“But what about leaks on social media? There’s no closed door negotiation when everyone is on Twitter.”
Mediators are increasingly concerned about the threats posed to peacemaking efforts by digital technologies. They express concern over the risk of data leaks, a loss of control over dialogue confidentiality or the impact of social media on conflict narratives. At the same time, they recognise that technology provides an opportunity to advance their strategic objectives and are increasingly interested in understanding how to harness that opportunity.
Because concerns about risks have been dominant for a long time, there are fewer examples of technology positively influencing mediation processes. Mediation has lagged behind adjacent fields in its exploration of the positive potential of digital technologies, resulting in a deficit of concrete case studies. Whilst a growing number of track 3 efforts are experimenting with technology tools that increase their impact, less has been done at the track 1 level.
Contributing to a recent project by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Build Up has been working with mediators to address this gap. So what have we learnt?
Digital technology can support mediators to achieve the strategic purposes of inclusion. Mediators are working to address the challenges of inclusive peace processes, recognising that genuinely inclusive processes are key to achieving sustainable peace. Building on research conducted at the Graduate Institute (read the full article here), the project explored how technology can support mediators as they work towards four specific purposes of inclusion. From enhancing the legitimacy of a peace process, to empowering vulnerable communities, mitigating risk or transforming community relations, digital technologies can play an important role in enabling inclusive peacemaking. This means that mediators should not only consider reacting to the threats posed by technology, but also designing ways to use technology for the strategic purposes of inclusion.
Digital technologies can contribute to these strategic purposes through three general functions: data management, strategic communications, and dialogue and networking, each connected to a series of concrete outputs — from enabling political expression to mobilizing people or granting access to new information. Build Up has developed this framework to understand the function of digital technologies in mediation efforts. This expands upon earlier versions of the framework developed to explore the function of technology in local peacebuilding processes.
This distinction between the functions of technology and the strategic purposes of inclusion is crucial. It enables mediators to design digital technologies that are suited not only to the context, but that are integral to the goal of a process itself. Mediators can ask themselves ‘what are we trying to do’ (the purpose they want to achieve) and then consider whether and how the functions of technologies can support that purpose.
Together with a group of mediators and mediation support actors, we explored how to apply this framework of functions and strategic purposes through a participatory online design process that produced a set of concrete use cases for digital inclusion. Each of these use cases seeks to move the field forward, away from seeing technology as a threat and moving towards its role as an opportunity. In four very different hypothetical scenarios (national dialogue processes, comprehensive ceasefire agreements, electoral violence and localised armed insurgencies), we explored how tools such as rapid polling, virtual exchange, social media campaigns or mobile applications can enhance inclusion.
The conversation around use cases naturally brings up questions around unique contextual factors, risks and unintended consequences. At Build Up, we take these risks very seriously, recognising that technology is not neutral, nor is it a panacea to overcoming all strategic challenges. Throughout the online course that led to producing the use cases, we placed a strong emphasis on the concept of human-centered design. This process ensures that technology tools are designed together with the communities they seek to include, rather than for them. As the mediation field moves to further embrace the opportunities provided by technology, this methodology will be a crucial factor in mitigating some of these risks and ensuring a conflict sensitive approach.
Where next for the field?
The use cases and additional information on this research project are now visible on this website.
In 2020, we plan to build on this research, and further develop our understanding of the potential for digital technologies to enhance mediation processes. We look forward to working with more mediators through additional trainings, workshops and consultations to refine the framework described in this post.
But the framework is just a starting point — there is a real need to design and implement concrete pilots for digital inclusion. We hope to accompany mediators through this process, developing an evidence base that can in turn enhance and adapt the framework. We are already exploring partnerships with organisations such as The Shaikh Group, to examine how concrete pilots can support existing dialogue and mediation efforts.
Until now, mediators have been concerned about the misuse of digital technologies. That’s a valid concern. But we also think that mediators should worry about the missed use of technology — and are working to move the field in the direction of strategic, sensitive use of technology.
More information about this research project, and the results of the participatory design process are available here.