Partnerships for Progress: Non-traditional Resources for Peacekeeping Technology

With a birds-eye-view over the palm trees, perched on an 11-metre (36-foot) tall tower, Chhetra Rana, Field Communications Manager, CITS Bukavu (also pictured right) and Omer Bulambo, Radio Technician, CITS Bukavu (yellow helmet) connect the scanner to the main processor unit of the Rohn 25 radar system during the initial installation of the MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) Radar Station. Three such stations are situated around the shore of this African Great Lake to provide the mission’s military with a full view of Lake Kivu traffic between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. ©MONUSCO

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– Brad Smith, President of Microsoft

Information and communications technologies (ICT) are expanding at an exponential rate, greatly affecting how the United Nations conducts its peace operations in the evolving digital age. This ICT revolution is occurring at precisely the same time as the United Nations faces renewed pressures on its peacekeeping operations to do more with less. It also comes as the Security Council give missions enhanced mandates, which now include the protection of those most vulnerable during internecine warfare and peacekeeping locations where there is often no peace to keep, operating in complex and insecure environments where daily threats of violence are a common occurrence.

Funding for ICT within peacekeeping has been almost exclusively through the peacekeeping budget, which is currently in a downward trend. While limited areas of peacekeeping operations have been augmented recently by gracious bilateral partnerships and have been highly successful and effective1, more can still be done, and should be done, utilizing and leveraging novel ways to attract such vital funding and support. It is time, now more than ever, for a fresh approach, a new appeal to the philanthropist sector, and like-minded groups in civil society and the private sector to help ICT in peacekeeping. Indeed, in line with the recent Secretary General’s report, “government and civil society decision makers, as they adapt to the variety of the demands of the digital economy, expect quick solutions”2

The Information and Communications Technology Division (ICTD) of the Department of Field Support (DFS) in New York Headquarters is evolving as the natural conduit for transforming such technology on the ground, for harnessing and engaging non-traditional sources of funding, reaching out into new areas such as public-private partnerships, leveraging advances in corporate research and development programmes and establishing technology think-tank dialogues. Non-State actors, third parties in the form of philanthropist groups and like-minded institutions may wish to help, and such non-traditional funding sources could make an invaluable contribution to some of the most helpless people in the world.

With the host of activities to monitor—from elections to disarmament to sanctions and a myriad of threats—the world organisation needs to broaden its technology base and explore innovative monitoring strategies. Monitoring technologies are legitimate tools—legal under international law—that host states and conflicting parties should welcome because these tools allow the United Nations to do more effective job as an impartial observer of commitments. These devices can also enhance the safety of UN civilian and military personnel. Finally, technology could help United Nations take a more proactive approach—moving from a ‘culture of reaction’ towards a ‘culture of prevention’.3

Peacekeeping is enshrined by international humanitarian law and, as such, has a legitimate right to minimize the loss of life or damage to civil property. Central to today’s peace operations is the protection of civilians (POC). The High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO)4 now makes POC a core obligation and central tenant of peacekeeping operations. Such a role is so crucial to peacekeeping that if the operation is not able to stop an atrocity, it will be blamed for its failure.  It can also suffer from a commitment-capability gap, and an image problem. The popular perception may be that an operation is a large deployed military force under the United Nations flag with soldiers wearing blue berets, but the actual reality on the ground is very different. The means are usually not sufficient to operate over large areas with complex mandates such as saving people, alleviating their suffering and coming to the aid of children, women and men at times of crisis, in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

There are many areas where new technologies could help peacekeepers, and in some cases, even solve problems. These new technologies do not necessarily have to be expensive, nor do they have to be in the form of direct funding, rather they could be gifted or loaned technology platforms or capacities by certain ICT groups who possess a commercial proportion of the ICT market or have a comparative advantage—just sharing such capabilities would be a massive step forward and could be provided at little cost or burden by the benefactor group. Simple solutions can go a long way, from ‘off the shelf’ hardware/software products and services, to niche technologies, which could be used directly or adapted to ICT operations in peacekeeping operations.

Some solutions do not have to be complex, for example, offering free training in person, virtual training or through e-learning to United Nations staff could go a long way, and high-tech e-learning companies might be key in this regard. Other solutions, even though harder to accomplish, could be applied to assisting with basic human needs, such as gifted pioneering geospatial mapping for hydrology to continue the excellent work already completed on water source location in field operations. Technologies for the movements of internally displaced people, and the tracking and identification of their tormentors, the guerilla groups, could be enhanced through ever increasing technologies such as mapping simulations and spatio-temporal visualizations such as 4D.

Moreover, when talking about simple solutions to complicated problems, keeping the solution as simple as possible is normally the right approach; by using a smartphone, for example, the user is empowered to merge many functions inside a single device: calling, messaging, GIS internet, cameras/video, GPS (satellite), and having the possibility of expanding its use by ways of applications (apps) and gadgets, such as night vision, besides the ability to gather information through social media and crowdsourcing. Another case of cheap and efficient technology to complement a smartphone is an external satellite antenna. The hardware has the ability to turn a regular phone into a satellite phone, radio and GPS for when cell service is not an option. Such off-the-shelf technologies could be donated by phone companies or philanthropist groups, which could be used by vulnerable groups, especially community-based groups comprised of women and children, to be worked in conjunction with the peacekeeping forces on the ground5.

