NAE report on ICT and Peacebuilding gets it right. And also very wrong.

The National Academy of Engineering organised a workshop on Technology and Peacebuilding on 14th December 2007, the report of which I was sent last week. Through a rather tedious rigmarole, it is possible to download this report from their website.

Do it. It’s worth it.

I joined the workshop over Skype Video and was introduced by none other than Vint Cerf. The workshop featured some big names and greats in the field, beginning with my friends Colin Rule from eBay and Nigel Snoad from Microsoft and extending to Steve Wozniak, Patrick Meier, Richard Solomon (President of the United States Institute of Peace) and Chris Spence (CTO and Director, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs). Kudos to NAE for having brought such an august gathering together.

Having read the report cover to cover, one of the most interesting pages for me is page 2, which enumerates the use of ICTs in peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

Examples of Peace Practitioner need of ICT
Examples of Peace Practitioner need of ICT

I think this is a brilliant categorisation, though missing from this is ICTs in peace negotiations and reconciliation. Designing and developing ICT systems for peace negotiations is something I’ve actually done and its use in reconciling, non-violently, differences between identity groups and warring parties, is also an important application.

I won’t go into detail about the plethora of stimulating arguments captured in this report on the use and potential of ICTs for conflict transformation and peacebuilding which for me is particularly heartening to note as someone who has actively promoted and pursued ICT4Peace for a number of years. The growing interest in this field from influential actors in the global policy making can only benefit the practice and application of ICTs in peacebuilding.

I will however, point to a few confusing aspects, beginning with the presentation of Prof. John Packer from the University of Essex. On page 22 of the report he notes,

“… peace negottions often fail because of poor communication and poor understanding. ICT can help provide better communications and understandings in terms of quality, quantity and timeliness.”

Agreed. But then he goes on to say,

“But ICTs cannot entirely replace relationship building and dialogue in establishing confidence and trust between parties”

This is a bizarre assertion which I can’t quite fathom the meaning of. I don’t think anybody would be foolish enough to say that ICTs can in fact take the place of relationships and dialogues in trust building between (warring) parties. The point however is that ICTs can help build trust, even when there is little or none to begin with. My paper on Creating virtual One Text processes in Sri Lanka explores this in great depth as well as the construction of transformative mediation techniques virtually using ICTs.

The Professor ends on an equally baffling note in saying that,

“.. communications technologies cannot respond to the new kinds of threats that have arisen, such as irrational or nihilistic parties, terrorists whose only goal is destruction of enemies and who reject all compromises out of hand. In the fact of those threats, Prof. Packer said, he is “not confident that technology can respond to the challenge”

I strongly disagree with this assertion. Two papers of mine – Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding and Daring to Dream: CSCW for Peacebuilding – completely debunk this through lived experience in violent ethno-political conflict (in Sri Lanka) and the use of ICTs to address the challenges posed by terrorism, which I’ve known all my life. Both papers are available for download in full here.

Subsequent explorations of this issue on this blog have developed some of the arguments in these papers. Negotiating extremism – How to talk with terrorists… and Terrorists also use Google: So what? are just two posts of many others.

But the most egregiously incorrect understanding of conflict dynamics comes, very surprisingly, from Dr. Richard Solomon from USIP who uses the following graphic to illustrate the “phases” of conflict management (page 4 of the report).

"Curve of conflict". Oh dear.
"Curve of conflict". Oh dear.

As an aside, I was invited to lecture on Stability, Security, Transition and Reconstruction at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in 2006 to a class of active military service personnel that included field commanders, officers, military intelligence and other faculty from APCSS. It was a challenging, to say the least, to talk about ICT for conflict transformation in front of a class that was in fact hugely invested in peacebuilding, just not through the means I was proposing!

The point is however that I addressed precisely this outdated notion of a “bell curve” for violent conflict transformation in my presentation, which resonated with everyone present who had witnessed the ebb and flow of violence on the ground during peacekeeping and peacemaking.

I noted first that this notion of a bell curve assumed a great deal, including that of rapidly diminishing levels of violence after a ceasefire or peace agreement.

