A Good Question

I often try to balance my excitement around peacebuilding, technology and social change with a sober understanding of the limits of technology in this space.  Of course sometimes these limits can be easy to forget about, and you need a student to bring you back to earth.  For those who haven’t taught, having a student correct you is both good (they’re learning and thinking critically!) and bad (that was embarrassing…I will assign them more reading!).  But the heart of the comment was solid: what does technology matter in places where there is no technology…or electricity?

I tried to make the argument that technology can provide a space for like-minded people to coalesce and triangulate their goals, ideas, strategies, etc.  By doing this, they could then go out and work more effectively in places where communications technology is not available.  I think I’m right, but this answer felt a little self-evident.  It also didn’t seem to hold water with the students.  Thus, this demands more thinking on my part.

The first thought that came to mind was to look at the Amani 108 project run by the UNDP and Kenyan government during the 2010 constitutional referendum.  It relied on digital maps and mobile phones, but in western Kenya internet is hardly ubiquitous and while mobile phone networks have grown quite a but there are still many places that don’t have service.  In spite of this, I’d be comfortable saying Amani 108 was successful in it’s mission to prevent violence during the referendum.  So what made it work?

My colleague Jordan Hosmer-Henner has a quote that he always uses when he teaches or discusses technology with students: communication technology is an amplifier of human intent.  In Kenya, people wanted a safe, peaceful referendum.  The Amani 108 platform didn’t need to reach everyone, it just needed to act as an amplifier of what was already positive intent (before I’m shouted down as a Pollyanna, I will add that Kenya still has a lot of challenges coming in 2012 in spite of the successful referendum).  So my question back to my students might be: what do people want?  Whether you can reach them with twitter or not, does it matter?

I often find that it’s easy to be lulled into a space where I think of technology as a causal tool for peacebuilding or social change.  What my experience with peacebuilding and development should always remind me is that social change starts between people and in relationships – once that good stuff is built technology starts becoming a powerful tool for amplifying it


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