Peace + Tech: An interview with Helena Puig Larrauri

19th June 2015 Posted by: Cat Cochrane

You’ve been pioneering the field of peace tech, can you say more about what this is?

Building peace isn't just about negotiating a ceasefire or putting a stop violence. To build a sustainable peace requires a set of initiatives that promote trust, construct new narratives and weave a new social network. There are an increasing number of peacebuilding practitioners who are looking for ways that new technologies can enhance the work they do to transform conflicts. New technologies offer possibilities for peacebuilders to increase their reach and impact, overcoming both resource and operational barriers. Technology can also offer a different way to engage people in the construction of narratives and networks. We are beginning to see alternative infrastructures for peace emerging that are (to a large extent) the product of tech-enabled initiatives. That is peacetech.

How is technology useful in building peace?

Technology works for peace when it provides access to discourse and governance processes to more people, and does so in a way that is both disruptive and constructive: communities that can document violence, individuals who can capture efforts they and others make to strengthen peace, groups that can communicate more effectively within their own borders and beyond. Through a spectrum of apps and services on the web, Internet, and mobile devices dealing with conflict transformation, technology can create the templates for peacebuilding’s critical ideas to take root. Technology can bring about innovative frameworks for the imagination to escape violence, and safe spaces for broadening discourse about conflict transformation.

What kinds of challenges is it being used to address?

  • Digital media tools provide new, creative ways for local peacebuilders to foster alternative discourses and challenge prevailing conflict narratives. These new visions can often compete with existing visions by engaging closely with their audience. 
  • Networking platforms provide new opportunities for local peacebuilders to foster positive contact between conflict groups, building digital trust networks. 
  • Online and mobile tools give power to local peacebuilders to counteract calls for violence and make peace viral.
                                                         Helena Puig Larrauri
                                                                                                           Helena Puig Larrauri
Can you give us some examples?

Too many! Here is a selection. 

On the Sudan-South Sudan border, the Misseriya nomadic groups and Dinka cattle herders and farmers have been forging peace agreements for centuries, providing rights of passage to the Misseriya through Dinka land. The agreements are very important for avoiding violence in a volatile environment, but the process of sustaining this delicate peace is sustained by a hierarchical structure of power dominated by older men. This locally-initiated peacekeeping arrangement maintains a status quo and ignores the voices and concerns of women. The arrangement therefore represents a limited notion of peace. In a recent United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded pilot, a team of women living in the border areas used a participatory video process to produce and disseminate a short film that shows what peace means to them, and how peaceful coexistence is critically linked to the availability of water. Their voices, jointly calling for greater water resources, are moving the peace discourse beyond the status quo and into a future of interdependence.

In Sri Lanka, Groundviews (and its related initiatives, Maatram and Vikalpa, operating in Tamil and Sinhala respectively) bears witness to systemic violence and a democratic deficit that endures post-war. Through the use of mobile and online platforms for storytelling, Groundviews amplifies voices and viewpoints that have been otherwise marginal, peripheral to, or violently erased from, policymaking. The website, as well as the commentary on it, is a fuller record of contemporary history – with competing narratives, within a framework for civil yet critical discourse.  This works to highlight the rich tapestry of opinions, identities, and ideas in a country often (for expedient political ends of political parties) portrayed as mono-ethnic and mono-religious. Groundviews, through technology, helps contributors and readers imagine what can and should be, when often, realpolitik stymies the country’s post-war potential.

The Peace Factory is a nonprofit organization promoting peace in the Middle East by making connections between people on Facebook. The Peace Factory initially encouraged people to post a simple message of love from Israelis to Iranians. The campaign quickly expanded to other conflicted pairs (Palestine-Israel, Morocco-Iran, Pakistan-Israel, America-Iran, and so on). The group has since led a number of online and offline initiatives, including posting banners of love between Israelis and Iranians on buses in Tel Aviv and running a matching system called “Friend me for Peace” that encourages Facebook “friending” across conflict divides. Although its initiatives have not yet been formally evaluated, the organization points to the potential of personal sharing over social media as a low-resource complement to engaging in deeper, face-to­-face discussions about identity.

