Today, I listened to an activist talking about the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict which is taking place this week in London. An impassioned plea for political solutions to a global problem—the use of rape and sexual violence against both men and women as a weapon in war and conflicts. Nobody can object to that, surely.
What I heard in the discussion about this conference is the same as what I hear when a wide variety of political campaigns are discussed: to make an effective change, we need to understand the cultural, social, religious and political contexts of the places where this takes place. This is not moral relativism: it’s not to excuse rape or sexual violence. But to formulate an adequate response in terms of policy, one must understand the politics, the society, the culture, the religion, and work in a sustained and committed way with local activists and civic society. Otherwise, you’ll go in, enforce some ham-handed solution that’ll smell like imperialist meddling, of the White Saviour coming to save the impoverished natives.
To change a society, you need to understand it, or your efforts won’t connect with the people in that society. You’ll just end up sounding like a big, clueless phony. That kind of political engagement is hard work.
At the same time activists realise this more and more, we see it being applied less and less in the technology industry.
Running alongside the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict event is a hackathon. As hack days/hackathons go, this has a laudable goal. I don’t think anyone thinks more sexual violence in conflict is desirable.
But the use of hack days to try and solve social problems itself seems like a bad hack. I hope I’m wrong: it’d be great if tools get developed at the EndSVCHack event that serve the important social goal of the activists trying to fight against rape and sexual violence.
I just don’t buy it though. If you sat me down and asked me to build tools to support those trying to help the victims of sexual violence in conflict zones, there’s a lot of issues one would face. Okay, first of all: linguistic. I speak English and I know enough French that I can get by in a restaurant. I had a quick Google to find out where the chief problem zones are with sexual violence in conflict.
The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict lists four countries with significant issues—Burma, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya. I know very little about the context of what is going on in any of those countries, and I have a funny feeling most programmers living and working in London probably don’t know much about these countries beyond what they can glean from Wikipedia.
If the sort of activism and political campaigning that needs doing needs to be smart, culturally-aware and so on, hackers are going to fail to appreciate that context in a two day process.
Next problem: institutional. Let’s say something gets built during that two days that is actually suitable for use by governments and/or NGOs that are trying to reduce sexual violence in conflict zones. How is that going to be used by the organisations working in the field? How is it going to be maintained? Who is going to train people working in the country? Plenty of hacks get built at hack days and then disappear. The hackers have jobs and lives they need to get back to. They may be able to crank out an app prototype, but the time to polish it, release it, maintain it and adapt it to the needs of the different societies in which this is trying to run—well, unless there’s some plan there, most of the hacks won’t be there a month later.
I’ve written about this before with regards to FloodHack: I’m not opposed to these kinds of thing, but I’m just very sceptical that they will have any results. If you wished to produce hacks to support NGOs trying to eradicate sexual violence in conflict zones, a hack day might not be the best way of doing it. Imagine instead if we had a fund which NGOs could apply to in order to get a couple of programmers for a few months. If you’ve got them there for a few months, then the programmers can actually understand the context of the problems they are solving—maybe go out into the society where the issues are. When they build things, they can do so knowing that there’s some institutional context—an NGO, a government etc.—that will maintain what they build.
The trend to think “oh, big social problem, let’s run a hack day!” seems to be a clear example of what Morozov calls “solutionism”. Apps don’t solve all social problems. Technical efforts to help solve difficult, very culturally-specific social problems seem a poor fit for the hack day format.
But I wish them luck and I hope my scepticism doesn’t discourage people from trying.