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Addressing violent conflict, one innovation at a time

Nicholas van Praag's picture

The best thing about my job is the amazing people I meetand last week was better than most.  I was in Cape Town for a meeting of social entrepreneurs and peace-builders.  They were gathered under the banner of the World Bank Institute’s Innovation Fair to surface new ways of addressing conflict and delivering services to poor people in fragile states.

Cell phones are ubiquitous in many developing countries (with 70% penetration in Africa) and the internet offers those with access the chance to turbo-charge the change process.  So it was no surprise that new communications technologies were a leitmotiv that ran through many of the projects showcased in Cape Town.

But I guess my key take-away from the meeting is that innovation is not about technology.  Rather, it is the way the revolution in communications is bringing people together into new kinds of communities.  As one participant said, "innovation is most likely when kindred spirits unite." 

Here’s my pick of innovative projects that struck me as relevant to some of the ideas we are exploring in the World Development Report.

Grounding peoples’ expectations:  Leonard Doyle, ex foreign editor of The Independent and now a one-man NGO based in Washington D.C., reminded us that the advent of TV did not bring democracy, as some had claimed it might.  In other words, communications technology has known many false starts.

His innovation is to use the tools of modern communications technology to empower human rights activists, stringers, fixers, artists, and others with a story to tell.  He wants to see the news agenda driven from the periphery rather than the center while providing protection against repression, censorship and legal threats to his new coalition of investigative reporters.  

“It would be a tragedy if the media’s role in holding authority to account were to disappear”, he says.  His Unfreemedia group wants to put that power firmly in the hands of local journalists while providing them protection against predatory regimes through international exposure on his web platforms.  This could play an important part in grounding public expectations and sustaining hope for the future in fragile states.

Keeping track of fast-changing forms of violence:

   Hunting the LRA in Central Africa. Photo © ACLED.

Clionadh Raleigh, who directs the Armed Conflict Location and Events Dataset (ACLED) at Trinity College, Dublin, has delved into a huge variety of sources to piece together the drivers of political instability and violent conflict in the world’s 50 most fragile states.  Some of her sources are official.  Most are not.  Her analysis of these disparate strands of information has thrown new light on the trends the WDR team is looking at.

For instance, she tracked attacks by the Lords Resistance Army to reveal that its theatre of operations has spread from its origins in Northern Uganda to include attacks on people over thousands of square miles in Sudan, Central African Republic, and the DRC.  Meanwhile, her sources in Northern Kenya have helped predict the most likely period for inter-communal clashes among cattle-herders.  Conventional wisdom held that it occurred during the lean, stressful months of low rainfall.  But her research showed that violence actually reaches its height in the weeks just before the rains as communities, spurred by market prospects ahead, vie for land and cattle.  Clionaddh’s data also helped demonstrate that violence tends to peak after cease-fire agreements as opposing factions jostle for position before they are locked in by peace negotiations.

Getting young people out of gangs and on their feet:  Many of the bloggers and Tweeters beaming the energy out of the Innovation Fair were members of Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs for short).  Marlon Parker, 32, leads the team and, on a fascinating visit to the rough Cape Flats neighborhood where most members come from, he told me about the group.

It started as a way to help gang members and drug addicts in search of a way out.  Communications technology was the snare and, over the past decade, he has used it to change the lives of socially marginalized and mostly violent young people.

Marlon gave them access to computers, cameras and the web to tell their stories.
Technology was the way to create a conversation; teaching people who feel misunderstood to find a way out of their isolation.  It’s a great leveler, breaking down barriers and helping people take control of their lives.

Marlon sees a link between addiction to drugs and enthusiasm for the internet.  Only this new addiction provides the skills to get ahead in life.  There are only a few drop-outs and the business model is self-sustaining—funded by what RLabs earns offering ‘new media’ services to an array of businesses in the Cape.

I could go on.  A more eclectic group of innovators would be hard to imagine.  If you want to know more, go the Innovation Fair where you can find all the projects.  For me, the fair proved my colleague Randi Ryterman's point: innovation is not about one great idea but layers of good ideas.  So, if you have a smart way to build the resilience of communities that are vulnerable to violent conflict, please use this space to share.


Submitted by sima kanaan on
Great Blog!

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