In the Somali region of Africa, Interpeace is working with three local research institutions to run regular, fast, and relatively low­-cost participatory polling processes that will provide up-to-date and reliable information on people’s views about the democratization process. Combined with the rich contextual understanding and ongoing qualitative research of these institutions, polling data offers additional, strategic support to long-term change processes. What makes them operationally viable is a combination of text messaging (SMS) and online tools: Magpi for data collection on tablets, FrontlineSMS for data collection via SMS, First Mile GEO for data processing and analysis, and Elva for crowdsourcing.

A group of Arab and Jewish Israeli teenagers recently built a peace village together — in the virtual realm of the Minecraft game world. It was an initiative of Games for Peace, a nonprofit organization that believes “online games represent a radical new way of bridging the gap between young people in conflict zones.” The initiative has not yet been evaluated, but the pilot was popular enough that a broader game is being planned. Games for Peace demonstrates the potential for existing popular games to enable collaborative game-play situations where a peaceful future can be imagined.

Soliya’s Connect Program is an online, cross-cultural education program that links undergraduate programs in a hundred universities and has brought together students from twenty-seven countries since 2003. Students join a group of about ten students and two facilitators and meet online for two hours over ten weeks. They talk about everyday life and culture as well as controversial social and political issues. Facilitators are trained to manage tensions, introduce activities, and maintain an atmosphere for constructive dialogue. The program regularly receives rave reviews about its effectiveness in providing avenues for students to risk sharing their differences and rejoice in their similarities.

Who are some notable organisations that we should look out for?

Well, any of the ones in the examples above. Also, many of the speakers who attend the Build Peace conference (disclaimer: I'm one of the organizers of the conference!).

Much of the work in the peacetech space is being done by smaller organizations who are incorporating technology into their peacebuilding programs and processes. There are a few organizations who are dedicated to promoting peacetech: the ICT4Peace Foundation, the PeaceTech Lab and Build Up (disclaimer: I'm a co-founder).

What kinds of impact do you see them creating ?

In my view, organizations that use technology for peacebuilding are pioneering ways of making work to build peace more participatory. Their key impact is in opening up peacebuilding processes that previously reached fewer people or did not engage people as deeply. 

What are the challenges for the field?

There are some obvious challenges with introducing technology in conflict: access (who has it, who controls it, who is excluded) and interaction with conflict dynamics (could tech inadvertently make things worse). But I believe both these challenges can be overcome with careful design.

The biggest challenge for peacetech is measuring impact. This is a challenge that already plagues the peacebuilding field: it is very difficult to measure impact if it requires measuring "more peace" or some indicator that is a sub-set of peace (whatever that means, and there are many definitions). The challenge is worsened when we speak of how technology enhances peacebuilding efforts. How do we isolate the effect of technology? How do we know that our efforts are worthwhile - worth donor money, worth personal risk, worth time invested?

How do you personally make a distinction between “ tech for good” and “ tech for bad”? 

Wow, you kept the killer question for last! I don't think I can answer that fully, but I can make some points related specifically to the private sector. I recently wrote about how we could go about defining a "peacetech industry" (here). I tried to identify what would define a tech company that promotes peace rather than conflict, i.e. tech for good v. tech for bad in the subset of peace / conflict problems we look at. Here are my three criteria:

1. Do you let your mission (to promote peace) drive your problem selection?

2. Do you put peace before profit?

3. Do you make publicly available the data that would answer the two questions above? Are you open to scrutiny?


Find out more about Helena and her work

Helena is the co-director of Build Up, a social enterprise working at the intersection of technology, civic engagement and peace building.

Build Peace is a community that brings together practitioners, activists and technologists with the common goal of working towards peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

Helena's Peacetech Industry blog 

On Twitter @HelenaPuigL


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