Digital Inclusion in Peacemaking: Opportunities During and After COVID-19
Andreas Hirblinger, Postdoctoral Researcher, CCDP
Mediating conflict and building an inclusive peace in the middle of a global pandemic is no small thing. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, and the far-reaching travel restrictions and lockdowns that came with it, the peacemaking community has been challenged with maintaining the inclusivity of peace processes. For instance, how can mediators avoid that current restrictions favor elites who are able to assert their influence on peace processes, while others are shut out? And how can peace processes that are “taken online” still promote meaningful participation?
Despite limitations imposed by the current crisis, new approaches that draw on digital technology to enable inclusion are underway. A recent example is the effort to proceed with civil society consultations in the Syrian political process through the use of digital tools, in the strife towards a sustainable political solution in Syria. While the pandemic has highlighted a growing need for digital solutions that help maintain broader participation in peace processes, this should not be considered a short lived trend. Digital inclusion will and must remain a topic of discussion, even in a post-pandemic era.
In a recent working paper for the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP), I reviewed current uses of digital technologies in the mediation community. The project, funded by the United States institute of Peace (USIP), aimed to support mediators in effectively engaging with digital tools to enhance inclusion in peace processes. In collaboration with the non-profit Build Up, we also ran a participatory online course, which contributed to the development of illustrative use cases of technology for digital inclusion.
In the digital age, conflict parties and stakeholders make use of digital technologies (or digital ICTs – Information and Communication Technologies) to further their interests and agendas. The conflict affected population also use such technologies to obtain information about the conflict, partake in political activities, or engage in conflict resolution efforts. In particular, social media is known for both shaping public opinion and facilitating political mobilization — as well as its detrimental effects on polarization and political extremism. There is now a broad range of devices, platforms, and techniques that communicate, process, and store data. This involves both hardware and software, that open up new avenues for connection and engagement in peacebuilding that previously did not exist.
This increased digitization can have positive and negative effects on peacemaking efforts. Currently, the dominant narrative among mediators is that the use of digital ICTs may result in a lack of control over the process, for instance through security breaches or leaks. Yet, it is important to consider and explore the positive potential of digital technology. Conversations must be held on how digital technology could be harnessed for peacemaking, while being aware of its boundaries and pitfalls.
We can understand digital inclusion as all efforts through which the voice of conflict stakeholders is integrated into peace processes in the form of digital data. “Voice” in this sense, includes all types of digital information that are intentionally provided by conflict parties or stakeholders, to change the objectionable state of affairs. By answering online surveys, participating in virtual dialogue activities, or clicking on “yes” or “no”, online users can partake in the negotiation of a peaceful political settlement.
It is also important that (digital) inclusion is not perceived as an end in itself but a means to an end. The project therefore developed a strategic perspective on digital inclusion, which helps to explore its purposeful use along four major objectives: strengthening the legitimacy of peace processes and their outcomes, empowering women and marginalized or vulnerable groups, reducing threats or risks to a peace process, and transforming relationships of those in conflict.
In 2012, the peace process between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government involved the use of digital technologies, to consult with the public to shape the agenda of the negotiations. Drawing on this and similar examples, the project explored how public digital consultations can be held to include broad parts of a conflict-affected population. Such consultations can be conducted in dedicated online discussion fora, which allow for interactive communication between mediators and populations during ongoing peace processes. They can focus on specific and tangible parts of negotiations to gather relevant data, amplify and diversify the messages of various stakeholders affected by the given process. The results produced could help assess the population’s needs and interests, and be used by the mediator to inform the course of negotiations. This data could also be analyzed and synthesized using e.g. text analysis tools that leverage artificial intelligence. What is more, the consultations’ results could be disseminated through social media campaigns, inviting people to online discussions to enable deliberation between them.
The project discussed many other technology use cases, i.e. situations in which technology could be applied. These are tailored to different contexts and peacemaking challenges. The full documentation of cases can be found on the project’s website: www.digitalpeacemaking.com.
Conflict increasingly plays out in online spaces, and conflict parties further their positions through the use of digital ICTs. In spite of this development, some in the mediation community are hesitant to embrace this digitization of peace processes. In the shadow of COVID-19, mediation efforts will remain dependent on the use of digital means in the foreseeable future. Mediators will increasingly have to digitally conduct shuttle diplomacy, workshops, consultation, and conferences — practices that have traditionally been considered difficult to take “online”. The current crisis has accelerated a move towards the use of digital means to broaden participation in peace processes.
For future uses in a post-pandemic world, mediators and support actors will want to explore the added value of using digital technologies for inclusion, even if lockdowns are lifted and global travel is again possible. They must consider how digital tools can integrate the voice of those with limited access to the offline negotiation table. How can such tools change patterns of communication and enable more networked or fluid approaches that bring a greater diversity of interests and identities into the process? How can they create safe spaces that enable marginalized groups to organize and raise their grievances? And in what ways can digital technology disrupt social and political hierarchies that usually impede peacemaking efforts? Mediators should also assess how digital tools can create better and more meaningful data, based on which peace mediation and longer-term peace processes can be designed. Necessities sometimes create new opportunities. Expanding digital inclusion efforts during COVID-19 may be one of these moments.
Read the full working paper here: Digital Inclusion in Peacemaking: A Strategic Perspective at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies’ website.