Sheldon Himelfarb is the President and CEO of the PeaceTech Lab. The Lab was created by the U.S. Institute of Peace to further advance USIP’s work at the intersection of technology, media, and data to help reduce violent conflict around the world. Dr. Himelfarb joined USIP from the Corporate Executive Board, where he was on the Technology Practice Leadership Team, working with chief information officers from governments, universities and multi-national corporations. Dr. Himelfarb is an award-winning filmmaker, former commentator for National Public Radio (NPR) and author of numerous articles on politics, popular culture and conflict. He has managed peacebuilding programs in numerous conflicts, including Bosnia, Iraq, Angola, Liberia, Macedonia, Burundi and received the Capitol Area Peace Maker award from American University. Foreign Policy Concepts spoke with Dr. Himelfarb about PeaceTech Lab, its vision and global operations.
For those who don’t know about your organization, what is Peace Tech Lab’s vision and where does it operate?
The lab is based in Washington D.C. Its vision is to harness the unprecedented presence and power of technology, media, and data in conflict countries around the globe. It strives to enable individuals and organizations in their efforts to reduce violence and promote peace-building in their own communities.
This vision is driven by the fact that we live in a world that for the first time in human history anybody with an internet connection or a cell phone, can send information around the world with a push of a button. Let’s remember that there are more cell phones on this planet than there are toothbrushes, believe it or not! This creates new opportunities for the Peace Tech Lab and for the people we work with to be developing and deploying innovative new ways of tackling age-old drivers of conflict. Such drivers include everything from corruption and interreligious hatred, to resource shortages.
We just have a brave new world of opportunities thanks to the transformative nature of the information and communications technologies, as well as other forms of technology that are readily accessible – even in these fragile states.
The countries we are involved in are, needless to say, largely conflict countries. Over the last twelve months, for example, we have been doing a lot of work in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Burma, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Kenya. And in Uganda we’ve been working with Somalis on technology to assist with constitutional design and development.
Does Peace Tech Lab claim that it has acted to stem the bloodshed in conflict zones? Can it take credit for the reduction of bloodshed in conflict zones?
This is a very important question and I think it is equally important to give it a bit of context. Every single project we do has a very carefully crafted evaluation and impact plan that we work out with the funder at the start of a project. The plan includes assessing how our work is shifting attitudes and behaviors among local actors who have a role to play in limiting the bloodshed.
For example, we have some very promising data that have shown shifts in attitudes towards inter-ethnic tolerance among the youth in Iraq who are our target audience in the media work we’ve done there. By media work I mean internet and television communities. And youth, as you know especially young men, do much of the fighting, so they are critical to reach.
Ultimately, for the work we do we expect it has a good potential to reach the people who are at the source of the bloodshed. Everything we do in different countries has its own set of unique goals that we try to achieve. And in some cases the goals are about educating people and changing attitudes and behaviors. In other cases it’s about enabling with training or access to new tools those individuals or organizations who are already involved in tackling the many drivers of conflict in their communities.
So, for example, if corruption is a widespread problem, you need to be aware of, and able to use crowd mapping or online techniques like I Paid A Bribe, established first in India, I believe, it is now available in many countries because it seems to be a relatively effective “name and shame” strategy. Alternatively, if you are trying to hold governments accountable for spending public funds, you should be aware of the many strategies for using technology to monitor and measure contracts that have been awarded versus the actual work that’s been done. There are just so many new tools and techniques at our disposal to tackle conflict at its source, before it spirals out of control and into bloodshed.
How are your projects funded?
As most organizations, our funding comes from a range of sources. Some of it is from grants or contracts that we might have with the U.S. government or one of its departments. For example, we do a lot of work for the State Department, we do a lot of work for the USAID, we receive grants from foundations and we also receive support from the private sector and individuals.
What projects is Peace Tech Lab busiest with?
There are three strands of work that we are laser-focused on. The first is our “peacetech exchanges” or “PTXes”. We have done them in half a dozen countries over the last nine months or so. We bring together individuals and organizations from civil society that work on a given problem in a country. In Burma, we focused on countering dangerous speech such as online hate speech and other media outlets, which are really dangerous sources of violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities there. We bring organizations together that work on this problem. with technologists and social media experts; basically people who understand the tools that are available in this area, particularly in Burma. We work hard to find the best local technology talent that can be matched with those who work on this problem. We facilitate the collaboration in projects to create ways to track dangerous speech and provide the information to organizations that are able to respond.
I’m talking about organizations that either counter the message online or perhaps respond with a face-to-face sort of intervention. And we’ve done a similar process around other problem sets, such as transparency in governance and open government in Iraq and around gender violence in India.
Another tool we use a great deal is more traditional media. In many conflict countries that we work we reach people via good old fashion radio and television as internet access to remote areas is not widely available. So we produce an exciting radio drama in South Sudan called “Sawa Shabab”, which has a very large national following. It’s a radio drama with a peace-building curriculum behind it. In it we bring and teach messages of tolerance and nonviolence, of civic engagement and responsibility in the context of a really entertaining drama.
And finally we are developing our data hub, the Open Situation Room Exchange, which we describe as the heartbeat of the Lab. It wasn’t long ago that conflict zones were data deserts; today they are data blizzards thanks to cell phones, satellite imagery and the power of crowds. The challenge is to turn this abundance of information into insights that people in conflict communities can use to prevent or reduce violence and we have assembled a terrific cross-discipline team of data scientists, conflict experts, and technologists to do just that.
With respect to conflict management and peacebuilding, there are many people who assert conflict management has turned into a yet another form of business and money making tool. How do you respond to such assertions?
I don’t have the specifics of those conversations, but I can tell you this: there are many attributes of the business world and the commercial sector, things like accountability, measurement and data-driven decision making that are great and need to be infused in the field of conflict management. And I would say that some of this is already coming with the increasing professionalization of this field. Also, let’s keep in mind that this is a fairly young field. I don’t really worry about it being a business and think that being result-oriented like the private sector is a great thing. In a world where resources are getting scarcer, the future for this work is very bright.
A question on the minds of many people around the world on a daily basis as they see heart wrenching images of refugees and dead children is when Syria and Iraq will be stable? What do you think it takes for these two countries to enter a post-conflict phase?
I’ve been doing this work for the better part of two decades and one thing I’ve learned is that predicting when a country in conflict is going to be stable is almost impossible. But this much we do know: any peace agreement or cessation of hostilities–as important a milestone as it may be–is just one step along the way toward a stable and prosperous society.
From a third to a half of all peace agreements unravel and the country returns to violence within five years. So the international community needs to know that we have to be engaged in trying to stabilize Iraq and Syria many years after the day hostilities end. This needs to be part of our understanding of the situation; that we do not do disaster relief, end the hostilities, and get out of there. We need to remain engaged for a long time and support the work of local peacebuilders towards stabilization of their societies.