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Modernizing Peacebuilding in Digitally Connected War-Torn Regions

The uprisings of 2011 set off transformations within the MENA region that have had deeply destabilizing effects, especially within states, where relationships between governments and their citizens have frayed and governance has suffered. In the disordered, often polarized environment, the ongoing conflicts in the region have proven highly resistant to any form of customary international mediation.

Syria is a case in point — in what is today a de facto fragmented state, governance challenges abound, society is fractured, and Syrians from different parts of the country cannot engage with each other. This state of affairs creates structural and psychological barriers to peacebuilding, and the latter’s traditional brokers and guarantors appear at a loss of how to respond.

To be fair, the conflict resolution community has, over the past decade, looked introspectively at how to improve the mechanisms within the traditional peace-builder’s toolbox. But we are yet to fully understand how technology can revolutionize peacebuilding efforts and be tailored to the maximum benefit of communities affected by conflict all over the world. Technology has already been put to great service in the Syrian context, whether in the field of digital evidence collection for attribution of responsibility for mass atrocities, or regarding the use of geospatial data for conflict documentation — but mediators and peacebuilders have not yet fully reaped its benefits.

Today, for example, Syrians are unable to debate and discuss with their fellow citizens, or engage with those outside, their voices are stifled, or they are unable to speak openly or easily on issues ranging from local governance to the national-level political process, and in a way that makes them feel the international community actually listens and cares. New technologies may not provide a panacea for these issues — but developing and deploying the right technologies can make a real difference.

“Empowering people to make peace means revolutionizing the traditional peacebuilding toolbox, to include novel technological solutions.”

For example, the collection of mobile phone survey data from the ground in different parts of Syria, in real time and in a nuanced way that goes beyond capturing opinions superficially, would help address part of this problem. Good data would make negotiators and mediators far more aware of local needs, perspectives and concerns, and also give them a tool to communicate and distribute information back to these constituencies. Further, when the government discourages citizen debates on social or political issues, the availability of fast, secure online — and even Virtual Reality — tools could open up unprecedented opportunities to connect Syrians with each other. High quality VR tools could help Syrians overcome structural and even psychological barriers to exchange, as well as help them tell their stories to mediators and negotiators outside the country. As authoritarian leaders and rebel militias themselves seek to maximise the use of technology to misinform, organise or oppress, peacebuilders should not only catch up, but push the envelope.

The Shaikh Group, faithful to its mission of “empowering people to make peace”, is currently building a “Cross-Industry Peacebuilding League” with leaders across Silicon Valley from the technology, venture capital, philanthropy, and peace-building communities, to generate ideas for technology-driven peacebuilding tools and initiatives.

We have partnered with pioneers in the field, such as Orange Door and Build Up, to take on some of the challenges outlined, beginning in Northeast and Northwest Syria. We are excited to showcase this new, ambitious initiative at the Paris Peace Forum, and are eager to connect with potential partners — humanitarians with the ambition to innovate, readiness to fail, and stamina to try again — and to build a bridge between our Silicon Valley-based Peacebuilding League and like-minded individuals and organisations in Europe and the Middle East.

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It is high time that we in the conflict resolution and peacebuilding community recognise that we are failing the people suffering from conflict, that we need to do better, push the boundaries of what is considered possible today, and put a peacebuilding perspective at the center of the information and communication innovations of today and tomorrow.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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Salman Shaikh, Founder and CEO of The Shaikh Group (TSG).

Before establishing TSG, he was the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, where his research focused on conflict resolution, domestic policy, and geopolitics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Levant (particularly Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

Shaikh has extensive experience working for the United Nations in a number of offices, including as Special Assistant, Middle East and Asia in the Office of the Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs, Political Advisor to the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for Lebanon during the 2006 war, Special Assistant to the Special Coordinator to the Middle East Peace Process, and Programme Officer for the Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict.

Shaikh also served as Director for policy and research in the private office of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bin Nasser al-Missned, the Consort of the former Emir of the State of Qatar. Shaikh is a respected commentator and policy adviser on the Middle East.

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