Peacetech from the ground up in Colombia: Charting uncharted waters

By Diana Dajer, Build Peace Fellow and PhD Candidate in Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford

These are puzzling times for citizen participation in Colombia. After four years of negotiations, the Colombian Government and FARC guerrilla signed a Peace Agreement to end the oldest armed conflict of the Western Hemisphere. Yet, on October 2nd, 50.2 per cent of the Colombian citizens that participated in a referendum about the Agreement voted No, thus rejecting its endorsement. The decision was followed by several demonstrations and participatory initiatives all over the country including all sectors of society, to pressure a new peace agreement.

Medellín’s citizens getting informed about the projects and delegates to vote for in the 2016 Participatory Budgeting Process.

With more than 400 hits, one of the most used words in the Agreement was participation. In fact, the implementation of the Final Accord included more than forty participatory initiatives. Then why did citizens reject the Agreement through, precisely, a participatory mechanism? Actually, the results of the referendum mirrored the consequences of more than five decades of conflict: A polarized society that faces many difficulties in the road towards peace. This was at the heart of the referendum’s outcomes.

The million-dollar question that a peacetech reader might be asking is: How can technology be used to build peace in this context? The Build Peace Fellows Programme has been a unique opportunity to understand the challenges of participatory initiatives in the Colombian peacebuilding scenario, and the role that technology can play to boost trust and reconciliation in territories divided by decades of violence.

Building peace through e-participatory budgeting: The interaction between technology, participation and peace

One of the bottom-up participatory mechanisms included in the peace agreements is participatory budgeting, which is a process that allows citizens and communities of a locality to directly decide how to spend part of the local budget in specific investment projects or social programmes.

Participatory budgeting aims to serve two purposes in the Colombian post-conflict context. On the one hand, to build confidence in governmental processes, which has been eroded by the conflict. On the other, to bring people together from opposing sides of the conflict, giving them a space to dialogue and decide about projects that the community needs, building local bridges.

After its first appearance in 1989 in Brazil, participatory budgeting has spread to various municipalities in all five continents. Today more than 1700 cities worldwide use this mechanism. Likewise, in the last decade some of them have started to use ICT’s to enhance participatory budgeting processes.

Youth playing football on a field funded with participatory budgeting resources.

The majority of these tools focus on informing citizens about participatory budgeting processes, facilitating the collection of proposals and deliberation processes, and allowing online voting and monitoring of the implementation of the projects prioritized by the community. Yet, none of them has a specific component to foster interaction between opposing sides of an armed conflict, or the inclusion of victims, former combatants, and citizens traditionally marginalised in a violent context.

In Colombia, more than fifty municipalities have implemented participatory budgeting processes. One of them is Medellín, with a decade of experience in offline participatory budgeting. As part of the Build Peace Fellows Programme, and with the support of Medellín’s Town Hall, I am conducting a pilot study to design, test and evaluate a participatory budgeting tech tool to particularly target peacebuilding needs in Colombia.

What does peace mean? Social inclusion, empowerment, coexistence and transparency

One of the main challenges that the project faced from the start –which was reflected in the referendum’s results– is that peace has many faces in Colombia, which means that there are a plurality of visions regarding what peace entails. For instance, some of the NO voters in the referendum argued that they want peace, but not the version of peace included in the Peace Agreement signed with FARC.

Citizens of a participatory budgeting deliberation assembly in the Commune 1 of Medellín.

A pivotal part of building peacetech from the ground up implies placing the participants are the centre of the project. Hence, the tool should echo their own approach to peacebuilding.

This is why, in order to understand what could be the most appropriate tech tool to build, we needed to identify what peace meant for Medellín’s citizens. For that purpose, since the start of the project, we engaged in a broad participatory research process with citizens, public servants, academics and stakeholders of participatory budgeting in Medellín, to identify the peace needs in their communities.

