Peace technology: A promising tool for preventing wars at reduced price

by Quratulain Fatima | Agency for Barani Areas Development
Friday, 23 March 2018 16:03 GMT

An internally displaced Syrian family that fled from Aleppo inspect a mobile phone near tents in the village of Batabo, northern Idlib countryside, Syria, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From apps to help citizens avoid missiles and land mines to rumor tracking mobile-based services using SMS, peace technology is one promising tool to prevent conflict

It has been seven years since I left Pakistan's Air Force, where I was part of the war against terrorism. I left hoping our conflicts would end soon, but nothing has changed. A World Bank-UN study "Pathways for Peace" has found that in 2016 alone, more countries experienced conflict than at any time in past 30 years. According to the same study, the economic cost of responding to conflict for 2012 was US $9.46 trillion which is 2.4 times the total GDP of Africa. Whereas, targeting resources toward countries at high risk of conflict each year could result in average net savings of $33 billion per year from avoided conflicts for the international community. But instead of saving more, we are spending more - and more people are dying.

With conflict resolution and rebuilding costs increasing at an alarming rate in prolonged conflicts like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, many experts say that the focus of the international community needs to shift from conflict resolution to conflict prevention. It is high time that, in addition to existing peace-building tools, we explore new, effective and cheap tools of conflict prevention. 

Today in a second career where I am building water infrastructures for poor farmers, I find I am able to try to prevent conflicts that I was responding to in the Air Force. I have experienced that investment in conflict prevention tools reduce military spending and free tax money for education, health and other priorities. One such tool is the use of information and communication technology for conflict prevention. This technology is most commonly known by the collective name of peace technology or "PeaceTech." PeaceTech includes, but is not limited to, the use of mobile phones, digital applications, geographical information systems, social media and even digital games for achieving peace.

Even in relatively poor countries, technology is already an integral part of life that does everything from bringing news and entertainment to saving lives. Everyone tweeting can now become a voice, and thus a stakeholder, in a conflict. So why not use the technology as an effective and low-cost peace tool?

In Pakistan, I work on a project where we map geographical features on the earth surface, called a Geographical Information System (GIS). This was initially developed to design water dams and ponds in arid areas, but has been successfully put to use to prevent and resolve communal water disputes among farming communities at zero cost. Using this tool, the locations and conflict intensity can be geographically pinpointed on maps. These maps are then analyzed to assess what interventions are needed to stop conflict from breaking out. The GIS system also acts as an early warning network for conflict and a database of resolutions. 

While still in its early stages, we hope this project will help stop violence before it starts, helping government officials and non-governmental organizations to use geo-spatial data to support existing conflict prevention mechanisms like village elders and community organizations in the area.

GIS is only one of the many PeaceTech tools that are making prevention work around the world. The Una Hakika (which means "are you sure?" in Swahili) project in Kenya is a rumor tracking mobile-based service using SMS and a web and mobile-based platform (wikirumours) moderating misinformation and disinformation to track and counter violence-inciting rumours in Kenya's Tana Delta. An impact evaluation for Una Hakika shows that a number of 300 rumour investigations led to results benefiting an estimated 45,000 people over a period of a year.

Likewise, tech fans in Syria are creating apps to help citizens avoid missiles and land mines. These early warning systems received reports of ballistic missile launches, made calculations and sent early warnings through SMS and email to the publics to avoid attacks. Until now peace builders have been predominantly using traditional tools of prevention - diplomacy, mediation and consensus-building. These approaches have their limits, however, and what is often missing is outreach to the individuals in communities at risk of a violent conflict. Peace technology is one promising tool for making these connections. It can also be effectively used as a data collection tool to build a strong responsive database for organizations working on conflict prevention.

Conflict prevention is not only about saving lives by preempting fighting but also saving the unnecessary costs of rebuilding conflict torn communities. Conflict engagement and post-conflict rebuilding has a high price tag. A 1997 Carnegie Commission report estimated that preventing the Rwandan genocide would not have only saved lives but would have cost one third of the $2 billion spent on international relief and rehabilitation effort during three years following the genocide. The World Bank-UN report found that benefits of prevention increase over time whereas costs fall.

Of course, technology solutions have pitfalls. First, if technological systems are not designed with the end users in mind, then even the best technology will not achieve intended results. Second, it is a fact that these same technologies can be used effectively by terrorist groups, such as ISIS, for propaganda and recruitment. But ultimately technology is a tool that can be put to service for all kinds of goals - we must choose to do more to harness its potential for peace!

Technology is often blamed for tearing society apart - responsible for spreading fake news, a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations and amplifying social divisions. But with a bit of creative thinking, the PeaceTech movement is showing us that technology can serve a different purpose - harnessing the power of people and data to help save lives and pull communities together.

Quratulain Fatima is the Project Lead of the Agency for Barani Areas Development, with a focus on gender inclusive development and conflict prevention, and she was the first woman to join the Pakistan Air Force. She is a 2018 Aspen New Voices Fellow, a BuildPeace Fellow 2017-18 and Oxford Global Leadership Initiative Fellow 2016. You can follow her on Twitter at @moodee_q.