To make their mark, the architects of peacebuilding's bleeding edge need to leave the government payroll and start their own industry.
“I’m terrible at making money,” says Dlshad Othman. The 28-year old Syrian American is the creator of a system that, from June to November 2013, sent subscribers text-message warnings of scud missiles launched by the Syrian government. But sitting in a café in downtown Washington, where he is now based, Othman says his project, called Amyta, ran out of steam. So too did his 2011 venture, Uvirtus, a “fully encrypted computer operating system” that, among other things, allowed Syrians to securely post videos of their country’s conflict to YouTube. Getting rich was hardly the goal in either case, but the young entrepreneur says he’s “out of money and time.” The little grant funding he received is gone, forcing him to put both projects on an indefinite hiatus.
More recently, Othman developed Collabase, a suite of collaboration tools being used by human rights groups in the regions affected by the rise of the Islamic State. He’s hoping that his latest project will fare better than his previous two. “It’s hard for local technologists to even think about creating sustainable funding for their work,” he says. Othman argues that there’s surely a way to market his work and the work of others like him, people who can be called peacetech entrepreneurs. He just hasn’t found it yet.
Othman’s story is a common one in the burgeoning field of peacetech, which uses technology, media, and data to make, build, and sustain peace. Promising pilots often reach dead ends because there is no system for making them self-sustaining. Funding for this kind of work, to date, has come largely from governments and foundations. But making it viable in the long term requires more than just tapping into a bigger pool of benefactors — new corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds or wealthy individual donors, for instance. It demands ditching donor dependency of all kinds and instead working to create a global peacetech industry.
Conflict has often been a crucible for innovation. The Internet’s origins are in the recesses of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) research apparatus, and the hundreds of weapons and armor systems developed in service of modern warfare have consistently broken technological ground. But this new burst of innovation in peacetech, which empowers individuals rather than large institutions, is unprecedented. The recent ubiquity and affordability of communication tools such as mobile phones and Internet access, even in conflict zones, has a lot to do with this burst, as does access to new sources of funding. Tech activists in Baghdad, for example, recently funded the creation of a downtown hackerspace with a successful $30,000 Kickstarter campaign.
Peacetech projects, however, consistently struggle to achieve the scale and impact that could sustain them beyond the first good idea. As Helena Puig, co-founder of the Build Peace Conference, wrote about such projects, “[M]ost pilots don’t have rigorous measures and often lack the support to scale up.” Even fairly well-established players hit obstacles: For instance, the Kenyan crowd-sourced mapping platform Ushahidi has run into multiple delays in the release of the latest version of its software, which is now due out in March — a full year and a half after if its originally scheduled release date. Indeed, the peacetech field is littered with cases of technologies that have stumbled and fallen on the road to achieving scale, so much so that professionals gather regularly for “Fail Faires,” happy hours where they meet to discuss (with a mix of introspection and humor) “projects using [information and communication technologies] in international development that have, to put it simply, been a #FAIL. Busted, kaput.”
In addition to struggling with sustainability, peacetech has also wrestled with how to show impact. A 2014 study on technology and civic participation by the National Democratic Institute concluded that, “Despite the exuberance for technologies, there is little data available on the impacts they have had on the political processes and institutions they are intended to influence.” The International Peace Institute came to a similar conclusion in 2013, finding, “Big data for conflict prevention is best characterized by its potential rather than by its track record.” And a Transparency International study from 2014 on the use of technology to fight corruption, which is often a major barrier to recovery in post-conflict societies, contended that these efforts have shown “little evidence but positive signs” of impact.
Othman would likely agree. Aymta warned people that a missile was coming their way, but it couldn’t provide them with any information on where they could take shelter or seek medical attention because he didn’t have access to up-to-date information on where these kinds of resources could be found. Because of this, he says, users were skeptical and subscriptions were limited. Uvirtus is currently offline due to some bugs, and Othman doesn’t predict a new restart date any time soon — at least not without a new grant.
But peacetech can be pulled from the teat of government and donor funding, so that it can stand — and run — on its own two feet. The products peaceteach generates don’t just save lives; they also have commercial potential. In some cases, a lot of it.
For starters, the data that peacebuilding projects have collected in order to better anticipate events like election violence — in, say, Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of Congo — presumably have value to companies that operate in foreign countries: Shell, HP, Intel, and others. (HP and Intel, for example, need and want to protect their supply chains of precious minerals.) Libreo Tablet, which allows users to browse the Internet safely and anonymously, has recently been developed by the Guardian Project, a group that creates tools targeted largely at democracy activists and political dissidents around the world, in order to “protect their communications and personal data from unjust intrusion, interception and monitoring.” But the Libreo Tablet might also pique the interest of ordinary U.S.-based consumers who are growing increasingly wary of government snooping on their online activity.
