Technology and international development have worked together for decades. Together, they have helped build bridges, provide clean water, education and healthcare, connect remote villages, fight epidemics, or respond to crisis and natural disasters. But what kind of technology can peacemakers use and what should they expect?
Development has two prominent sides: on the one hand, it deals with very tangible issues like infrastructure, health, food security, or economics. All of these can be easily measured and compared. The role of technology on this “hard” side of development is clear: provide tools and mechanisms to reduce costs, increase output, and improve livelihoods.
On the other, it also deals with human relations, emotions, and culture. “Soft” issues that require long-term support, a good understanding of the local context and vast amounts of hope. This is the realm of politics, good governance, conflict resolution, or peacemaking. We are still trying to figure out what the role of technology is here, and some see technology as a threat to this work.
For the last six years, I have been working to support dialogue and peace processes in Ukraine and beyond. In all my work I have tried to use the potential of technology, be it by developing online dialogue mapping methodologies or by trying to understand the impact of social media in individual and social behaviour. Across the board, I have encountered resistance to technology, especially from practitioners.
Technology, a satellite TO PEACE WORK
If there is one thing I have learned through these years is that making peace is a craft. It requires a fine balance between opportunity and patience, innovation and tradition. In my view, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs; social media, messaging applications, etc.) can help connect society and government, foster dialogue, give a voice to people who need it, and, especially, make sense of extremely complex data. These are all positive uses of tech in peace work.
On the flip-side, ICTs can also create echo chambers, amplify extremism or spread misinformation—not only in what are typically considered fragile environments, but also in traditionally more stable contexts like the EU. Data breaches and unethical uses of social media data by researchers and political advisors have only made the concern greater. The most important currency for peacemakers is the trust they build with and among communities; in today’s climate, tech can put that trust at risk, and peacemakers are aware of that.
The number of researchers, organisations and events looking at the role of technology in peace is growing, but practitioners largely watch from a safe distance. Aubra Anthony, Strategy and Research Lead at USAID, put it simply, in a great article by Lottie Waters at Devex: “People are either really, really, focused on technology for technology’s sake … or you have a deep mistrust or resistance to engage because you’re not comfortable with the technology; you’re not familiar with the technology; or you don’t trust it, period.”
Raise your hand if you see yourself in either of those two sides of the discussion. I’m partly guilty of the former: in many cases I have been too focused on pursuing technology and frustrated with the lack of response to it by peacemakers. Along the way, I have extracted some lessons that I think can help people working for peace when engaging with tech.
USING TECH FOR PEACE WORK
Understand that technology is a tool
Most of the difficulties we encounter working with technology in peacemaking come from a simple fact: we do not understand technology for what it is, a tool. Just as civil or agricultural engineering for “hard” development, software engineering and data science are here to help peacemakers and researchers find their own answers and design robust processes, cutting costs and increasing outputs. Whether the role that technology plays is positive or negative depends entirely on us, as practitioners, and on our capacity to integrate it into our programming.
Bring technology in from the earliest stages
Any component of a research or implementation project that is not well crafted into the project design is set to fail. That applies to technology. The earlier tech-savvy people are engaged in the discussion, the earlier will the team be able to define the goals and the next steps. This will enable you to develop better solutions and ultimately provide a better service.
Keep it simple: cut the buzzwords
Incorporating technology into a peace project can lend itself to relying on buzzwords to gain credibility. You will encounter words like “Machine Learning”, “Big Data”, and “Artificial Intelligence”. All these are specific fields or methodologies that require thorough design and explanations for their application. Technology may be complex, but it does not need to be complicated: anyone should be able to understand what the ultimate goal is. Cutting the buzzwords will help maintain the original message and intention of what you are doing.
Use technology to understand, provide evidence and amplify messages
Online technologies provide more than just a channel to share information: they can also help collect the data that our projects need to stay relevant. Peacemakers can use social media monitoring to draw a rough picture of the situation on the ground, understand narratives (and respond to them), and design strategies to mobilise their audience. With network mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), for example, we can map our knowledge about a conflict and the groups involved in it, and guarantee data-driven learning across projects.
To understand the technology, work with it
Technology cannot sit outside project design, nor be a satellite to a peace project. Whether you are collecting data, doing predictive analysis or trying to reach a broader audience, technology will do a much better job if you engage with it regularly. And you will gain a much better understand of it in the process. Allocate time to work with your contact person, interpret data and fine-tune your tools.
Work with a translator
It is unrealistic to expect practitioners to become tech experts. It is also unrealistic to expect software engineers or data scientists to become experts in social cohesion, violent extremism or other areas of social research. Very often your best bet will be an intermediary, someone who can speak both languages to help translate needs and capacities.
Peace is a long-term endeavour. Securing the sustainability of our work requires that we find ways to amplify local voices, maintain memory and guarantee learning based on reliable data. ICTs are an opportunity to do just that, provided we can bridge the gap between tech, research and field work.
As technology has become a fundamental part of many people’s day-to-day, ICTs are increasingly serving as a tool for instability. It is our duty as peacemakers to engage with the discussion and find ways to turn the tables. It is no longer enough for technology to be a satellite to development.
First, we need to engage data scientists, software engineers and researchers to build an understanding of what technology can do as a tool both for and against peace, and for our work in particular. Second, we must take technology as a tool meant to amplify our work, not substitute it. Third, we must seek ways to reduce its complexity and make it reachable. Lastly, we must be ready to work with the technology instead of letting it work for us, and to dedicate time to tweak it so it can serve the purpose of our work.
At AKTEK, we specialise in providing technologies that are simple and flexible, so that peacemakers can dedicate their time to the work they really want to be doing. At the same time, we are aware of the complexity that our work entails. We want to push boundaries and help bring the role of tech for peace to its maturity. That is why we support research on the use of online applications and data science for peace and development. We are hopeful, and we believe we can help address and allay the fears of technology that its misuse has created.
Miguel Varela is AKTEK’s Research Lead. He is a sociologist with extensive experience in peace process support and conflict analysis in Ukraine and the broader European context.