Peacekeeping tech with Dr. Walter Dorn

I got to interview Dr. Walter Dorn of Canadian Forces College about his work on technology and peacekeeping for my TechChange course on technology for conflict management and peacebuilding – a good interview that lends some operational and political insight for using these tools in peacekeeping settings!


When Radio Goes Bad: RF communications and the increased violence in South Sudan

I was reading an update about the increasing ethnic violence in South Sudan forwarded to me by a colleague, and noted the fact that radio is being used to organize and encourage violence in South Sudan. For those who have studied or read about the genocide in Rwanda, radio was one of the key mediums employed by Hutu extremists for encouraging and organizing violence. I think there are significant socio-political differences between the increasing violence in South Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda, so I just want to focus on the challenges related to preventing the radio-driven organization of violence, since radio broadcasts encouraging targeted violence against civilians were heard during the recent massacre in Bentiu, South Sudan.

We have to start with the laws, regulations and norms of radio broadcasting and spectrum management. Broadcast spectrum has traditionally been treated as a public good, managed by governments. Indeed if we look at the language from the preamble from the recent revisions of the International Telecommunications Union’s 2012 Radio Regulations, it’s pretty state-centric. This gives broadcast spectrum a certain level of sovereignty, and traditionally there is a respect for that sovereignty – generally, jamming another country’s broadcast frequencies is frowned upon, even though there’s a long history of doing so for the purposes of tactical advantage during wartime or in pursuit of psychological operations during the Cold War. Basically, radio jamming historically isn’t something that friendly or neutral countries (openly…) do to each other.

This is important, because along with apparently being expensive and inconvenient, the U.S Department of Defense used the spectrum sovereignty argument to avoid jamming hate-radio broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide. Would jamming hate radio have prevented the escalation and organization of violence? Unfortunately it’s rhetorical question since the U.S. never tried, but I’d be inclined to say that it wouldn’t have helped the organizers of the Rwandan genocide. In fairness, much of the organization on the ground was developed over extended periods of indoctrination and training of youth militias, so blocking radio wouldn’t have stopped pre-determined operations that didn’t rely on it. If anything it likely would have had the effect of a panopticon, forcing the organizers to realize there was a much bigger player involved that had the military capacity to selectively jam national communication infrastructure. At the very least this would have caused break downs in vertical communication, possibly giving some nominal advantage to the peacekeeping mission.

So how does this help us frame the disturbing news that radio is being used in South Sudan to encourage or organize violence? Unfortunately it’s unlikely we’re going to see large scale radio jamming operations; the governments with the ability to do that still have ongoing diplomatic missions in South Sudan, and using their military assets to jam transmission frequencies would probably be interpreted as a violation of sovereign control of spectrum, as well as a likely violation of South Sudanese airspace. There could be a role for SMS text and multimedia messaging to provide early warning, but the problem is that even if peacekeepers get the text messages, it’s questionable whether they’d be able to protect at risk populations.

Unfortunately once violence hits a certain scale local violence prevention efforts, ICT supported or not, won’t be enough to stop it. Crowdsourcing and ICTs merely become tools that aid in accounting for the violence unless the international community is willing to provide a peacekeeping mission that is manned and equipped to realistically protect the population.

Headed to Toronto soon…

I’ll be at the International Studies Association annual convention from March 26-30 presenting two papers (never again will I submit two abstracts for papers that have to be written from scratch…) on Crowdsourcing methodology and technology in peacekeeping operations. Should be a lot of fun – feel free to give me feedback on the papers as I get them posted and let me know if you’ll be in Toronto. I’m always up for a coffee, beer or lunch!

Disaggregating Peacekeeping Data: A new dataset on peacekeeping contributions

Jacob Kathman at the University of Buffalo has an article in the current issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science about his new dataset on the numbers and nationalities of all peacekeeper contributions by month since 1990.  This is a pretty fantastic undertaking since peacekeeping data is often difficult to find, and no small feat given how challenging it is not only to code a 100,000+ point dataset, but do it in such a way that it complements other datasets like Correlates of War and Uppsala/PRIO.  I’m particularly excited about this dataset because it highlights something I’ve been interested in, and will continue to work on throughout my career: gathering and coding historical data on peacekeeping missions so that social scientists and economists can start producing quantitative research to compliment the existing case study-oriented research on peacekeeping operations and practice.

As Kathman points out, there has usually been a focus on case study approaches to researching peacekeeping.  This makes sense: most of the research is geared toward identifying lessons learned from mission success and failure, and is meant to be easily integrated into operational behavior, instead of addressing theoretical issues.  This also reflects the ad hoc nature of peacekeeping; a mission gets a mandate to deal with a specific issue, and missions tend to be short (with some exceptions), so the data tends to be mission and context specific which lends to case study research approaches.  As civil wars became the norm in the 1990s though, missions expanded their roles to include war fighting, humanitarian aid delivery, medical provision, policing, and other aspects of civil society.  This meant that peacekeeping missions became part of the political, economic and social fabric of the post-ceasefire environment, and over the last ten years social scientists started studying the effects of peacekeeping missions on ceasefire duration and economic development, among other things.

One of the things that has lacked, and that Kathman’s dataset helps with, is data about the missions themselves.  Studies, such as Virginia Page Fortna’s excellent book on the effect of peacekeeping missions on ceasefire durability tend to rely on conflict start-stop data to make inferences about the impact of peacekeeping.  Studies of peacekeeping and economics also run into the same issues; researchers have used baseline effect on GDP of peacekeeping missions, but this is a blunt instrument approach and suffers from problems of endogeneity.  Caruso et al’s analysis of the UN mission in South Sudan’s positive effect on cereal production treats the UN mission as a mass entity, but is unable to show comparative impacts on food production across missions since there isn’t finer grained mission data readily available.

