Blue Nile State, Sudan
Helena Puig Larrauri is a freelance peacebuilding consultant whose clients include the Open Society Foundation, Mercy Corps and UNDP. She visited the Center for Civic Media to talk about two projects she is working on that explore the use of technology in peacebuilding, in Cyprus and Sudan.
This is a liveblog and not a verbatim transcript. If you spot errors, let us know.
Helena begins by mentioning Ethan Zuckerman’s ideas about thin and thick engagement – if we want engagement that’s thick and scalable, we need to focus on agency. We need to not only understand what the tactics for peacebuilding are, but also the levers.
1. Preventing imminent conflict – most people are talking about this. Early warning and early response systems. Africa-wide systems, country systems.
2. Transforming attitudes
3. Fostering collaboration
4. Influencing policy (related to the conflict)
These other three are important. None of them are discreet, most projects touch on at least two or three of these levers. The tactic I want to talk about is changing the discourse.
I understand changing the discourse by making reference to Foucault’s ‘changing the game of truth’. Societies create a set of truth that we think is our reality. It defines the way we see ourselves in a society – our place in the game. This is import ant for conflict because conflict is the ultimate game of truths. It solidifies our subjectivity to the point that we’re willing to kill for it.
If you’ve looked at mediation theory – this is not traditional. Mediation theory talks about game theory – we can change the rules and incentives, and that will change the game and behaviours. I think that’s limited. Manipulating and repositioning is only ever a partial solution. The only way to transform a conflict is to skip out of a game and say, I don’t want to play this game anymore.
At that moment it’s possible to change the game entirely, and invent a new one.
Introduces two case studies – Sudan and Cyprus.
We’ve sat with groups from different communities who are engaged in local disputes – e.g. over resources. On one occasion there was a mediation between two tribes and we returned for a follow-up meeting.
A woman stood up and said that after the mediation meeting, a woman from the opposite community had told her she didn’t understand how difficult their life was. The woman replied that she felt the same – i.e. her group was more disadvantaged than the other. The two women argued for a while, then they went for a walk. They were each arguing about the other group having tin rooves – and therefore being more prosperous. Both denied they had tin rooves, but didn’t believe the other. The two women climbed upa hill to look over both communities, and saw that no one had tin rooves. This was a moment when both sides realised the other was under a false impression.
We’ve been gathering stories about ‘critical moments’ or turning points in the story of peacebuilding in Cyprus.
At a meeting that gathered different people involved in peace activism, participants were trying to remember the date of the wildfires of 1995, which was a time when Greek and Turkish Cypriots worked together to solve a problem. One person said she remembered the date because it was when her son was born, other people then started talking about what was happening in their personal lives. It created a connection.
How can we change the discourse of peace?
1. Make communication flatter and more participatory
2. Make communication more creative and entertaining
This offers opportunities for thick engagement. It doesn’t always result in a peaceful situation, but it can.
Sudan – background context
Got its independence in 1956, two civil wars, the second of which finished in 2005. The outcome of the peace agreement led to the division of Sudan in 2011. Has seen a lot of recent conflict. It’s also a beautiful country and some of the most welcoming people she’s ever met.
Introduces the conflict in the Blue Nile State. It’s rarely talked about. It’s a transitional area – where a lot of the civil war was fought. They have a mostly nomadic pastoralist community and a settled farming community. The two communities have historically had a lot of conflicts.
Conflicts have intensified because the nomads have been squeezed by three factors: construction of a large dam, closure of the border with South Sudan, closure of the border with Ethiopia. This has led to greater pressure on resources and space.
The SUDIA project
Worked with SUDIA
, a Sudanese NGO with a strong community network
A common trigger of conflict is a lack of communication: specific information mismatches, and general misconception of the other.
SUDIA came up with the idea of a two-way communication system that would allow both communities to talk to each other and understand events.
They developed a plan for an SMS and radio communications system (shows diagram).
Most communities have some limited access to mobile phones. Set up Teams would send SMS reports on livelihoods, nomadic movement, peace agreements.
Produces a summary report every two weeks – distributed via SMS (people can text to subscribe) and community radio. The community radio station organized listening groups.
The idea was to flatten the communication, so people could share information on what’s around them, and entertain them – the radio program gives people something to talk about over tea, through listening groups.
