Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management: Online Dispute Resolution, Governance, Participation

Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management: Online Dispute Resolution, Governance, Participation edited by Marta Poblet is now available online and soon in print.

Contributing authors are some of the best writers and thinkers on Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), mobile technologies and dispute resolution and  in the world today, including Ethan Katsh, Daniel RaineyJeffrey Aresty, Colin Rule, Chittu NagarajanMichael Best and Ken Banks. All of them are close friends. Ethan and Colin, it can be said, created the theory and practice ODR and way back in 2004 in Melbourne, encouraged me to pursue what at the time was to many a mad idea – the use of mobiles for conflict transformation.

Marta Poblet invited me to write a chapter for this tome back in 2009, but I just couldn’t find the time. I was more than happy to pen a foreword. The book itself is a first of its kind, looking at how mobiles have shaped conflict transformation ranging from the strictly legal domains to what Ken Banks does with FrontlineSMS in Africa and elsewhere. Chapters deal with the challenges of repressive regimes like Myanmar and issues of user safety, privacy and security, issues I have dealt with on this blog as well.

Can’t wait to get my copy.


Foreword to Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management: Online Dispute Resolution, Governance, Participation

I am not always inclined to agree with academia on conflict transformation. Born into war, and having experienced it all my life, the complexity and immensity of, inter alia, the loss, collective trauma, desensitisation, madness, internal logic, spill-over effects, justifications, contested history, religious overtones and political resonance I find are far removed from much of the literature written on the management, resolution or transformation of violence. Arguably, much of this highfalutin writing comes not from any lived experience, but desk study, about as effective as learning to swim by studiously studying Powerpoint presentations. Others write after limited, short-term engagement with violent conflict. This often yields valuable insights, but occasionally results in observations, recommendations and solutions far removed from complex, mutating ground realities. On the other hand, it is not always easy to escape the enduring violence of conflict, even when you are far removed from the theatres of war. Many who have experienced protracted violence can’t critically distance themselves from their actions, or the context they have endured, for years, and this applies equally to victims and aggressors. Honest reflection invariably brings with it unintended consequences, and these may range from the distressing inability to return home to increase in risks confronting family, friends or colleagues. At the risk of caricature, a peacebuilder, unlike the academic, risks disappointment to hope for change. The academic, often sans the experience of a peacebuilder, deconstructs complexity through a selective reading informed by a specific vector or lens of analysis, frequently highly specialised. Neither one alone gives a useful understanding of protracted violence or importantly, how to get away from it. Juxtaposed however, and in rare cases, when the two are combined in one individual, one recognises immediately writing anchored but not hostage to experience that is meaningful, sensitive, progressive and probative yet not prescriptive. It is this timbre of writing that strongly recommends this volume to academics and practitioners alike.

Marta Poblet, in her introduction to this collection avers that, ‘The risk of assigning some prescriptive direction to technology should be avoided… Technology does not transform conflict per se: humans do, and the question is which, when, and how technologies may facilitate their quest. In other words, transforming conflict might be the ultimate goal, but if technologies can contribute to better manage it, it is already worth the effort to study how.’

Based on this view of technology as essentially manipulable tools, I wonder if the converse isn’t equally if not truer – that violent conflict is often exacerbated by the increasing proliferation of technologies. Being an early proponent of the potential for Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to deeply inform the theory, design and praxis of peacebuilding, I have also seen first hand how they can be used for propaganda, misinformation and disinformation. It is also possible to argue that some ICTs by design are intended to harm – programmes and malware such as trojans, key-loggers and viruses which are annoying to most can in fact endanger the lives of activists who are tracked and targeted through their proliferation and use. Repressive governments are waking up to the possibilities of Web 2.0, the web, the Internet and mobiles to drown out, curtail or censor dissent and inconvenient truths. Illiteracy of new media exacerbates this. At its simplest, this is a tendency to completely believe what is conveyed through, for example, web media or through SMS amongst populations unable or unused to critically question media. This is obviously advantageous for governments, which often command control of the widest reaching and most consumed media, and less rosy for pro-democracy activists working in a context of hate and harm. Importantly, there is also a political economy of peace, just as there is with war. The manner in which mobile phones and ICTs are used for social progress, democracy and peacebuilding enumerated in these pages often occurs despite telecoms companies, private enterprise and government. Perceptions and projections of risk that undergird private enterprise are often strongly averse to political dissent. This translates into telecoms investors, owners and those controlling the infrastructure, sometimes wholly independent of government, clamping down on users who produce, disseminate or archive content that risk investments or expose collusion. Dissent is far less profitable, and far more risky than compliance.