Four issues were persistent. First, that peace implied a strong component of social inclusion, understood in terms of citizens, particularly the ones most affected by the conflict, being taken into account by the local and national state, and having their political, economic, social and cultural rights satisfied.

Closely related with this issue, a second view of peace that was recurrent in Medellín’s participatory budgeting process was the empowerment of citizens. Since citizen participation has been deeply affected by the conflict, in this context empowerment meant to make citizens interested in participation and the benefits it could bring to their communities.

Third, although we initially thought that a strong component of peace was reconciliation–comprehended in terms of finding mutual understandings and healing of social relations between opposing sides–, in the interviews and workshops a concept that resonated better with citizens was coexistence.

Citizens of Medellín’s Commune 7 identifying their peacetech tools in a workshop.

This was a lesson on the importance of patience and about viewing peace as a process where a first step might be to provide the conditions needed for citizens from different backgrounds to live together without violence, solving their problems with dialogue and the support of the local and national legal institutions.

Finally, a fourth label of peace in the participatory budgeting process of Medellín was transparency. In the view on many participants, corruption and clientelism fuelled the Colombian armed conflict. Thus, having a more transparent public administration might decrease violence.

Some challenges and lessons of building peacetech tools to foster citizen participation in Colombia

The challenges of participatory initiatives in Colombia abound, and we are walking on eggshells. The society is polarized and fragmented, activism is stigmatized, participation bears high costs, there is little trust, and the creation of new expectations without fulfilling them afterwards might erode trust even more.

A PB tech tool suggested in one of the workshops held in Medellín.

The project in Colombia has reassured us that prudence, humility, a broad stakeholder engagement process, and strength are key to build peacetech tools. Thus, no effort is too big to prevent new conflicts to emerge by bringing tech solutions.

Some of the lessons that we have learned along the way are the pivotal requirement of building these projects directly with the citizens, creating tools that are in compliance with the technology that the citizens use in their everyday life, preventing the creation of new spaces of conflict, keeping in mind sustainability since the beginning of the process, and securing citizen’s privacy and data protection.

Where to go? A collaborative game!

Based on the workshops and interviews’ results, and keeping in mind the challenges ahead, we have now identified two main initial objectives to support peace in Colombia through technology in a participatory budgeting process: (i) to foster planning and interaction through transparent, and collaborative means; and (ii) to create awareness and interest around participatory budgeting and participation in the process.

One of Medellín’s neighbourhoods where the game will be deployed.

With this in mind, we are building a digital collaborative game to encourage participation in priority identification and deliberation in the participatory budgeting process of Medellín. The game can be played on computers, smartphones and tablets. Since many citizens in Medellín may not have access to such devices, we plan to make the game available in tablets on public transportation, and in community places with access to computers.

The game will be part of a web based app that will allow members of the public to access the game, get informed about the process, and participate in it. Overall, the tool aims to foster collaborative planning and interaction, and create excitement around participation in planning processes. It is a tool for collective dreaming! We’ll be sharing more details once our prototype is complete. Stay tuned!

The road ahead

After an exciting #peacehack during the Build Peace Conference, we are now working with three brilliant volunteer developers that are kindly helping us to design and create the tool (we pay their hacking hours with pizza slices). In November we will test the prototype in small workshops in Medellín, and will continue the trial and improving process until it is ready for a final pilot experiment during Medellín’s 2017 participatory budgeting process.

There are many uncertainties around the outcomes of the current peace process in Colombia. Although the validity of the already disclosed Final Agreement is unclear in this new context, the pertinence of charting the relation between citizen participation, technology and peace through the prism of participatory budgeting is even more pertinent after the referendum’s results.

Negotiating a new agreement and, overall, building bridges in a polarised society, is not going to be easy, but peacebuilding is never easy. Now more than ever creativity, imagination, arts and technology can play an enormous role to boost social inclusion, empowerment, coexistence and transparency in Colombia. We hope this project helps to fulfil these pervasive needs. Colombia needs it now more than ever.

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