SUDIA ran several trainings on it, did a test run of the system, and then the government shut it down. Government decision happened recently. They’re thinking of other ways to introduce it.
Cyprus – background context
North is Turkish Cypriot administered area, the south is a Greek Cypriot administered area. Lots of displaced people. There’s a physical buffer zone, that divides the country, including the capital Nicosia.
It’s a frozen conflict in a very well developed country – dev indicators are pretty high. Very different to Sudan. There’s quite a lot of posturing but not a lot of violence in the recent past (although previously there was a lot). One thing that strikes visitors is that if you’re on the Greek side and you look over to the Turkish side, there’s a big flashing Turkish Cypriot flag. It seems to be the only thing that doesn’t go down in a power cut. The border is open. For example – shows a picture of friends going across the border for lunch.
The UN Buffer Zone is controlled by UN peacekeepers who are known informally as the ‘beachkeepers’ because they don’t have a lot of peace to keep.
There’s a long tradition of peace activism in Cyprus. There was a referendum on the Annan plan, to reunite Cyrpus, in 2004. Peace activists hoped that it would lead to a vote for reunification, but it didn’t.
For older activists involved in the referendum, there’s a sense of where do we go from here. The new generation of activists who are more focused on disruption, e.g. Occupy Buffer Zone
One slogan they had: “Hey UN, you probably don’t know this, but we’re trying to help.”
Mahallae – a platform for peace
UNDP is funding Mahallae – an online platform that is under construction, and its aim is to bring together different peace activists to tell the story of peace in Cyprus and create new stories. It’s an ambitious project; I want to focus on one part of it, telling the story of peace.
It tries to tell the story of peace in two ways:
1. Collecting critical moments
Shows a visualization of peace-building projects that have been categorized across 6 types of change that they’ve brought about: empowerment, contact, respect, trust, forgiveness and collaboration.
We’re running focus groups to collect critical moments – stories of turning points people lived through. Each one of the critical moments will have a transmedia story.
Explains the graph – x axis is the date when projects happened, y axis is the number of projects. Colors show the types of projects.
It’s about peace activists telling the stories and passing them through generations. It’s building agency because there is a perception that projects are donor-driven and this platform helps activists reflect on their trajectory
Web app targeting people who aren’t involved in peace. Asking people what their personal contribution to peace is. They take a simple test (15-17 qs) on their daily behaviours. Ask questions like – do you have friends from the other community? There will be provocative questions like – you’ve just heard a racist joke, did you laugh? Did you feel bad?
It will give you a score, a matrix showing where you are compared to others, and recommendations for what you can do. It will look at ‘what do you think about peace’ and ‘what do you do about peace’?
We want to draw people who are not peace activists into the discourse, even if they’re not directly engaged in this work.
Why Sudan and Cyprus?
Why did I want to talk about these two projects that might seem very different?
Both projects are trying to change the discourse of peace and enable people to skip out of the game they’re engaged in. We don’t know what people will do with more information, and we don’t know how or if the discourse will change with these interventions. It could lead to more thin engagement.
I was encouraged by Ethan’s point that thick participation at scale involves devolving control. Also, Ethan points out that in order to climb the ladder of engagement in building peace, we have to help people understand where they sit in this story of conflict. That’s what I think is different about these conflicts. We’re trying to deepen people’s foundations of understanding.
Sudan: This is very different from a top-down early warning system, which is about thin engagement – tell me information and I’ll respond to it. The Sudan example is putting the onus of response on the same people who are doing the warning – this is all part of the story of peace and conflict that we’re involved in.
Cyprus: The aim is to make everyone more reflective – peace activists and non-activists – is making everyone responsible for the story of peace, and to recognize their place in it.
We’re trying to get people to surmount the sense of inevitability which is often present in conflict contexts.
John Paul Lederac talks about this too. He says what peacebuilders fundamentally need to do is to provide spaces for the moral imagination to emerge. Moral imagination is the ability to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. That’s another way to think about thick, impactful and scalable engagement – in the context of peacebuilding. It’s a tall order.
“Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time.”
Matt Stempeck: Come across the term mass collaboration, the way that people converge on a crisis online in the same way they do physically. You mentioned a few ways of facilitating this in peacebuilding. How do you think there can be a better membrane between formal and informal institutions?
