Questions on ICT4Peace: A response to Paul Currion

Paul Currion’s blog post in response to one on the ICT4Peace Foundation that appeared recently in Fortune Magazine is delicious food for thought. There are a whole range of questions and challenges Paul addresses and proposes, of which I thought I would respond to a few in my capacity as a practitioner of ICT4Peace in Sri Lanka. I have, in fact, learned tremendously from Paul’s own work and it’s because of the report he was part of that I am today associated with some of the work on ICT4Peace at a global level.

To make it explicit however, though I am as Paul notes associated with the ICT4Peace Foundation, these thoughts are my own, not necessarily reflecting the opinion of the Foundation and primarily based on work in the field in the area of ICT4Peace in a country that’s going no closer to peace, for over 8 years.

  • Paul notes that,

“Daniel is entirely correct that technology isn’t being used as effectively as it could be in our work, and correct that the issue isn’t the technology itself. He believes the problem is one of leadership – I believe that the problem is one of management, but I’m willing to believe that we’re talking about roughly the same thing.”

  • I think it is both a question of leadership and management. I understand leadership as those who are responsible for decisions to share information they have or have access to. Leadership therefore is seen (or not) across many levels in an organisation. Accordingly, the awareness of and approach to knowledge sharing within and between organisations is is deeply influenced by the attitudes and practices of the leaders they work with and report to. When these leaders are averse to information sharing, my experience is that no matter what technology you introduce to the workflow and how easy it is to use, they will simply not avail themselves of it to the fullest and in a sustained manner.
  • Often, it’s the senior (in terms of age as well as experience) leaders who are the most resistant to ICTs and the idea of ICTs, which holds them and their work more accountable within the organisation, its donors and most feared of all, amongst their beneficiaries. Unless clear, immediate and sustained benefits of using ICTs are seen by these leaders, in a manner that does not vitiate, inter alia, their reputation, the office they hold, their social standing and the organisation’s ability to secure funding, they will not buy into it. The prospect of having someone from the field make direct contact with donors by-passing implementing agencies is from experience precisely what makes many organisation’s fear ICTs, instead of embracing them.
  • Paul’s right that it’s not always the IT administrator who is the gatekeeper. But I do believe that its often a case of bad or inadequate leadership, and not just at the senior levels of an organisation, that significantly contributes to the confounded problem of information sharing. This failure of leadership in an organisation at many levels requires a change in management style to bring in, encourage and meaningfully support new (young, but not necessarily so) thought-leaders more attuned to the potential of ICTs in peacebuilding, conflict management et al.
  • Paul goes on to maintain that:

“The part I disagree with here is that it’s not the IT people who are telling their directors what information they have or don’t have, since IT people in general have no involvement with the information that goes through their systems. It’s the programmes and operations people who are responsible for this, and also for determining what they need to know. The thing is, we already know what we need to know – it’s just that we’re not very good at a) getting it and b) sharing it.”

  • From experience, because of the relative ignorance / suspicion of ICTs by leadership at all levels of management (from the field to the HQ), IT administrators are often the de facto architects of an organisation’s ICT policy, including what systems to procure and use on their networks. Many of these IT administrators are well trained in robust, industry grade applications and network management, but don’t always understand the demands placed on ICT systems and the importance of appropriate technologies in the context of peacebuilding. You can have for example, wholly inappropriate software and hardware combinations (that look great on paper), prone to failure, for mission critical processes such as Ceasefire and Human Rights monitoring and civilian protection.
  • My experience is that new media and new technologies, ranging from wikis to mobiles (and software like FrontlineSMS), from blogs and collaboration suites like Groove Virtual Office, are unknown to many IT administrators. What is more, when introduced to them, their first and sadly, sometimes only reaction is that they constitute threats to established network security and information exchange protocols, thereby severely vitiating the ability of progressive thought-leaders in organisation from sharing information and knowledge.
  • On the other hand, my experience is that programme and operations people also don’t always like to share information. They may well be forced to on occasion, but the best I guess one can expect is for precisely that – ways in which a shared and urgent goal (such as immediate disaster response) can be coordinated and designed in such a manner to facilitate intra and inter-organisational collaboration. When Paul says that we aren’t good at getting what we know we need to know and then sharing it, he hits the nail on the head. My experience is that many often concentrate on getting the information they need, but once they do, don’t share it to others who may also benefit. Ergo, I tend to disagree with Paul when he says that:

    “I’m not sure that groups “resist” sharing information, because that suggests that they’re actively hoarding it – and my experience is that they’re usually quite happy to share it, but they’re a) busy responding to a disaster and b) the mechanisms aren’t in place to share.”