Given the need, I would suggest pushing forward with datasets that contain not only data on troop contributions, but also data on mission expenditures, since peacekeeping missions have effects on the local economy which could be positive.  The problem is that the positive effects might not be seen without finer grained data on how missions use their money in the country they’re operating in.  Do investments in durable infrastructure make a difference to the durability of peace and economic growth?  What about focusing on local provision of goods and services where available?  At the moment data on these things is hard to find, but would be useful to conflict researchers.

Kathman’s paper is worth a read since he gives us a road map for how to develop further datasets on peacekeeping missions.  More datasets like this are important for the theorists who do research in the abstract, but can also help inform better processes for mission mandating, procurement and staffing.  If you want to download the datasets, Kathman has them in zip files on his website.

Peacekeeping, economic growth and technology

The economics of peacekeeping are difficult to unpack but there are signs that when a mission has a strategy that includes long-range economic planning, it can have positive long term effects on the host country’s economy.  This could help us understand the strategic value of communication technology as not just a tool for good governance and transparency, but also as an economic stimulant in the aftermath of a conflict.

Carnahan, Durch and Gilmore (CD&G) have made the most comprehensive effort to fully address the ways that a peacekeeping mission can have a positive economic impact.  Like other authors, CD&G discuss the negative impacts of peacekeeping operations on local economies, but also develop an argument for the ways that peacekeeping operations can provide stimulus for local and national economies.  The keys areas include modifications in the acquisition process to focus on acquiring good and services locally, encouraging peacekeepers to spend their mission subsistence allowances in-country, and being aware of brain drain if host country nationals leave their civil services to work with the UN mission.  CD&G focus their recommendations both on short term issues like local procurement and managing wage disparities between local and international staff to prevent price spikes, but also discuss issues such as doing long-term analysis of infrastructure projects beyond the timeframe of the mission mandate, so that mission spending is designed to meet the strategic economic needs of the host country.

A recent article from Raul Caruso and Roberto Ricciuti dove deeper into the economics of peacekeeping by looking at the increase in cereals (grain) production in South Sudan over time, and creating a causal model of the UNMISS mission’s positive impact on food production.  While the security peacekeeping missions provide can help things like the agricultural sector, the mission doesn’t directly control cereals production though.  We should be equally interested in  highlighting the roll that missions can play in investing in durable infrastructure, since this is an area that missions and the UNDPKO have more direct control over.

This brings us back to the long-term value of missions using civilian communication infrastructure as part of the mission strategy.  Communication infrastructure could be low hanging fruit as a durable investment, is useful tactically to the mission, and is good in the long term for the host country’s economy at large.  Because of this ICTs could play both a Keynesian role, stimulating the economy through immediate multilateral and mission spending on airtime and bandwidth, while also having a Solowian long term effect as local populations make use of mobile phones and internet that the peacekeeping mission paid for initially as the economy stabilizes.  Given what we know about the positive effects of ICT infrastructure on developing economies, pushing for an ICT strategy when a peacekeeping mission is deployed could support the mission’s tactical needs while also investing in a sector that is good for the economy after the peacekeepers have left.

Complex Peacekeeping and Tech: Don’t forget the politics and the people

General H.R. McMaster recently published an op-ed in the New York Times on the folly of thinking war can be easily won, and the intellectual gymnastics policy makers will do to maintain that illusion.  As I read his analysis, many of his observations are germane when thinking about the drive to “tech-up” peacekeeping operations.  McMaster’s critique focuses on the U.S. defense establishment’s recent failure to account for the political and human dynamics of warfare, wrongly assuming that technological superiority would win the day.  While the peacekeeping community has realized that local human and political dynamics do affect mission success, there is a similar trend toward focusing on mission efficiency through technology acquisition and application.

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China to United States: We’ll see your “investment” and raise you a peacekeeping deployment

How apropos that my last post was focused on why the United States needs to think of investment in Africa in terms larger than ROI, especially if we want to compete with China.

Apparently China got the memo, since they’re committing to send a multi-dimensional peacekeeping force to support the MINUSMA mission in Mali that will be relieving French soldiers who had been fighting alongside Mali’s army against Islamist insurgents.

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MONUSCO Gets an Offensive Boost

The ongoing peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest in the world numbering 20,000 operators, is about to get an increase in its total number of soldiers.  Two thousand South African, Malawian, and Tanzanian soldiers will be deploying this summer with a mandate to seek out and engage militias operating in the restive eastern regions of Congo.  The mission, already huge in size and scope, might not notice another 2-3,000 soldiers, except for a crucial detail: these soldiers have unanimously been given an offensive mandate.

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Goma, M23, and the success of peacekeeping

The timing of reading Virginia Page Fortna’s Does Peacekeeping Work seemed appropriate as the M83 rebels in eastern Congo (DRC) marched in and took Goma, only to recently withdraw under the auspices of the MONUSCO force currently operating in the DRC.  During this series of events I saw a tweet from Oxfam’s Policy and Practice Unit posted this morning: the tweet read “The fall of Goma: ‘the biggest peacekeeping failure in history.”

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Book review! “Crafting Peace” by Caroline Hartzell and Matthew Hoddie

Caroline Hartzell and Matthew Hoddie make an argument that the most robust form of negotiated peace involves a well-designed power or institution sharing agreement between the parties involved in a civil war.  They make this argument in “Crafting Peace” using a statistical analysis of conflict cessation that includes variables covering duration, external intervention and measures of institutional and power sharing.  They expand on the statistical analysis with case studies of Angola and the Philippines, explaining why Angola struggled to come up with a sustained peace agreement and the Philippines were able to find a measure of success in their post-conflict negotiation.

Continue reading “Book review! “Crafting Peace” by Caroline Hartzell and Matthew Hoddie”