We can raise global standards of living, including security. Pandemics do not respect borders. Research shows that the wealthier, more educated and healthier a nation is, the less violence and civil unrest there is. As unrest can spread across borders, it affects the whole world.


A certain level of freedom emerges organically in response to certain new technologies, especially those of the communication and information variety. In 2009, Jared Cohen - a young, generation-Y, internet-savvy, Harvard graduate - reached out to Twitter in the midst of the June 2009 post-election protests in Iran and urged the company to reschedule its planned website maintenance so Iranians could keep tweeting. Given that all other forms of communication had been blocked or shut down, Twitter became the Iranian pipeline to the outside world.


A 2009 report by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency examined the effects of information and communications technology (ICT) for advancing democracy in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and found that “access to and the strategic use of ICT have been shown to have the potential to help bring about economic development, poverty reduction and democratisation – including freedom of speech, the free flow of information and the promotion of human rights.”


In 2009, Eric Schmidt –then still CEO of Google – went to Iraq at the behest of Jared Cohen and the US State Department. Schmidt and Cohen became friendly and had long conversations about the reconstruction of the country and how technology should have played a much earlier role in the effort. Iraq, under dictator Saddam Hussein, had no cellphone structure. The US had spent more than $800-billion on regime change but, as Schmidt says, “what we should have done is laid down fibre-optic cable and built out a wireless infrastructure to empower the Iraqi citizens”.


This idea led the duo to an interesting realisation: technology seems to have a bias toward individual empowerment. According to Schmidt, the individual gets to decide what to do, as opposed to the traditional systems, but this has many of implications. Technology doesn’t empower only the good people, it also empowers the bad.


While ICT is clearly the greatest tool of self-empowerment we’ve ever seen, it’s still only a tool, and, like all tools, it is fundamentally neutral. While the bias is toward self-empowerment, there is no guarantee that a safer, freer world will be the result. What ICT does guarantee is an exceptionally broad platform for co-operation. Nations can partner with co-operatives, which can partner with citizens, who can partner with one another to use these tools to promote positive self-empowerment, democracy, equality and human rights. As Schmidt and Cohen point out: “In a new age of shared power, no one can make progress alone.” (1)


Using Technology to Help Civilians Affected by Conflict


Future of Government Smart Toolbox | 59

Chapter VII: Using Technology to Help Civilians Affected by Conflict

Jared Cohen

Director, Google Ideas


A brief summary:


Since the Second World War, interstate conflicts and the associated combatant casualties have decreased, but civil wars and sectarian violence are rising. International efforts to protect and support civilians affected by conflict could benefit from the integration of ICT in peace-making, humanitarian aid and emergency response efforts, and more direct participation from private sector partners. International actors have started to incorporate ICT to support civilians in conflict zones, but there is room for more.


The proliferation of democratic governance systems has been critical to decreased levels of interstate war, as it permits societies to build institutions that make armed conflict a less appealing option in resolving disputes. Today, it is intrastate conflict (including civil war, sectarian conflict and one-sided violence) that makes up a greater share of armed conflicts and greatly affects civilians who are involved as perpetrators and victims of violence. In intrastate conflicts, the line between combatants and non-combatants tends to be blurred.


ICT can contribute to aid agencies’ efforts to help civilians with critical needs such as food and water, physical and mental health, education and employment.




ICT can improve physical and mental services and supplies when there are

shortages in medical personnel and staff. An SMS service could enable

displaced individuals to submit symptoms or questions to a remote network of health professionals and receive immediate professional advice or counselling. This SMS service could also enable medical staff in the camp to access a broader network of health professionals to seek advice about particular cases.


Education and Employment


Distance learning, delivered through inexpensive mobile devices or  computers, is one way to address the education gap. Several years ago, Stanford University launched the Dunia Moja Project (One World Project) in collaboration with Makerere University in Uganda, the Mweka College of African Wildlife Management in Tanzania, and the University of Western Cape in South Africa. This project sought to develop a curriculum to be delivered through smartphones. Throughout the semester, students received audio-visual instructional lectures and submitted audio, visual and textual assignments through their mobile devices.




To ensure the security of camps, unmanned aerial vehicles could be used for reconnaissance. These drones could monitor the perimeter of a camp to detect unusual movements and serve as a deterrent for armed attacks. Real-time images of camp borders and potential unrest can help peacekeepers and international actors respond to incidents swiftly and hold to account those responsible.


Uses of Technology


ICT has contributed to the mechanisation and impersonalisation of warfare, particularly as countries finance drone development. But ICT can also alleviate the effects of conflict on civilians by mitigating the problems outlined



Satellite Imagery


Its use began apace in 1999, when the first high-resolution imagery became commercially available. Since then, international organisations have used satellite images to monitor and analyse armed conflict – gathering intelligence, verifying reported incidents, and monitoring movements of armed

groups in near-real time to more accurately assess necessary relief provisions and co-ordinate delivery of aid to affected zones and communities





Connection technologies, in particular mobile, are among the most transformative innovations of the past decade. According to World Bank data, there are 85.5 mobile subscriptions per 100 people, which have transformed humanitarian aid responses to conflicts, environmental disasters and humanitarian crises. Crisis maps are now a standard part of the relief landscape. Since Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005, Google has maintained a crisis response team that harnesses the crowdsourcing of data to provide critical information during natural disasters.


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


To provide food, vaccines and medical provisions to remote camps, international humanitarian agencies can use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). UAVs are employed by militaries in combat zones, but the potential civilian applications are just as numerous, if not more so. The Gates Foundation is financing a drone prototype for vaccine delivery, designed by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and Harvard University, to deliver vaccines to remote areas in the fight against preventable diseases.


Advances in ICT can provide governments and international organisations with an unprecedented capability to mitigate threats in the face of conflict and instability. Integrating recent technology innovations in the aid landscape may require legal and operational frameworks to support the appropriate processes by the aid community. It would be preferable for this process to be undertaken by international, multilateral and multi-stakeholder governing bodies, as the private sector has an important role to play. Technology companies can help by considering how their tools and platforms are and could be useful to populations affected by conflict. Relatively small investments in directing technology for humanitarian purposes can not only improve living conditions for affected groups but may also contribute to innovative and unexpected new ways that technology can serve people everywhere. (2)


Sources and Further Reading:


Diamandis, H.P and Kotler, S. 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think


Future of Government Smart Toolbox | 59

Chapter VII: Using Technology to Help Civilians Affected by Conflict

Jared Cohen

Director, Google Ideas




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