HPL: What’s interesting about Mahalla, is that it’s a UNDP project – it’s a big actor saying, “we get it.” A lot of the big actors are seeing that there’s a lot of power in empowering these groups. There are groups in your space working with OCHA in a hybrid model. I think the hybrids are the way to go.
Chris Peterson: Latour has an approach for Science and Technology Studies, that you should take matters of fact into matters of concern. I was thinking that this could be part of the role of technology in your account – look for things that the participants take as core truths, and then destabilise them by revealing some aspect of their contingency, in the same way that the hill provided a way to reveal those differences.
HPL: In the peacebuilding space people think about revealing how people are feeling to the politicians. I wonder whether technology can reveal to the people what the people are thinking. You should look at The Peace Factory
Q: You mentioned that people use the app once and put it away. Have you thought about ways to bring people back to it?
HPL: We’re not thinking about bringing people back at this point, because once you’ve taken the test, it’s done. But people will be able to share their position in the matrix on social media, and continue to commentary then; the suggestions we’re making for people to be active are tools and projects hosted on the rest of the platform, so people will engage there.
Q: I’m from Urban Planning, we talk more about actors and institutions than technology. I wonder if technology, because of the capturable results, can give funders a thicker contribution? Can you incentivise funders to stick around longer?
HPL: Really important question. Other projects focus specifically on doing very comprehensive reporting. Dispute resolution is often very hard to track – e.g. we’ve been doing that in Iraq. Often funders will fund projects specifically because they’re technology projects – which gives you a lot of freedom.
Q: Most funders are NGOs who want to improve the quality of life of people, which is presumed to lead to peace. Is there a layer where it’s connected to economic development?
HPL: Neither of the projects I spoke about deal with that. Previously when I was based in Sudan, we did community level mapping, which began with conflict mapping and resolving conflicts, but also did resource mapping. It’s about improving quality of life at the same point as fostering collaboration. If you build a well without resolving the conflict, no one will use it.
Ian Condry: How much is discourse the cause, and discourse the conflict? Most people say they’re for peace. Foucault is useful for his theory of discourse, but for him more discourse is also more discipline. Is it possible to go further in identifying different social actors – I saw that in the SUDIA example. In some ways we’ve won the discourse of peace, everyone wants it, but won’t give up other things — that’s the critique. Is there a way of mapping those levers in terms of their social position, which might be a way of saying — we want to change specific people’s attitudes on specific issues. The demands are very concrete.
HPL: When people say we’re all for peace, I say, what’s peace? They usually say, not war. That’s not a definition. There’s a psychologist called James Hillman who wrote ‘The Terrible Love of War’, and tries to understand why people go to war. Everyone is for peace, but everyone shows up for war. There are individual reasons why people show up for war. One way to think about social groups is the resources they have; another way is to think about their position in the livelihood ecology; another way is to think about who is creating divisions and who promote connections.
People often think that youth are the ones promoting conflict, but they’re also the ones getting married – often cross border lines.
People often think that tribal leaders are the ones who come up with peace agreements, but they’re also the ones who will stand up and speak at gatherings and give inflammatory speeches.
Charlie De Tar: Some of the most compelling moments are these very personal moments – e.g. going up on the hill. One place I’ve seen this is the epidemiological metaphor being used by violence disruptors in Chicago.
HPL: I love the work of Cease Fire
in Chicago; there’s a group in Kenya looking to do a similar thing.
Gordon: One of the big challenges is the number of languages. What are your experiences of choosing language for a project?
HPL: In Sudan we’re working mainly with arabic-speaking tribes, so it’s not a divisive choice to make. The bigger problem we had was in literacy – using text was problematic because a lot of people can’t read or write. One tactic we used was to pair people – an older, illiterate person, paired with a younger, literate person, and they would collaborate and share information. The project I talked about builds on a certain commonality. It wouldn’t be easy to do everywhere. SUDIA is considering doing this in Darfur.
Becky Hurwitz: Will divisions in Cyprus make it difficult for people to communicate across the system. How do you represent who you are to get people involved?
HPL: In Cyprus it’s relatively easy for people to talk to each other – you can walk across the border. Almost everyone speaks English after a certain age. The platform is in English, not Greek or Turkish, which is a specific design decision. There are two centres that were created – one Turkish, one Greek, and they collaborate closely. They’re behind the system — it’s a bicommunal system.