The Quiet Revolution

Technology is changing the way we fight war. But it's also changing the way we make peace.     

This is the first installment of PeaceTech, a series on FP's new Peace Channel, in collaboration with the U.S. Institute of Peace, that will regularly report on innovative uses of technology to bring security and stability to communities around the world.

While much attention has focused recently on debating the role of social media in high-profile events like the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, a quieter revolution has been happening around the globe. It's a revolution in innovation, information, and communication. And it could have big implications for the lives of people from Colombia to Egypt, Kenya to Afghanistan.

This revolution is in the way technologies are being used at the community level to mitigate causes of violence. It's difficult to think of a single issue in the conflict-management field -- election violence, interethnic hatred, land disputes, gender violence, and so on -- in which there hasn't been an effort to use digital media and technology-enabled networks to inflect the causes of conflict.

The catalyst for this quiet revolution comes down to a single reality that is both commonplace and incredible: For the first time in human history, people everywhere -- including in impoverished conflict zones -- have the ability to take photos, push data, publish text, and send information around the world or down the street with the click of a button. We are all social-media makers now, and the extent to which we see this at work in the peacebuilding field every day cannot be overstated. With well over 6 billion cell-phone subscriptions in the world, and over one-third of the world's population online, we've seen a striking expansion in the tools that peace-builders have at their disposal. Crowd-sourcing, crisis-mapping, micro-blogging -- in less than a decade, these have become essential to analysis and decision support across the entire conflict cycle, from prevention to post-conflict stabilization.

Here are just a few examples from what can be dubbed the "PeaceTech" revolution:

Fostering inter-communal  dialogue: In Iraq, there is a strong conflict-resolution curriculum underpinning the (Peace Youth) online network, TV program, and Facebook group of about 30,000 active users -- with research showing shifting attitudes about ethnic tolerance among them. There is also a larger, 200,000-member YaLa-Young Leaders network taking shape among Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the Middle East, actively campaigning against violent conflict.

Managing elections: Virtually every election these days includes active monitoring of everything from violence to fraud using a range of social-media platforms. In Kenya and South Sudan, for example, recent referenda were considered successes in terms of violence prevention, and social-media networks were key parts of the civil-society toolkit.

Preventing gang violence: Twitter penetration in Brazil is among the highest on the planet, making it a valuable and much-used platform for individuals and community organizations working on campaigns aimed at fostering citizen security. Similar initiatives on other social networks have also been widely used in Mexico and Colombia. 

Preventing resource disputes: Early-warning networks like the Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) in sub-Saharan Africa try to leverage social media, along with satellite information and traditional media reports, to prevent conflict over land, water, and other resources.

Constitution-building: We've seen efforts to use social media in transitional nations like Egypt to help create constitutions with public input. It wasn't very successful in Egypt, but there, as in Morocco and Iceland, to provide two more examples, the experience has allowed communities to learn about crowd-sourcing. That process will certainly continue.

Protesting violence: By now, many have heard of the 2008 Facebook campaign "A Million Voices Against the FARC," which was used to rally people across Colombia and around the world to protest the violent tactics of the Revolutionary Armed Forces guerilla movement.

These are just a few of the ways that technologies are being adapted and adopted for conflict-mitigation efforts. Success has been mixed, to say the least, for a host of reasons, from the newness of the technologies to the fact that most violent conflict is deeply rooted in complex human dynamics. Addressing the underlying problems of conflict require far more than any single technological tool can deliver, which is why many of the initiatives listed above delivered limited results. Nonetheless, they and other programs offer hope for the future.

At the heart of it all is the unprecedented data that is generated by communication and captured using new digital technologies. We often hear about  "Big Data" and read stunning figures about how Facebook receives more than 300 million new photographs every day, YouTube uploads 72 hours of video each minute, and almost unfathomably, in a single year, humans transmit more data than in all previous years combined.

But for those of us working in conflict zones, the real excitement is not about the quantity of data but about the unprecedented insight that this data offers into the human experience. Not only are unprecedented volumes of information about human dynamics and sentiment  -- the DNA of conflict, so to speak -- being shared on social-networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, Tumblr, Google Plus, and YouTube. The technological capabilities to analyze this vast treasure trove of information are also becoming cheaper and more effective. We've already seen, for example, mobile-phone data being used to anticipate large-scale refugee movements, an analysis that can obviously be valuable in saving the lives of people affected by war.

