The new weapons for waging peace

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Since Osama bin Laden released his latest tape, the West has finally caught on to a very real danger in the Islamic world. As Pakistan’s catastrophic floods have demonstrated, terrorists deliberately exploit the chaos of disasters to win the hearts and minds of the affected population. Because regional governments are often incompetent and corrupt, neither internal nor international aid can easily reach those who need it. Instead, fundamentalist groups are often the first presence on the ground — freely providing food, shelter and medicine. Yet the floods have also showcased the new role that web-based technology can play in co-opting radicals’ attempts to dominate relief efforts.

Aid organizations now benefit from a flowering of web-based tools not widely available during the 2004 tsunami or even Pakistan’s 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Chris Anderson, curator of the internationally-renowned TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference, has become deeply involved in Pakistan’s relief efforts. Mr. Anderson is keenly aware that just as Hezbollah gained influence in Lebanon by leading rebuilding efforts there after the 2006 war with Israel, terrorist groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa aim to do the same in Pakistan.

Mr. Anderson’s efforts through the content-sharing website On the Ground in Pakistan are aimed at preventing just that. “If the radical groups rebuild the schools and lead recovery at the grassroots level,” he says, “that’s obviously catastrophic.”

Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous country, nuclear armed, and beset from within by Islamic extremists. More than 20 million people have been displaced within the country, which was poor and unstable even before the floods. The stakes are high. Yet Mr. Anderson argues that the open information provided by web platforms creates a real opportunity to “leverage the efforts of the numerous [Pakistani]-led organizations that are kicking butt on the ground.”

One such platform is Ushahidi, a service first developed at the time of Kenya’s contested 2008 elections for linking eyewitness reports of violence to Google Maps via text messages. In Pakistan, it is being used extensively by citizens to share reports about the disaster. Patrick Meier, Ushahidi’s Director of Crisis Mapping, says the service can also provide Pakistanis a “complaints mechanism for disaster affected communities, giving them a voice if they don’t receive aid [or] witness corruption.”

Greater public transparency is exactly what Pakistanis need. Moreover, near-real time photos and videos from the region can give the United States and its allies increased leverage to demand accountability from the government of Pakistan and governments of future disaster-struck nations.

A website called Pakreport.org, which uses the Ushahidi platform, has been so successful in compiling and disseminating accurate relief information that agencies such as UNICEF Pakistan and UM Healthcare Trust are unofficially using it to identify areas of need. Meanwhile, Pakreport’s founder, Faisal Chohan, is using another online service he developed, called Brightspyre, to connect unemployed flood victims with potential employers via text messaging.

All these developments represent an opportunity to empower relief efforts at the most local level possible, bypassing many of the traditional problems with foreign aid getting to those in greatest need. They represent our best way to prevent terrorists from exploiting the disaster — our best way to wage peace in Pakistan.

In America, the term “waging peace” has usually been used with little substance by opponents of the war as a vague alternative to military conflict. Yet literally, “waging peace” means something that’s actually quite sensible: promoting stability, order and justice with the same purposefulness and strategic thought that characterizes warfare. Waging peace isn’t about handing our enemies flowers. It’s about taking an intelligent, coordinated approach to preventing people from becoming enemies in the first place — and that’s exactly why Pakistan’s floods are a watershed event.

As Mr. Anderson notes, effectiveness is difficult to quantify. It’s not clear how much worse Pakistan’s crisis might have been had these emerging technologies not been available. Certainly there is a long way to go — as evidenced by the inroads that terrorist groups have already made in providing relief.

Yet by their very existence, services like Ushahidi and Pakreport point the way forward for when the next disaster strikes. Wide and unrestrained access to information about crises allows local relief efforts to be more effective, and leaders can be expected to behave more responsibly when they know they are subject to forms of scrutiny they cannot readily control. If the world commits to funding and nurturing these technologies, we will go a long way towards preventing extremists from the dominance bin Laden has called them to achieve.

Mr. Levin is the winner of the 2010 Eric Breindel Collegiate Journalism Award, and interned at the Wall Street Journal this summer. Mr. Luchsinger studies neuroscience at Baldwin-Wallace College. Mr. Soll gave a talk on social media at the 2009 TEDGlobal conference in Oxford before returning to Claremont McKenna College.