Successful TV and radio shows with peacebuilding messages, such as the Search for Common Ground’s Nashe Malo in Macedonia and the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Salam Shabab in Iraq, tend to be funded largely through government and foundation grants, so production ends when the funding dries out. These kinds of popular shows, however, could seize the opportunity to sustain themselves beyond initial donor funding by putting marketing strategies behind them like other non-profit media companies intent on social change already do — Sesame Workshops and National Geographic are examples — or by inviting advertisers to invest in peacebuilding radio and TV programs.
Peacetech might also learn lessons from an unlikely model: the defense industry. It was about 100 years ago that the U.S. government turned to private-sector research labs pioneered by people such as Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse because the tools of national defense — from automatic firearms to mechanized armor, aircraft to missiles — required increasingly specialized knowledge and technology to build. Weapons manufacturers expanded and proliferated to meet this need, and in doing so, they created a jobs program for Middle America. And thus, the defense industry was born.
The challenge for the peacetech industry is to emulate this scale of growth — not necessarily by lobbying to create a $500 billion defense budget, but by taking the initial investments that government agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have made in peacetech and channeling them into a myriad of products that can sustain themselves financially. To borrow an idiom from Silicon Valley, the U.S. government could be an angel investor to Othman’s startup, but at some point, he’s going to have to turn a profit and fly on his own. The message here isn’t that government has no role to play in funding peacetech; it’s that government can’t be the only one funding peacetech.
By re-envisioning peacetech as an industry, the peacebuilding field can also begin to rethink both who creates peacetech tools and how the tools are created — ultimately providing a way for peacetech’s real-world impact to match its immense potential. This industry could help address three of the biggest issues that peacetech has been wrestling with in its pursuit of impact: the need to draw in expertise from beyond the “usual suspects” in the field of peacebuilding, the need for speed in addressing the fast-changing problems of conflict management, and the need to build technology that is customized for local environments. And ultimately, it is impact on conflicts themselves — turning devastation into economic opportunity — that will be the key to the sustainability of the peacetech industry itself.
So where to begin? A peacetech industry can begin by bringing new experts into the fold of professional peacebuilding — namely, engineers and technologists from the private sector. Resolving violent conflict demands in-depth knowledge about the complex dynamics at their hearts. The same principle applies to technology solutions that are aimed at tackling conflict: They require deep local knowledge of the conflict, the geography, the culture, and the technology environment, as well as deep technology expertise. So engineers and technologists must be seated, quite literally, at the same table as experts on the origins of and options for addressing violent conflict. Data scientists must work every day alongside social scientists and anthropologists. Othman must be able to work directly with Syrian activists and NGOs on the ground to customize his tools and make sure they meet real needs on the ground.
Second, tapping into private sector know-how can ensure that peacetech development is connected to the dynamic nature of conflict, lending it the speed and agility needed to make a difference on the ground. By conservative estimates, the Rwandan genocide resulted in more than 8,000 deaths per day. The Second Congo War is estimated to have killed more than 1,000 people per day. As these numbers show, the speed of response to conflict matters; it can mean the difference between life and death. In today’s word, YouTube gets uploads from battle zones before the generals themselves know about the latest developments. So peacebuilders need to work with social media and big-data companies to develop early-warning mechanisms that can alert in-country peacebuilders to imminent threats and provide them with life-saving information that allows them to make quick decisions and take early action.
Finally, a peacetech industry needs to build peacetech tools that are primed for local adoption. Time and time again, it has been said that local peacebuilders are frustrated with technology they cannot use. Sometimes it is a lack of documentation in local languages, sometimes it is the smart phone app in a dumb phone world, so to speak. Sometimes, it is that peacetech isn’t quite able to stand up to powerful opponents: Aymta quickly ran out steam, Othman claims, when the Assad regime shut down mobile phone networks around Syria. Right now, too much peacetech gets built without intimate knowledge or capacity to deal with local constraints. Instead, peacetech tools need to be built for the often low-bandwidth, power-deprived, and dangerous environments where violent conflicts occur. Many of the tool developers who are creating mobile, web, and mapping platforms in aid of peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian response complain about the lack of resources or expertise to translate their English-language user interfaces into local languages, or to create more visual-heavy interfaces for illiterate users. Digital security experts will admit that their tools are often simply too technical and difficult for the average activist to use.
Admittedly, many peacetech tools are niche products without a massive userbase that will demand (and pay for) timely updates, customization, and other improvements. But tool development that taps into the market potential of peacetech and that is done at the scale of an industry will change that dynamic, providing the resources needed to ensure that peacetech apps get updates as often as Instagram or Facebook.
The challenge for the peacebuilding field today is to find a way to connect the Othmans of the world with the people, tools, and resources they need to expand both the scale and impact of peacetech. Re-imagining this important work as an industry is the way to do just that.