We are still unable to use these kinds of tools and datasets to predict violence before it erupts. As political scientist Jay Ulfelder, part of a team from the U.S. Holocaust Museum working on developing a forecasting model for atrocity prevention, writes: "[W]hen it comes to predicting major political crises like wars, coups, and popular uprisings, there are many plausible predictors for which we don't have any data at all, and much of what we do have is too sparse or too noisy to incorporate into carefully designed forecasting models." Moreover, as many other experts in the field have noted, history teaches us that early response does not necessarily follow early warning. But even with those caveats in mind, it is clear that, by strengthening and expanding our access to information about individuals and communities at risk for violent conflict, technology provides an environment in which, increasingly, both early warning and early action can occur.

Of course, it would be wrong to conclude without acknowledging the extent to which digital media and technology have also been enablers of violent conflict. Hardly a day goes by when we don't see a news story about the use of media and other technologies by al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations for recruitment, for fundraising, for detonating bombs, or for the coordination and execution of attacks like the recent one on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

But this is really the point -- the untold story of technology and peace: When the Westgate Mall was attacked, the gruesome, boastful Twitter messages of al-Shabab's gunmen rocketed around the world's media. But how many of us heard about Philip Ogola, who tweeted non-stop from Kenya's Red Cross social-media command center, steering help to where it could save lives throughout the violence?

It's time to tell this story loudly, to shine the global limelight on the quiet, PeaceTech revolution.



The Alternative to War

Introducing FP's Peace Channel and PeaceGame, in collaboration with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Peace is back.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's proposal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons -- whatever intentions lie behind it -- not only headed off the imminent use of military force by the United States, but also put the idea of a negotiated settlement back on the political agenda. The renewed focus on peace caught the U.S. administration by surprise. It also seemed to relieve most Americans. According to a September poll by the Washington Post and ABC News, 79 percent of Americans support the Russian plan. Only 30 percent support U.S. military strikes against the Syrian government.

At the same time, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani are testing the waters for a diplomatic solution to their countries' decades-long nuclear standoff. Whether their pinky-toe diplomacy will go any further than it has already remains to be seen, but for the first time in years, a peaceful resolution has entered the realm of the possible (though not yet the realm of the probable). Similarly, Israel and the Palestinians are back at the negotiating table in an effort that one regional leader characterized during conversations at the United Nations General Assembly meeting as "the most promising in the past 14 years."

The recent flurry of activity underscores how far diplomacy has been from the center of discussions of national security in recent memory. This is all the more striking in the aftermath of more than a decade of war during which the limitations of force became all too evident. Despite the thousands of lives and billions of dollars sacrificed during the war in Afghanistan, that country's future hinges on the success of a democratic political transition after Hamid Karzai steps down as Afghan president in 2014. Force alone is insufficient to bring about peace. Only legitimate elections, the avoidance of an economic collapse, and eventual talks with the Taliban can lay the foundation for sustainable security -- but such issues receive far less attention and certainly vastly fewer dollars than the military dimension.

In short, it is time to get serious about peace.

Imagine, for a moment, what foreign policy would look like if we did take peace seriously. Not peace as an unattainable utopian ideal. Not peace as a warm chestnut served up in speeches. Rather, what if we approached the achievement of peace with the same kind of time, energy, resources, and realism with which we approach preparing for wars? What if we viewed peace not as the cessation of hostilities, a coda to the serious work of projecting force, but rather as the achievement of the political, economic, social, environmental, cultural, and other factors that lead to stability, organic growth, and conflict resolution -- within rather than apart from a system of laws?

This is the premise of a new series of ventures by Foreign Policy in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace. This series will include FP's new Peace Channel, a forum for cutting-edge analysis and reporting on how to build peace; PeaceGame, a counterpoint to Washington's traditional emphasis on war games; and an educational outreach initiative to engage young people who are the natural constituents of peace. Our goal is to reintroduce peace not only as an idea, but also as a pragmatic policy option. To do this, we need a forum to debate the merits of both policy and practice. We need expertise and new voices at the table to address the drivers of violence.

Peace is hard work, and we do not take these initiatives lightly. But war is costly, too, on almost every level.

