UNTIL Interview with Dr. Sheldon Himelfarb: The Search For Peace Has New Digital Tools
Formerly the province of diplomats and envoys, these days some of the most exciting and promising work in the area of conflict prevention is being achieved by more grassroot sources. Around the world activists, tech entrepreneurs, data scientists, and every day citizens are at the forefront of a movement to design and adapt new technological models to mitigate conflict and open channels for peace.
One of the pioneers and leaders of the movement is Dr. Sheldon Himelfarb. A guru for the world's peacetech gurus, Himelfarb is most recently known as the founder of PeaceTech Lab, a Washington DC-based NGO that aims to reduce conflict through creative uses of technology, media, and data. Before this Himelfarb led media work for the NGO Search For Common Ground, nurtured peacetech through leadership roles at the US Institute of Peace, and was an early champion of technology for peace at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. UNTIL caught up with Himelfarb in May to talk about the state of the peacetech industry.
UNTIL: The field of Peace Tech is rather new. What would you say have been its signal achievements so far? Give us a brief overview of the field. Who are its leaders? Are some countries more advanced than others?
HIMELFARB: I first started using the word “peacetech” in 2008 to describe the exciting applied tech innovation we were seeing in conflict. Since that time, it’s been remarkable to see governments, corporations, universities, think tanks, and civil society organizations latch onto the term and develop whole portfolios around it. It really feels like we’re at the start of a movement-- a movement desperately needed at a time when all we see and hear is how tech threatens any chance we have of peaceful coexistence.
On the question of which countries are more advanced: the power of this movement lies in the fact that peacetech is ubiquitous -- everyone walking around with a mobile phone or an internet connection today has the power of peacetech in their hands. The traditional notions of “haves” and “have-nots” are completely upended. For instance, Ushahidi is a platform first developed in Kenya to report on cases of election violence. It has since been used to monitor elections here in the U.S. And in Niger, one of the poorest countries on Earth where approximately 40% of the population are mobile subscribers, our workshops drew over 100 NGOs, all braving power outages and 120+ degree heat to learn more about using technology in their work. So while we are of course seeing exciting new peacetech developments in places where we may expect a more progressive attitude towards technology-- Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States are all taking a keen interest in peacetech, data privacy, and early warning predictive analytics-- it’s really the innovation coming out of places like Lahore and Basra that make me most excited for the future of peacetech.
When it comes to the question of who is leading this movement, I think there are a few organizations that are focusing on it more than others -- us (PeaceTech Lab), Build Peace, and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. But to single out individuals or even a handful of organizations would be to miss the true movement that is happening. You can see more evidence of this in the number of new academic articles that are referencing “peacetech” -- this really shows the evolution and growth of this movement.
UNTIL: The term “peacetech” sounds innocent enough. But aren't there real concerns about the abuse of human rights that some innovations can bring? What is doing to monitor and prevent abuses?
HIMELFARB: This question goes directly to the heart of what peacetech stands for. Peacetech does not ignore the power of tech to be used for harm and hatred, but rather seeks to amplify its power for saving lives. Inherent in this is a recognition that the tech itself is neutral; it's what the user does with the tech that is most important.
UNTIL: The field of development sometimes feel like an industry that hasn't been seriously disrupted by technology. Would you agree? Why is this and what can organizations do to better promote the use of helpful innovations?
HIMELFARB: I think that if you disaggregate the field of development into its different parts -- health, education, agriculture, etc -- you will find that there has been quite a lot of technology disruption. But as to whether the development field as a whole has seen giant tech-driven transformation, I think it is hard to see at that level. In the individual spheres mentioned above there has been plenty of tech disruption, but it is hard to see it in the sum of the parts. Of course, if you look at the numbers of people that have been lifted out of abject poverty, it is clear that we have made major leaps forward. But I think the development field has been held back just as much from violent conflict as it has from technology diffusion or adoption. If we ever succeed at meaningful conflict prevention, we will see major strides in development as well.
UNTIL: The UN, many NGOs and donor countries have large communications staff but seldom engage in the kind of communications that can positively shape behaviors and perceptions. Why is this? Isn't this something of a missed opportunity?
HIMELFARB: When it comes to communications and the media environment generally, it is really hard to break through, especially if you are a government organization that has to be very cautious with messaging. Yes, I do think that social media offers a great opportunity for reaching people; and I think that everyone is still trying to figure out how to best utilize that, as it is still a relatively new phenomenon. For our part, we’ve looked to social media as a learning and listening tool. Our Lexicons of Hate Speech research is intended to inform and encourage those who are the best messengers of peace in their own countries.
UNTIL: UN Peacekeepers represent one of the largest standing armies in the world, working in some of the least peaceful places. How has Peacekeeping embraced peacetech? What specific tools have proven worthwhile? What kind of tech would you like to see deployed in a Peacekeeping mission setting?
HIMELFARB: I think the opportunities for UN Peacekeepers to embrace new tech are enormous, and Walter Dorn has written extensively about this, right down to listing specific tools that can be used. I see opportunities in everything from sensing technology and peace drones to data for early warning and early response; these are just few of the tools that come immediately to mind for peacekeeping specifically, but there are so many more examples and opportunities for tech to impact and improve this vital work.
UNTIL: How will peace tech transform peacekeeping and conflict resolution? What do you think these fields will look like in 2030 compared to now?
HIMELFARB: Tech moves at a thousand miles an hour. I have a hard time telling you what these fields will look like in 2020 let alone 2030. But I hope we will see the use of peacetech for everything from promoting social and emotional learning around sharing this planet to data driven strategies for galvanizing early intervention so that we see in 2030 effective use of peacetech for conflict prevention purposes.
UNTIL: Are there PeaceTech tools that everyday citizens can use to improve their communities? What are some examples?
HIMELFARB: Yes! Everyone has the power of peacetech with a mobile phone or internet connection and that ranges from downloading a peacetech app (such as the ones created to make your community safer and promote good governance, like I Paid A Bribe.com or Hollaback! for women’s security) or participating in a crowdfund (such as the one that got the hacker space started in Baghdad to promote youth engagement), or to develop your own peacetech solution! Download the MIT Free App maker and create your own peacetech app! That is the beauty of today - there are so many opportunities for each of us to participate in peacetech. If anyone wants to figure out how they can be part of the peacetech movement - all they need to do is come to our website.
UNTIL: How is PeaceTech being used to advance the SDG's?
HIMELFARB: There is not a single SDG for which peacetech does not have value. Whether it’s technology to protect women and girls, to alleviate resource scarcity and hunger, or promote peace and justice with SDG 16, there is so much that peacetech offers in terms of practical solutions to these big challenges.