    • I wish I could believe the same! Honestly though, NGOs in Sri Lanka and in Nepal, two countries I have significant experience in working in from HQ to field level on ICT systems and processes deeply linked to their respective peace processes as well as donor coordination, humanitarian aid and human trafficking, simply do not want to share information. It’s as simple as that and the reasons for this are complex and inter-weaved with the protracted violence and the constitution of NGOs themselves. The levels of resistance may differ from tier to tier and from field to HQ, but its generally a given that these organisations will not collaborate or coordinate, even when working on the same issues, in same geographical footprint and oftentimes networking with the same grassroots organisations.
    • There is a another dimension that changes this sad reality and it is donor funding for consortia and NGO networks specifically aimed at the creation of knowledge sharing mechanisms. My recent experience with the human rights monitoring, advocacy and reporting platform and on-going work with a violent crimes victims referral system (for use in Human Rights abuses as well as human trafficking) are revealing in this regard:
    1. Organisations want funding, even if they don’t need it. If funding is tied to collaboration, they will bear and support it for as long as the funding lasts. If such collaboration is based on ICTs, they will readily adopt new technologies but with no real commitment to using ICTs after the project ends.
    2. Organisations often grossly underestimate the human resources and management considerations of ICTs for networking, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Human resources are scarce in conflict zones that see high staff turnover in NGOs. This has a direct impact on the adoption and sustainability of ICT mechanisms.
    3. Collaboration between unlike-minded organisations (which ironically may be working on the same issues though with different approaches) is rarely strengthened by ICTs alone. Organisational cultures can take years to change when the staff are entrenched, or can change radically when staff turnover is high – ICTs can help facilitate the former and help create institutional memory in the case of the latter, but people, above all ICTs, matter the most. The right people at the right place at the right time (and it happens more often than one expects!) can create new cultures of work and knowledge sharing through ICTs that organisations find difficult to set aside even after they leave.
    • Paul makes one final comment that I found interesting. He says that:

    “If I had to sum up how I feel about this article and about ICT4Peace – I’m glad that Daniel is raising the visibility at the diplomatic level, but I’m not convinced that those levels are where the change will take place.”

    I don’t think it’s an either / or proposition. Change will be fuelled by the inevitable and rapidly growing use of technology on the ground by beneficiaries and victims. There’s no escaping this – technology will hold all those involved in peacebuilding and humanitarian aid more accountable, and by extension compel as never before organisations and governments to be more responsive in disaster relief. On the other hand, the UN and many government’s are parochial, lethargic beasts, hugely resistant to change.

    The wonder of a bureaucracy however is that when you do facilitate change at the top, it trickles down to all operations right down to the lowest tier. Yes, it is a singularly challenging process takes longer than is necessary. Yes, it’s frustrating. Yes, it employs a language of expression that is alien to the rest of us. Yes, it’s not easy, requires money, effort, human resources, political clout, diplomacy and all manner of other tricks to cajole, convince or compel those who hold the power to change. And yes,there’s no guarantee of success.

    But I’m hopeful that things will change for the better.

    In my first response to the report on ICT4Peace that Paul also worked on, I noted that,

    The greatest contribution of this report lies in bringing to the world’s attention some of the wonderful and valuable ICT initiatives that have contributed to all aspects of peacebuilding in some of the world’s worst hotspots and for research into peace in general. I hope the report and it partner website will continue to forge ahead with new thinking on this area of pivotal importance.

    I also hope that future iterations of the report and research in this area more fully engages with those who use ICT daily in their trysts with peace.

    Special thanks to Paul Currion and the great work he does behind the scenes to promote this work.

    Two years on, I’ve only come to believe more, through my own work, that ICT4Peace, far from being an ill-defined field of practice and research, is actually well defined, maturing apace and truly useful, speaking as someone responding to violence on a daily basis.

    Paul’s continued support and work in this area is an inspiration for us all along with the vision of Daniel Stauffacher and the other authors of the report. They are the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.

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