[This post originally appeared on the Respublica blog, a UK-based thinktank. Guest blog post by Catherine Dempsey, PhD candidate at King's College London, researching innovative uses of technology in community-led conflict prevention - @catherinedem]
Our collective breath was taken away by the bravery of the women who guarded Lee Rigby’s body, the soldier murdered in Woolwich, London on 22nd May, especially Ingrid Loyau-Kennett who engaged directly with the killers, bloody weapons still held tight in their hands. Her immediate response to get off her bus, to talk and listen to the killers, with the sole aim of keeping them calm and away from the gathering crowd of onlookers until the police arrived may well have prevented further bloodshed.
Communities everywhere are the original first responders in any crisis, before the emergency services, before the army arrive – in those places where official responders exist, are not parties to conflict, and can get there in time. And communication technologies are the tools of those communities of first responders. From the #riotwombles of London organising the post-riot community clean-up to bloggers in Kenya, the ‘Peace Provocateurs’ of Ambon to the violence interrupters of Chicago, communities are increasingly organising rapid responses to violence with their own means of broadcasting and sharing.
In perhaps the most well-documented case of citizens taking action in the face of escalating violence, a group of Kenyan bloggers responded within days to the post-election violence of January 2008, by developing a platform to connect real-time reports of incidents via SMS and online to an open and live map. That collective and spontaneous response to help fellow citizens in the midst of a media blackout and widespread panic, has evolved into a disruptive and inspiring non-profit technology company – Ushahidi, continuously developing their tools for use by everyone and anyone, whether for tracking violence, harassment, election corruption or tasty burgers.
Ushahidi in turn is now used by brave individuals working together on the SyriaTracker project, submitting, collecting and verifying as far as possible, eyewitness reports of violence, death and torture, in a place where little information is allowed to leak out, and disinformation a currency of the conflict. In the face of freelancing fighters, external forces pressing in from Russian arms, Hezbollah to funding from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, individuals have emerged both within and outside Syria who are trying to bring a clearer picture to the wider world of what is happening there.
In Coventry, Rami Abdul Rahman has become a one-man reporting band (aka the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), spending his days processing reports, information from his network of contacts inside Syria to document casualties, and becoming a source that has proved vital to mainstream news media. In the first months of protest in Syria in 2011, Rami Nakhla was based in Beirut, and played a crucial role as curator of citizen reports through Skype, tweets and videos until threats to his life from pro-government agents forced him to flee Lebanon.
Ushahidi has developed from a group of bloggers and programmers to an agile and responsive tech company, responsive and dedicated to its community of users and connected to a wide network of volunteers both on and offline. This culminated in a massive collaborative conflict prevention exercise during the most recent Kenyan elections in March this year – Uchaguzi, a large scale deployment with hundreds of online volunteers from all over the world, connecting citizen reports via SMS, email, twitter, with emergency services and election monitors. One of the most striking aspects of the deployment was the huge number of messages from people across Kenya, reporting calm in their area and urging peaceful elections. The silent majority who want to live in peace, made loud.
And people are connecting to crises and conflicts thousands of miles away – the Standby Task Force provides 24 hour instant collective brain power to support humanitarian efforts online. It was formed to develop the huge global volunteer engagement in translating and geo-locating SMS calls for help following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and a growing network of crisismappers, The group has processed hundreds of thousands of tweet reports on violence in Syria (testing the CrisisTracker platform) and worked on breaking down the massive task of analysing satellite imagery to assess bomb-damage in Libya through a crowdsourcing platform.
In June 2010, as ethnic tension and violence rapidly spread across Southern Kyrgyzstan, thousands were killed, neighbourhoods burned and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks fled their homes. In response to the violence, where the international community could not move fast enough to take preventative action, individuals across Kyrgyzstan connected to each other in a spontaneous chatgroup on Skype of concerned citizens and civil society groups numbering 2000 within hours of forming. They used the network to verify and check dangerous false rumours in real-time, countering reports of a cross border attack by a particular ethnic group, through a contact based at the border crossing and disproving rumours of poisoned humanitarian aid through connections with a telecoms company with information on the SMS source of the rumours.
In Ambon, Indonesia, in response to violent clashes in September 2011 between local Christian and Muslim communities, a group of local activists of both faiths calling themselves ‘Peace Provocateurs’ formed a network to check out stories and broadcast information through social media and SMS. In one case when rumours began to spread that a church had been destroyed, one member of the network photographed the church with his phone and immediately circulated the picture proving it still intact and undamaged.
Mexico’s ‘narco-bloggers’ have become a vital source of information as citizen reporters on the drug war that has seen traditional media and journalists silenced by assassinations. Their huge popularity in the face of great danger, demonstrates that communities want the truth, refusing to accept the dominance of cartels, violence and corruption in their society. Through the act of bearing witness to numbers of deaths, helping to direct people to places of safety and refuge, countering dangerous rumour, recording the means of violence (and the use of chemical weapons, as in Syria), individuals are quietly playing their role to support the more visible international structures of conflict prevention and peacebuilding, from international indictments to arms embargoes and diplomacy.
The heavy focus on government, NGO, international organisation activities and institutional responses to violence and conflict has left us with a blind spot when it comes to understanding communities and individuals on the ground, facing the real and everyday spiralling of divisions that lead to violence. Communities experiencing violence understand its subtleties and its horrors in a way that external institutions can learn from.
How can we better understand the role of the ordinary citizen acting as an individual in response to violence in their hometown, home country, or on the other side of the world and the role of their actions as a conflict escalates or subsides; the methods and tools used; the risks involved; the special local understanding that equips communities that act to prevent violence or build peace in their neighbourhood? What leads people to attempt to interrupt or calm the escalation of violence and how can we encourage the development of resilience and resistance to violence?
The risks involved in institutional embrace or dependence on individual actors are many and often cited for the lack of engagement – the risk of misinformation, the dangers of mistakenly identifying an individual reporting on violence in their neighbourhood, or engaging with parties to the conflict in a way that compromises neutrality.
The ‘Do No Harm’ approach, which rightly frames conflict prevention and peacebuilding doesn’t mean that there should be no listening or engagement. Local communities are a vital resource for each other as well as for wider conflict prevention structures, and will communicate independently, externally and increasingly as access to mobiles, and platforms for sharing information proliferate. In response to changing and more networked communities, institutions are increasingly recognising local information needs and information resources – two recent reports from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Peace Institute together with UNDP and USAID explore developments in communication technologies and their use by local conflict-affected communities in detail.
What happens to an individual when they suddenly become a conduit for news of atrocities, a source of information on loved ones, evidence of illegal weapons use? Should institutions and governments that have been the more visible primary actors for conflict prevention support individual initiatives, figure out ways to maintain that flow of information and support, without putting an individual at risk or making them party to the conflict? By acting to disrupt the violence, the dread processes of fear and atrocity, the individual becomes an actor in the complex unravelling of a conflict, but also a force for change. In the asymmetry of modern conflict, the asymmetric actor for peace – the citizen – is evermore important, acting with lightning speed and agility, and amplifying their own voice with their own technology.