The Technology of Nonviolence: How cellphones and crowdsourcing are saving lives and livelihoods
November 27, 2013 Editor 0
Livestock herders in Ethiopia are using text messages to warn fellow herders about places to avoid when armed rebels are in the area stealing cattle.
That’s one example of simple technology quelling violent conflict in poor countries, and helping people protect property and make money as a result, according to violence prevention expert Joe Bock.
Bock, author of the 2012 book “The Technology of Nonviolence,” spoke about the relationship between conflict and economic stagnation last month at Mercy Corps in Portland, Ore.
People are embracing what Bock calls ‘liberation technology’ to make their communities safer and more productive.
“The approach is about liberating people’s abilities to help each other using technology,” he said.
It’s no secret that violence stifles economic growth. When people are too busy fearing, fighting and fleeing, they have less time and energy to dedicate to buying, selling and building. Add to that the role of violence in damaging infrastructure and disrupting trade, and it’s no surprise that the world’s poorest countries are home to a majority of the world’s violent conflict. Each year a country is affected by major violence, poverty reduction is slowed by close to one percent, according to the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report.
But, according to Bock, with technological advances, poor people have more tools to fight back.
“There’s a revolution in the use of cellphone technology for humanitarian, development and peacebuilding purposes,” he said. “A farmer who can get market information about when to sell grain can also use a cellphone for crowdsourcing if there’s tension in his or her community.”
Bock cited the example of the Ethiopian herders responding to cattle raids and rising violence with text messages as an example of the power of sharing information. In the herders’ case, avoiding violent encounters and potential loss of property can mean saving their livelihoods–and even lives.
People around the world can “document and communicate information about their environment at ever increasing rates” through crowdsourcing, according to the Council of Foreign Relations’ blog, Democracy in Development.
And communicating information quickly, Bock said, can mean communities respond to tensions before they become violent.
“There’s a sea change underway about how relief and violence prevention are being approached,” he argued. “It has everything to do with the ubiquity of cell phones.”
And it’s not just civilians embracing technology to quell violence in times of tension. Corporations are recognizing the benefits to commerce and communities doing their part, too. “Companies are looking for ways to have a positive impact on their communities, including by reducing violence in places that hurts their business,” Bock told Global Envision.
One such example is of Kenyan telecommunications giant Safaricom, which offered to allow a group called PeaceTXT to send out text messages aimed at dissuading violence to everybody who has a Safaricom account at volatile times, such as before the the recent Kenyan elections.
“They sent messages proclaiming that Kenyans are better than violence, and promoting peaceful reactions to the electoral process,” Bock said. “Safaricom allowed this crowdfeeding for free, because they recognized the benefit to communities and to their company of preventing violence.”
The messages sent out to cell phones promoted peace, according to Neelam Verjee, program manager at Sisi Ni Amani, a Kenyan nonprofit civic group. Examples:
“Let us not be left behind. Let us take pride in our right to vote and to vote peacefully. Peace is you and me.”
“When we maintain peace, we will have joy & be happy to spend time with friends & family but violence spoils all these good things.”
“It’s a great example of private industry contributing to the anti-violence movement through technology,” Bock said.
That’s more and more what the future of violence prevention and development will look like.
“One of the things Mercy Corps is doing is finding ways to use this approach in other settings,” said Rebecca Wolfe, Mercy Corps youth and conflict specialist. “Young people want to make change in their countries. There is a palpable feeling. It’s about directing that energy, and understanding what aspects are ready to be ‘youth-led’ from day one, and where youth need more mentorship and support.”
“Rather than waiting for someone to come in and do some project, people have cellphones, people have other tools to make things happen,” Bock said. “It’s a different approach–crowdsourcing, use of cell phones, aggregating data on digital maps. It’s revolutionizing the whole realm.”
Joe Bock is the director of global health training at the Eck Institute for Global Health at the University of Notre Dame.Cell phone users throughout Kenya received text messages promoting peaceful responses to the recent elections. Photo: Mercy Corps.
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