Digital peacebuilding and the pandemic (part 2: on digital connection and bridge-building)

We’ve been reflecting on the implications of the pandemic for conflict, and our role as digital peacebuilders. This is the second of a two-part blogpost, where our director Helena Puig Larrauri discusses how peacebuilding can adapt to social distancing in the short and medium term. The first part explores why peacebuilding will be important in the coming months and years, in connection with the social, political and economic shifts that the pandemic is bringing about.

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It’s 11am and my son is jumping up and down on my bed, screaming at the top of his lungs. Confinement is trying for a 3 year old (and for his mother, ha!), and yet we are fortunate in so many ways that spell out our privilege: we have a home, food on the table (and a food supply chain that’s holding up), a (struggling, but committed) public health system, the option of remote work. And I have the privilege of being connected to many peacebuilders across the globe, who have been a source of energy, support and inspiration these past weeks. As we develop much needed peacebuilding responses to the pandemic, we’re going to need to stay connected and inspired.

Many peacebuilders are wondering how we can do our work — convening, listening, dialogue, mediation, empathy, cohesion — at a time when restrictions to physical connection are growing, with great uncertainty about when or how they will lift. As a friend put it simply: we’re in the business of bringing people together, and now we can’t. Over the past days (feels like weeks?!), I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues at the United Nations, non-profits and civil society groups, peacebuilders and mediators of all kinds, who are wondering how digital tools can help continue their work while social distancing is in place.

Repurpose, adapt, create

The good news is that our field was already becoming more digital. Just like many of us were already working remotely, and the pandemic has brought many more people into remote work; many of us were already building digital adaptations to peacebuilding. Now we just need to step up our game. What I see in our immediate network of fellows and in the projects we are working on are peacebuilders approaching our current situation with astounding ingenuity.

Some peacebuilders are repurposing their existing initiatives to respond to emerging challenges from the pandemic. Myanmar ICT for Development Organization’s “real or not” Facebook messenger chatbot, which previously focused on debunking conflict-related rumours is now almost entirely dedicated to debunking coronavirus misinformation and has seen a spike in use over the past weeks.

Some peacebuilders are moving fast to adapt their programs so they can continue to deliver remotely. In Syria, one of the teams of peacebuilding innovators we support has developed a Facebook group for mothers to provide creative ideas for childcare during the pandemic; another group is working to engage young people directly in art competitions from their homes. In Burkina Faso, Build Up is working with Interpeace to move an entire participatory baseline conflict assessment to a remote process that will combine an e-learning platform for consultation with policy makers, and messaging apps for data collection and participatory data analysis.

And some peacebuilders are finding new energy in this crisis to create digital initiatives that will foster peace and resilience in the months to come. In Kenya, a group of students and faculty from Kisumu are looking at how polarization is accelerating online and organizing to intervene with a flock of volunteer online mediators (we’ve been helping design this, based on our experience in the USA).

Digital adaptations 101

There is much that digital peacebuilding can do, but if you’re new to this, where do you start? What needs adapting and how do we skill up as a field? If you’re finding yourself thrust into a now necessary world of digital peacebuilding that is new to you, you’re not walking into an empty room, and there are essential ethical and practical principles and guidelines available. We’ve come up with an initial short list of essentials that peacebuilders who want to leverage digital technologies should dig deeper into.

Building and convening teams online. We’re going to be having a lot more meetings online. But it’s not just meetings, also remote collaboration, relationship-building, and new norms around the integration of whole selves into working spaces (adapting to the presence of children, to varying levels of connectivity, to time zones, to family members in need, etc). That requires flexibility and familiarity with a range of asynchronous and synchronous collaboration and communication platforms, and some new skills. This may seem obvious and straightforward, but without these, you may end up playing a lot of conference call bingo). There are lots of resources from other fields on skills and tools to facilitate meetings online, here’s one from MIT that we like.

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Online facilitation skills or bingo?

Understanding how peacebuilders can use technology. Some peacebuilders will be wondering what technologies can be used to adapt offline peacebuilding work; others may want to address online conflict dynamics. Either way, it’s useful to get our heads around how, concretely, technology can be used to meet peacebuilding objectives. We’ve been looking at the functions of technology for peacebuilding and mediation for a number of years, collecting examples of initiatives and distilling best practices. Here are the top five peacebuilding activities with a digital component that we’ve been doing, and see space for others to do as well.

  • Assessing conflict dynamics remotely — whether by setting up remote, participatory processes to collect and analyse data or by mining data from existing digital media, peacebuilders can work remotely with quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Shifting attitudes and behaviors through digital messaging — whether it’s using text messages, social media interventions or video games, many of the attitude and behavior change campaigns that are critical to tackling polarization and divisions can have a digital component that extends their reach and impact.
  • Running consultations remotely — through simple Facebook chatbots, e-learning platforms or complex online fora, consultation processes can be adapted to run remotely.
  • Remote capacity building — both training courses and technical support / mentoring can continue to be delivered on e-learning platforms or through structured processes on messaging apps.
  • Creating virtual dialogue spaces — with a new set of skills for online facilitation, digital games, video sharing platforms or conferencing apps can all be leveraged to hold space for structured dialogue processes.

Incorporating best practices in technology design. As peacebuilders move increasingly to adopt digital tools and processes, we essentially become “product managers”, having to engage with how our beneficiaries (users) will interact with our digital products and processes. The Principles of Digital Development are a great starting point. At Build Up, we use an adapted human-centred design methodology that incorporates best practices tailored to the intersection of peacebuilding and technology. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of a solid design process for digital peacebuilding: as with any digital development initiatives, most digital peacebuilding projects that fail didn’t think through whether their tech product or process actually met an existing need. (Here’s a great diagram that explains this issue with respect to apps for covid-19.)

Embracing digital approaches

As social distancing kicks in, digital first responders abound in all fields, from health to childcare to safety. But it’s not just about the short term response. As this pandemic unfolds, it’s becoming clear that it will leave a lasting impact across many fields: health, education, science, government, and more (here’s a neat summary from some great thinkers of shifts that may come). Peacebuilding is no different. Perhaps because at Build Up we’ve been deep into digital adaptations from the start, we see the effect of the pandemic on peacebuilding as an acceleration of a trend that was already there: there is no longer a ‘peacetech’ field separate from ‘traditional peacebuilding’. As conflicts become increasingly digital, as we seek to foster connection and build bridges in a digital age, the peacebuilding field must embrace digital approaches.

Instead of cancelling activities in light of social distancing, we believe that peacebuilders, donors and technology companies can develop fruitful collaborations that not only address conflict divisions exacerbated by the pandemic, but that model a new approach to peacebuilding in the digital age. We’re working to quickly extend our offering of online training courses that will address some of these essential skills for digital peacebuilders. The training courses will be offered on a donation-fee model to make them accessible to as many as possible.

Stay tuned for more, stay healthy and stay home (if you can).

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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