humanitarian operations . For more about his work visit www.humanitarian.info.

04 June 2008

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