One pioneering initiative the United Nations took to raise awareness about the plights of human beings around the world was the Virtual Reality short films “Clouds Over Sidra”, “Waves of Grace”, and “My Mother’s Wing”. As part of a renewed and strategic outreach campaign, these films follow the lives of regular citizens in different parts of the world and show their everyday struggle, exploring options to use virtual reality more in depth to provide an emotional connection that can help potential donors to empathize with the challenges on the ground for peacekeeping. Gabo Arora, United Nations Senior Advisor and creator of these films explains that “one of the things I hear a lot after someone has watched the film is that how powerful eye contact is. When you look someone in the eye in virtual reality, you feel like you are connecting in a way that you do not in film. Unlike in film and video, you can’t look away”6. This is a good opportunity to open the world’s eyes to what is happening every day in the deployed countries and show the stark reality on the ground.

The introduction of Goal 16 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)7, to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, has increased awareness of transformative importance of technology. In September 2015, the United Nations launched a massive publicity campaign using radio spots, social media, advertisements and concerts in New York to highlight the importance of these goals. The objective of this publicity was to get the public involved in what is happening and invite them to participate in the cause. Filmmaker Richard Curtis, one of the organizers, said that publicity is essential to getting the goals adopted, implemented and funded, “the first thing is to get them known, get them discussed, so the politicians know there is a global ambition for global citizens to fight for these goals for the next 15 years”.

Another suggestion to raise non-traditional sources of funding is to further explore new channels and get the general public involved in these causes. An excellent example has been the noteworthy support and awareness campaigns led by Goodwill Ambassadors. The support and donations to foundations such as the UN Foundation and the Better World Campaign have increased significantly; and certain information technology (IT) companies have become more involved in helping, as is the case for Microsoft8; even academia and think-tanks are assisting by means of projects and initiatives to use their skills to work on an open-source software project, which contributes to the SDGs, and the UN Global Pulse, a partnership with “experts from UN agencies, governments, academia, and the private sector to research, develop, and mainstream approaches for applying real-time digital data to 21st century development challenges”9.

“Technology-centred innovation has the potential to be a transformative force in implementing the Organization’s field based mandates. We are working to establish a field focused innovation and technology framework, aimed at facilitating innovation in an integrated manner at all levels and fostering the inclusion of all field mission components. In the areas of force protection, situational awareness, medical and protection of civilians, appropriate technologies can save lives. In other areas it leads to efficiencies and increased effectiveness. Our relevance as technology solutions providers will depend on how successful we will be in the coming years in providing the best tools and solutions to support our field operations”.10

It is crucial that the United Nations leverage technology as both a catalyst and as an enabler, to transform itself into an organization that is at the forefront of the technological revolution. Attracting and harnessing alternative funding sources for ICT in peacekeeping operations, outside of the more traditional budget sources, will be key for future success. As the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation11candidly remarked, the peacekeeping strategy should “include leveraging technology to improve the safety and security of both civilian and uniformed personnel, especially by enhancing situational awareness to enable better threat detection and early warning, including protecting women and girls”12. Partnerships, dialogues with interested third parties, academic institutions, philanthropists and similar minded groups are crucial to bridging the technology and funding gap between IT capability and resourcing. Fostering and coordinating new partners in technology will tremendously enhance the technological component of field operations. There are existing mechanisms in place to accept, utilize, monitor, and report the use of extra budgetary funds13 and it is beholden upon all to do something practical and useful to advance ICT in peacekeeping missions. This should be a two-way process: for the United Nations to reach out and engage philanthropic groups, and for such groups, in return, to have representatives participate and assist the United Nations. Should this partnership move forward with true vigour and seriousness, this process will have a major bearing on the current operating environment. Bridging the two parties and such an investment will help solve systemic global problems and ensure that we are successful in our collective efforts to implement our mandates for peace, development and human rights.

Notes

[1] These are just a few examples: one Member State has signed with Airbus Defense and Space to lease drones for assisting peacekeeping operations. Available from  http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Israels-Heron-drone-completes-first-successful-mission-in-Mali-471961; another resource by a separate Member State has been the introduction of Modular Command Centers (MCCs), introducing better situation awareness and enhanced incident management systems, resulting in a greater analysis and sharing of critical mission incidents/events information, available from https://vimeo.com/214188991; as well as the donated money under the Triangular Partnership Project, available from http://www.gpaj.org/2016/08/06/14517 to establish a UN Signals Academy by another Member State, available from https://www.un.int/news/un-signals-academy-aims-empower-women-through-technology.

[2] A/72/492, para 43.

[3]  Walter Dorn, Keeping Watch: Monitoring, technology and innovation in UN peace operations (Tokyo, Japan, UNU Press, 2011), pp. 208-209.

[4] A/70/357-S/2015/682.

[5] This technology is being used now with a novel form of innovation and has been applied to the Community Alert Network in United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), which employs mobile telephone technology as an early warning system for local communities. Such technology is indicative that the United Nations has evolved its peacekeeping operations over the last decades and has demonstrated substantial technological process.

[6] John Gaudiosi, “UN Uses Virtual Reality to Raise Awareness and Money”, Fortune, 18 April 2016. Available from http://fortune.com/2016/04/18/un-uses-virtual-reality-to-raise-awareness-and-money/.

[7] Available from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg16.

[8] Available from https://news.microsoft.com/2017/05/16/technology-for-human-rights/#1h6ZbHCIZvrGqsXA.97.

[9] UN Global Pulse (2016). Available from https://www.unglobalpulse.org/.

[10] Brazier, David. Interview with Anthony O’Mullane, Director, Information and Communications Technology Division (ICTD), Department of Field Support, United Nations.

[11] Jane Holl Lute, “Cover Letter” in Performance Peacekeeping: Final Report of the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping, 22 December 2014. Available from https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/download_9.pdf

[12] A/70/749, para 54.

[13] These are embedded in Umoja—the United Nations enterprise resource planning system based on SAP, which allows for transparent, customized reporting, and is able to meet demands of the donors. Such reporting technology can be utilized to measure the impact of investments, in terms of meeting performance measures and contributing to the overall objectives/mandate of the mission.