Three insights to disrupt the conflict marginalisation loop with the strategic use of tech for peacebuilding

by Diana DajerThis post is the first in a three-part series reviewing Build Peace 2018. You can read the other two posts here and here, and the opening remarks from Build Peace 2018 here.

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The unequal distribution of resources is one of the main triggers of violence in many conflict-affected societies. For those working in the peacetech field, this means acknowledging that, even where technology is used as a tool to try to secure access to prosperity for all, it can also serve to deepen economic exclusion.

This often seems like a catch-22 situation that was named the Matthew Effect of accumulated advantage by the sociologist Robert K. Merton. Long story short, this term is used to describe situations in which “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, in line with the Gospel of St. Matthew.

In the digital world, as it is noted by Ragnedda and Muschert, the Matthew Effect means that, more often than not, in the presence of a digital divide and inequality, the populations that are better off often increase their advantage when accessing technology, while creating a wider chasm with the populations that are worst off.

Many of the conversations, workshops and calls to action at Build Peace 2018 revolved around this dilemma and possible solutions. Northern Ireland’s stories of resilience and projects to boost prosperity and social cohesion after the troubles, brought these discussions to life. Three crosscutting insights emerged from the reflections around this issue.

On the one hand, the discussion about the relationship between inequality and peacetech emerged as a glocal issue. As such, they should be addressed both by local, national and international actors, but driven by the communities directly affected by the conflict. The opening dialogue at Build Peace revolved around online polarization and organization of digital communities. The discussion particularly addressed who is shaping the current conditions of digital conversations and who is being affected by them.

Htaike Htaike Aung, Executive Director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, highlighted that algorithms, designed by international companies in Silicon valley, could contribute to polarisation by creating filter bubbles and echo chambers of similar opinions. In her view, this creates a responsibility to policy-makers, especially in the global South, to shape the rules to address these issues. Likewise, Rachel Stein, Executive Director of Campaigns and Strategy at Stonewall, emphasised that the responsibility is not solely of one actor, especially given the diversity of digital communities.

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With regards to financial marginalisation in conflict scenarios, the majority of economic rules in the digital space are also being designed by the front runner companies. Most of the time these decisions are taken without a previous conversation with local actors about how those rules may impact local conflicts and inequality. In fact, as it is shown by Graham, many of the expectations on the use of digital tools to foster the economic development of marginalised populations are unrealistic if the interventions do not consider literacy rates, the digital divide, and actual gains of the marginalised communities.

Dawn Grant, Founder and CEO of Black Economics, presented several locally-driven examples of how the creative arts and digital projects are being used to tackle marginalisation in Kibera, Rwanda, Angell Town Estate in Brixton, Kingston, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Maboneng. In these regions, people in communities highly affected by economic and social exclusion are shaping their own projects through ballet, tech hubs, music production, street art, ethical fashion. The difference of these examples with others where the positive effect in the communities is marginal, is that they are being led and shaped by the local communities.

Tackling economic inequality often involves addressing power dynamics at the core of marginalisation. This means actually analysing and actively addressing the power imbalances behind economic marginalisation, that may prevent local actors from leading the decision-making processes and interventions intended to boost their economic conditions.

For instance, during Build Peace’s opening dialogue, Susan Benesch discussed how the Dangerous Speech project is now looking at effective ways of disrupting and diminishing harmful communication using creative, innovative and artistic responses. Likewise, at one of the short talks, Julia Pardo, Head of Accounts at AKTEK, discussed how AKTEK coordinates local communities, private enterprises and local communities to empower people on the ground in conflict-affected communities.

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Yet, as it was discussed during a workshop about participatory budgeting in Northern Ireland and Colombia, organised by Participatory Budgeting Works, Building Change Trust and Policéntrico, changing power relationships and balances is not an easy task. It involves context-specific understanding of the actors and struggles that are often at the core of the conflict.

Lastly, change in peacebuilding is often slow, which sometimes clashes with the fast-paced online world that calls for immediate rewards and results. This could lead to an illusion of change, or that things are getting better due to increased online attention. In other cases, there could be a huge hype around the promised potential of emerging technologies to bring solutions to many different problems, including economic marginalisation.

Maude Morrison and Jerry McCann from Build Up presented both sceptic and supportive arguments for blockchain in peacetech interventions. They noted that the hype around this technology to solve all kinds of problems is increasing worldwide. Yet, they recommended that an analysis of the genuine effects of blockchain in this field should be made, to understand if the alleged potential is in fact materialising on the ground.

Peacetech for economic inclusion: Three calls for action

So what can we do to disrupt the loop of conflict marginalisation with the strategic use of technology for peacebuilding? Build Peace 2018 provided three calls for action:

First, peacetechbuilders have an ethical responsibility to ensure that local actors are the protagonists of interventions meant to improve their economic conditions. In practical terms, this means asking throughout the process questions such as: Is the project designed, implemented and evaluated with the participation and leadership of the communities? Who is creating the rules? Who is gaining and how are those gains being distributed?

Second, peacetech interventions should understand and address power dynamics in a context-sensible and ethical manner. Otherwise, chances are that the result might not only not produce any change at all, but in fact could become the seed of new conflicts that harm already vulnerable populations.

Lastly, the peacetech community should be aware of the expectations that might emerge around the use of unevaluated interventions to tackle inequality in conflict-affected settings. Yet, this does not mean that they should forgo the opportunity to explore how new and old technologies could be used to foster inclusion of marginalised populations.

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

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