What do we know about peacetech?

By Jen Gaskell

This post was originally published here

Disclaimer: I’m still on the fence about the term peacetech… I couldn’t say why exactly. Still it’s short and neat so I’ll give it a go.


What do I mean by ‘peacetech’ here? The term is increasingly being used as a shorthand for ‘technology for peace or peacebuilding’, with a large focus on ICTs (through not exclusively). Drones for example — sorry UUAVs — are part of the peacetech conversation. So are digital games. Even though there are not many papers and articles dedicated to it (see Tellidis & Kappler, Kahl & Puig Larrauri and myself for some exceptions), there’s a lot going on in peacetech, and has been for a few years. Many of those involved share their work and thoughts within the Build Peace community, and so far we have gathered a lot of examples of practice, and a wealth of ideas, comments, risks, ethical implications, best practices, and questions so far left unanswered (have a browse here for some examples).

How others have tackled peacetech

One thing that makes it difficult to talk about peacetech is that we haven’t got a way to categorise it as a practice. In peacebuilding that’s normally done by type of activity, like capacity building, dialogue, mediation; or programming stages, like conflict analysis, design, M&E; or thematic area, like justice, women or governance. But there aren’t yet many recognised categories for peacetech. And while the wealth of ongoing research and interest in specific tools — SMS, virtual reality, virtual maps for example — is important in itself, it tells us little about peacetech more broadly.

Some have focused on the intersection of tech functions (a blend of which tech and how they are used) and programme areas (the types of peacebuilding programmes). They highlight data processing, communications, gaming and engagement on the one hand, and early warning/response, promoting peaceful attitudes, fostering contact and collaboration and influencing policy on the other. Similarly I have tried to extend this notion with a focus on technological affordances (described in more detail here), where these are both simultaneously present in web-enabled technologies and leveraged in different ways according to different peacebuilding contexts. However after many interviews for my PhD research and many more informal discussions, it seemed clear something was missing. Something big and important and I think the answer is — who?

Putting the ‘actors’ back in the mix

The Build Peace 2015 conference asked the question: ‘Peace through technology: by whom, for whom?’ And it makes sense. In peacebuilding the who is often as important as the how. But how to define those actors is tricky. The traditional international/local dichotomy has been heavily critiqued. A large body of peacebuilding scholarship argues (convincingly) that it makes little sense to speak of one ‘local’ — local elites are not the same as local activists for example — in actions, objectives or purpose. Others warn of the risks of ‘romanticising’ the local — after all local actors can often work against peace. Others still argue that the interactions between actors have created a multitude of hybrids and the dichotomy no longer makes sense. While I agree with their general gist, one things that has struck me while reading those papers is that it makes little sense to speak of one ‘international’ either. International actors are just as diverse — in terms of interests, motives and objectives. And as the critique took the romanticisation of the international as its starting point, was then accused of romanticising the local, and came back again to a more acceptable conceptual middle ground… surely it might just make sense to view this distinction as a spectrum, gather some empirical evidence and evaluate where we go from there. Easier said than done I know — I’ve been trying. First this doesn’t interest that many people — peacebuilding actors know who they are and who they work with, and murkiness can be an operational advantage — so people are not likely to make clarifying this easy. Then whereas I find the hybridity concept hard to work with conceptually, it seems to be a very accurate empirical description of the field: a peacetech project for example is branded an international governmental organisation X, but implemented by a local NGO Y, in partnership with an international NGO Z. From the outside looking in, it is very hard to establish who the actor(s) is (are), ie where the impetus for the action is mostly located. Having said all this, what do we know, then, about peacetech?

What we know so far

1. Peacetech is here to stay

Early discussions asked what the potential of technology was for peacebuilding, with a focus on whether there was a role for it at all. That question remains valid and important — but can now be framed slightly differently. Many of the technologies considered in peacetech contexts are web or mobile technologies (from social media to SMS). ICTs penetration figures show that whether introduced in programmes or not, technology is increasingly becoming part of the global landscape, and therefore peacebuilding contexts. So statements like the one made in a joint UNDP-World Bank publication in 2011 that

the possible politicization of any more formal, modern communication campaign might introduce other complications into the process [of peacebuilding].

no longer entails not using ICTs (as it seemed to imply in that report) — but rather points to the need for a better understanding of tech uses and their consequences.

2. Peacetech includes a wide range of diverse activities

A wide ranges of practices and examples have been recorded. The Build Peace Database categorises four types of technology uses, but those are subdivided into a total of 10 sub-categories that are mainly used in combination. The data shows there are almost as many possibilities as there are projects. Peacetech projects leverage many different functions of technology for different peacebuilding objectives. So far in the Database, the most popular functions are ‘mobilisation — engagement’ (represented 50% of the time), communication (40%) and networking (30%). This seems to align well with Kahl & Puig Larrauri’s statement that the ‘empowerment of people to participate in localized conflict management efforts is one of the most significant innovations and opportunities created by new technologies’.

3. Peacetech presents opportunities, challenges and risks

Many authors have noted that using technology for peacebuilding offers great opportunities, but also presents important challenges and some risks. Unequal access (geographically and in terms of marginalised groups in society) and literacy issues for example mean that the additional voices with the potential to be included in the peacebuilding process through technology are not necessarily those least likely to be included. Similarly the empowerment of the people might be compromised by security risks when surveillance technology is used by oppressive regimes for instance to track and eliminate dissent. Using existing technological platform owned by private corporations poses yet a different set of issues and potentially introduces an accountability gap in the peacebuilding context. While many tend to agree on what the issues are, there is still very little empirical data available to help us better understand how to mitigate them in different contexts.

4. Who you are matters in peacetech

Finally as mentioned earlier, while the discussion has so far focused on how technology can be used for peacebuilding, who uses it is just as important a consideration. Indeed we find emerging empirical evidence from the Build Peace Database that different actors use technology in different ways — or that they leverage different functions of technology for peacebuilding. For example local NGOs are five times more likely to be using tech for communication, to share information, bring new voices into the process or offer alternative narratives than other actors (such as international NGOs, government, etc.) International governmental organisations on the other hand are just over twice more likely to be leveraging the data function of technology — to gather, aggregate and visualise data. This of course doesn’t tell us why that is or even if this would remain the case were more projects included in the dataset. But it does suggest that an analysis by actor would provide an additional layer of depth to the type of conclusion drawn for peacetech.

What next?

The questions asked about peacetech have evolved. We no longer wonder whether technology has a role to play in peacebuilding — we ask how can technology help build peace. We have also recognised that this is not a linear or predictable relationship, but that it is embedded in complex political contexts; understand the variety of actors involved and the underlying power dynamics they operate in will help towards some answers.

But we need more data, and more specifically we need to design research that will generate this data. I have argued before that this will need to be interdisciplinary. And based on my research so far and many conversations, I have a series of questions that could contribute to a potential peacetech research agenda:

There are more, but hopefully these can be the start of a conversation into designing research necessary to better understand processes that are likely to become more and more prominent in the future of peacebuilding.

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

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