Debunking the bell curve
Debunking the bell curve

As I see it, after living in the midst of violence for 30+ years in Sri Lanka and with a vested interest in its transformation, the blithe assumption of a reduction in violence after a ceasefire or peace agreement is signed is at significant odds with the failure of a majority of peace agreements. Empirical studies show that nearly half of post-conflict peace agreements revert to violent conflict withing 5 years, failing to engender sustainable and just peace (read page 83 of Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy co-published by the World Bank and Oxford University Press).

The myth of conflict genesis and resolution
The myth of conflict genesis and resolution
Neatly pigeon holed. Not.
Neatly pigeon holed. Not.

My full presentation, titled SSTR – Opportunities and Challenges, is available here.

Akin to Dr. Solomon’s bell curve, the traditional and wholly incorrect way of demarcating combat, stabilisation and reconstruction operations in SSTR is around a bell curve that assumes the reduction of violence after a peace / ceasefire agreement. This simply isn’t true. The bell curve is a myth that has, may I add, been debunked in most serious conflict resolution literature I have read for years.

My own visualisation of peace processes and the art of the possible using ICTs is akin to this graph (following studies on the peace processes of Sri Lanka and other countries). Any peace process shows, over time, an escalation and deescalation of violence and also a transformation of violence (from war to crime for example). Deescalation of one kind of violence (war) can lead to other forms of violence that are challenging for nascent or battered democracies to handle. This in turn means that socio-politically and economically, violent conflict ridden societies and polity take years if not generations to heal and negotiate differences non-violently. In this scheme of things, even significant agreements sighed at the higher political level may take decades to trickle down as perceived benefits to the all tiers of society. The lack of any perceived peace dividend is often ratcheted up by spoilers and extremists, leading to further militarisation of society even after a peace agreement.  

Peace process in the real world
Peace process in the real world (Click for larger image)

In this hypothetical mapping of a peace process conflict fatigue leads to a ceasefire agreement that leads to a deescalation of conflict. But the death of a key signatory (think of a Mandalesque figure) leads to diminished confidence and a sharp escalation of violence, until Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) are put into play. A military stalemate leads to a peace agreement, but a breakaway faction with its own agenda leads to another spike in violence. Parties resolve issues until social and political unrest on account of the perceived lack of any peace dividend leads to a rise in violence (think of crime and not just war) until a power sharing agreement restores some order.

And so on.

Process and not just events. (Click for larger image)
Process and not just events. (Click for larger image)

While media and most other actors (including donors and the international community) tends to latch on to key events (an agreement or the violent collapse of peace talks for example) a peace process is about peacebuilding at a variety of levels not necessarily pegged to the fortunes of the top-tier / Track 1 political negotiatons. Grassroots level peacebuilding, inter and intra-community dialogues and reconciliation, initiatives that address the fall out of conflict on women and children, various other development programmes for example take place even amidst war.

The point I wish to make is that ICTs help in peacebuilding at all stages and at all levels of a peace process, even in the midst of violent conflict. A bell curve diagram simply doesn’t do justice to the reality of any peace process, suggesting as it does that stages in violent conflict are linear, follow a logical progression and are quite distinct from each other and also that ICTs can only help in a post-conflict situation.

There is one final point I want to point out that in this report. And it’s a vital one. Bran Ferren, Co-Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds, notes that

“…meetings like this workshop always focus on the cheapest tools that can be used. At a certain point, he went on, the value equation has to be revised. Significant amounts of money, even $5 million, for a high-bandwidth technology in a troubled portion of the world, might cost much less, even if measured only in dollars, than a war, which could cost billions.”

I completely agree with this point and just wish that more donors would listen. Just on this though, Mr. Ferren also speaks about face to face meetings and why coming together in the real world / physical particiation is qualitatively different from virtual participation between on the non-verbal cues. I connect this with Mr Ferren’s earlier point of actually providing infrastructure to enable parties to avail themselves of tremendous advances in virtual conferencing, which I have written about in some detail here.

On balance, this is a report well worth reading. It’s emphasis on communications and mobile phones as a means of empowerment is vital to note, in a world where repressive regimes are viciously clamping down on the use of both. It’s emphasis on the use of ICTs in a culturally, politically and socially sensitive manner is rare to find and heartening to note exists amongst such an influential group of thinkers.

The report demands more exploration into some of the points raised in it and a more careful, focussed look at some of the examples noted.

2 thoughts on “NAE report on ICT and Peacebuilding gets it right. And also very wrong.

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