If this is all somewhat dystopic, it is with reason. The projection of ICTs as a means to facilitate short-term regime change that has gripped parts of academia as well as the incumbent US administration in particular is reductio ad absurdum. Peace and democracy are by definition imperfect constructs, riven by conflict. Even at its simplest, regime change does not imply an end to conflict, yet many seem to think so. To celebrate the courage of a progressive, vocal, web savvy minority use ICTs to strengthen democracy, especially against great odds, is one thing. To expect a more powerful, entrenched majority to be easily dominated by this is facile. At best, recent world events show that ICTs can help people bear witness as never before, and that this is a way for marginalised or violently erased narratives to be recorded for posterity. This is far humbler task than regime change – not as mediagenic, but as important. It is based on the understanding that history is often recorded by the most powerful, but that today, the proliferation of ICTs records – not unlike Microsoft’s amazing Photosynth software – snapshots of socio-political, cultural, religious and other identity based perspectives that can contest, frame and illuminate the status quo. The question then is how we take advantage of and strengthen these possibilities and at the same time maintain a critical distance from heady promises and rodomontade.  It is this challenge that finds expression in this volume through a number of renowned authors.

My own take on this is simple, and deeply resonant with Marta’s view that what often matters most is the work of ‘anonymous people who are the daily agents of social transformation’. Over six years ago, my first submission to the august ODR community was two-fold. One, it needed to embrace the complexity of conflict transformation, distinct from the (largely US-centric, commercial) dispute resolution roots of ADR. This meant grappling with complex political emergencies and protracted, violent identity-based conflict – in other words, what I grew up with and still seek to overcome. Secondly, that the mobile phone would overtake the PC as the device of choice for conflict transformation. Combined with this submission was the need to revise existing ODR content and platforms, and create anew those that treated the mobile phone as the first point of entry, as opposed to the last device of choice. Significant resistance then has transformed into broad support now, evidenced by the content in this book and a number of ODR conferences of late, that have transposed strictly commercial ODR technologies to the domains of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. My views then and now are shaped by those who will never read this book, yet intuitively grasp the potential of the mobile phone to empower their lives. Many who demonstrate the most compelling uses of ICTs for social transformation are people who don’t understand or speak English. Some cogent examples are captures in the pages that follow. There are many more today, even more will follow. We are moving, in our lifetime, towards what I have called an addressable humanity, where every person on earth – whether they are a citizen of Copenhagen, gypsy or internally displaced – will either have their own, unique mobile number or will have easy access to one. Through entirely mobile phone based electronic, micro-credit and other payment means, these phones will be used to place and receive basic calls as well as access services on the Internet, including emails and various social networks. The implications for conflict generation as well as management, plus of course journalism, we are only beginning to fully grasp.

What will it mean to live in a world where an SMS generated a continent away can spark localised violence? What will it mean to use these new technologies to strengthen the essential fragility of peace processes, which only get harder after the cessation of violence? How can we ensure it is used for the purposes envisaged in this book? And will these ICTs test the limits of the freedoms we cherish even in progressive societies when used by those who choose and endorse violence – physical or verbal – as a means to promote their worldviews? How do we temper and seriously critique, without entirely dismissing, the enthusiasm over crowdsourcing and crisismapping by looking at contexts other than sudden onset disasters like complex political emergencies? Can ICTs create, sustain, transmit and safeguard any better than in the past hope – that irascibly ethereal construct even during the height of violence? Are all the case studies in this volume, compelling as they may be, initiatives pegged to courageous individuals or minorities that can’t be easily scaled up, trans-located or sustained over the long-term especially within cycles of violence? Are most of these initiatives, and ICTs by extension, designed by and developed largely for men? What are the gender considerations of ODR, and do ICTs necessarily empower women or help them, inter alia, seek justice?

These are hard questions this volume does not always reflect on, leave aside explore answers for. Yet the essays herein provide key entry points for us to find our own answers to these and equally pressing challenges that go far beyond the domains of ODR and peacebuilding per se. Those interested in human rights protection and advocacy, the future of privacy in an age of social networks, the prevention of genocide and mass atrocity crimes, early warning of communal violence, bearing witness, oral histories, the development of endogenous justice systems and strengthening accountability and reconciliation post-war will find the ICTs, use cases of mobile phones, ideas, lessons identified and failures noted in this book of great value.

If as Martin Luther King, Jr. said peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal, I strongly believe that ICTs can help. It is up to us to shape it thus.

Sanjana Hattotuwa
TEDGlobal Fellow
Special Advisor, ICT4Peace Foundation

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