According to the World Bank's 2011 report on conflict, security, and economic development, wars can wipe out an entire generation of economic progress. A typical civil war in a medium-sized country costs more than 30 years of GDP growth. It takes an average of 20 years for trade levels to recover after a major episode of violence.

The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates the cost of containing violence at $9.46 trillion in 2012, or roughly 11 percent of gross world product. This equates to nearly twice the value of the world's agricultural production, nearly five times the size of the global tourism industry, and almost 13 times the annual output of the global airlines industry. And none of this assesses the incalculable human costs of conflict -- not just the loss of lives and the dislocations, but the pain and suffering that manifestations of man's inhumanity to man brings.

Turning from costs to opportunities, we know that peace is possible even where it seems improbable. Who would have predicted that Kenya's 2013 election would have passed without significant violence after a 2007 election that resulted in hundreds killed and hundreds of thousands displaced? Who would have imagined that Rwanda (for all its continuing human rights violations and its pernicious role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's civil war) would emerge from genocide to become one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa? Who would have foreseen Disney cruise ships making port calls in Cartagena, Colombia?

We know that nonviolent political movements are often more effective than violent ones. Scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan demonstrate, for instance, that peaceful uprisings are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones. This occurs not just because peaceful uprisings have the moral high ground, but because nonviolent movements have proved more effective at undermining the pillars of strength on which oppressive regimes depend.

Taking peace seriously should not be confused with pacifism. Although some who endorse nonviolence are indeed pacifists, many others (we among them) recognize that there are times when the use or threat of force is essential to ensure security and protect interests. Peaceful approaches, however, can be more successful, more sustainable, and less costly. Violence also has a profound effect on human psychology and can harden opponents to negotiated solutions, even when such outcomes would serve the best interests of all parties involved.

Taking peace seriously would require significant change on the part of governments and the institutions that support them.

First, we would need to radically improve our understanding of peace and how to practically achieve it. Quality analysis and established best practices are available -- but they pale in comparison with what is available in the arena of hard power. Within the policy community, we would have to do some cultural heavy-lifting, because conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction still tend to be viewed -- in the same vein as development, the environment, women's rights, and advancing civil society -- as too soft and peripheral to sit at the grown-up table. (This second-class status persists even though it is clear these efforts are all crucial to preventing and ending conflict and preserving whatever they may have achieved.)

Second, we would need to invest more in promoting peaceful outcomes. Organizations like the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and many others have staff working in combat zones every day, but their resources are a sand speck on a flea compared with those of their partners in the military. As FP has reported, the Pentagon spent $5 million last year on a television channel featuring shows like The Grill Sergeants, but the U.S. Congress spends only seven times that on USIP's activities in places such as Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Myanmar, Sudan, and South Sudan -- less than the cost of maintaining one light rifle infantry platoon in Afghanistan.

Finally, we need to change the way we talk about peace. Peace is not just the cessation of hostilities. Rather it must be viewed, if it is to be sustainable, as the achievement of conditions that promote the kind of opportunities that drive people to work within, rather than against, the economic and political systems in the countries in which they live. Peace is, as it happens, much bigger than it is often characterized as being, and this contributes to the fact that we so often fail to achieve lasting peace in zones of chronic conflict.

PeaceGame and the Peace Channel will advance these goals. PeaceGame will do so twice a year, bringing world leaders, experts, and students together in a scenario setting to tackle some of the toughest problems of peacemaking that we face -- once each spring in the Middle East, once each fall in the United States. The Peace Channel will do so every week by presenting news and analysis linked to the various elements of peace -- negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction, peacekeeping, and related issues of development -- including regular contributions from FP writers and editors and from experts at USIP. In addition, starting next year, we will conduct an annual contest seeking the best ideas from graduate and undergraduate students studying these issues -- with the winners invited to join and observe the PeaceGame events.

Along with the contribution of our own resources to these events, FP is pleased that some elements of this comprehensive program, to which we are committing for an initial period of three years, are being underwritten courtesy of the government of the United Arab Emirates. As with all our undertakings, FP is solely responsible for the content of our undertakings, but with an effort this important, we are also exceptionally grateful for the support to do it right.

Watch the Peace Channel for more information about PeaceGame and related programs. It will be part of FP's newly redesigned website, launching in beta version on Oct. 11 and for all the world to see on Oct. 28.

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