posted 8 Mar 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 6
Case study: United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations
Keeping the peace
Managing information in any organisation is a challenge, but how about one with a ‘board of directors’ drawn from 192 nations, involved in sensitive peace-keeping operations around the world?
By Danny Myint
Information management can be a tremendous challenge in the most super-efficient of organisations. But have you ever wondered how much of a challenge it might be in an organisation whose ‘board of directors’ consists of representatives from 192 nations, where the ‘stakeholders’ are the peoples of the world and whose objectives are to provide peace and stability?
The organisation is, of course, the United Nations (UN) and it arguably has to handle the biggest information-management challenge of all: managing information in peace-keeping missions.
This task belongs to the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), which is responsible for the management of peacekeeping missions, a central element in international conflict resolution. While international law generally disdains intervention in countries’ internal affairs, peacekeeping missions are given unparalleled rights to intervene in countries where peace and security are being threatened and stability undermined.
Most often, lack of security, law and order prevents peacekeeping missions from relying on local infrastructures and it is therefore standard practice today for peacekeeping missions to build their own infrastructure from the ground up, able to operate over wide areas, such as the Darfur region in
Start-up teams are initially deployed to set-up ‘footprint offices’ with the essentials – security, supplies, transportation and communications – in order to establish an operating command centre. The mission later expands its operation beyond its headquarters, deploying troops in provincial areas.
Types of information and systems
The functional components of the mission involve the production and management of various types of information. The information requirements of each peace-keeping mission are unique, although they all have some factors in common.
In addition to the standard operational information, such as finance (budgets must be kept and everyone needs to be paid on time, of course) and human resources, there is also more substantive information on issues that must be followed to ensure that the mission is not inadvertently undermined, such as the rule of law and the civil affairs and cultural norms of the host country or region.
On top of that, there is also the everyday tactical information of military and police operations. A peacekeeping mission can produce and store several terabytes of information; the equivalent of a few thousands trees in paper terms. One of the most common challenges they face is a lack of reliable power sources, which can cause breakdowns in communication, especially when a peacekeeping force is located in a remote area in an already poor country. So for this very good reason, peacekeeping missions have historically tended to be paper driven, although they are starting to become more computerised.
DPKO has started implementing enterprise-wide systems, particularly in areas of resource planning (systems to manage assets and expedite crucial processes, such as procurement and financial reporting) and, recently, in elections and human rights to provide monitoring and coordination tools.
A unified recognition within the UN is that there is an immediate need for a cohesive information-management strategy to help achieve organisational goals. In the past, the UN has developed in-house systems. This was a costly approach, but enabled the organisation to customise systems and provided full control of system design and integration.
Recently, there has been a trend to acquire ‘off-the-shelf’ packages, particularly in specific UN agencies, such as the UN Development Program (UNDP). The need for these organisations to be able to respond rapidly to hazardous situations demands highly scalable and robust systems, which cannot easily be produced from within the organisation within the required timescales.
From a peace-keeping mission perspective, a professionally designed information-management system would also have the ability to provide uniformity, increase efficiency and assist in knowledge transfer. But until such systems are in place, peacekeeping missions continue to find themselves reinventing the wheel.
A further challenge the United Nations faces is the wide variety of end-users, which range from the highly technical to people with limited or no exposure to information technologies. Staff can be drawn from almost anywhere in the world.
The responsibility of administering information systems falls to UN civilian employees, many of whom are veteran peacekeepers and are highly specialised in their fields. They initiate such systems early on to support operations, then later train colleagues in the military and police components, as well as local staff, on the use of these systems.
Although a lack of experience in using information systems by some users can be an obstacle, it does have some underlying benefits. Through training, local employees’ capacity in technology can be developed. People from contributing countries are eager to exchange experiences and learn from one another. So through the introduction of information systems and procedures, the UN fulfils some of its broader objectives: to develop skills among the local people to sustain peace and development, and to promote multilateral cooperation among nations.
Information and culture
Peacekeeping missions are truly a multilateral cooperation of nations. Some 114 countries contribute men and material to peacekeeping missions, creating a mosaic of cultures and languages. French, English, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic are the six official languages of the UN. Although all official languages need to be accommodated by the UN’s information systems, peacekeeping missions’ information is predominately conveyed in either French or English.
Differences in ‘lingo’ – the way people speak every day – run far deeper than the difference between languages. While soldiers are used to their own ‘military talk’, technical jargon is often used by civilian experts, too. On top of that, there is often confusion caused by ‘UN talk’, not to mention the complexity of regulations and procedures placed by the organisation itself to provide the various checks and balances of administration. It is therefore not uncommon for information to become muddled by misinterpretations of rules between languages and cultures.
The diversity in cultures also plays an important role when it comes to managing information. Interpretations of information differ from culture to culture. Information regarded as frivolous by some may be regarded as precious by others. Some cultures regard sharing information as empowering, while others guard information protectively.
At a subjective level, some cultures can be highly sophisticated in their use of communications mediums, while others still maintain rudimentary methods, meaning that some cultures are naturally more advanced in applying technologies in information management.
Those who are able to apply technology are also able to generate sophisticated yet comprehensive information. Some examples of these technologies include geographic information, surveillance and counter-intelligence. The UN, by applying its own procedures (which may not be as advanced), provides a palatable standard that ought to be broadly acceptable by all parties, creating an environment for collaboration.
Even the tone set by a bureaucratic organisation such as the UN can be overwhelming to some cultures, which may not be accustomed to the amount of available information. These differences cause challenges when collaborating on projects, particularly high profile operations such as, for example, the security of an election.
However these differences are usually overcome by the recognition of common goals. Relations are built amongst collaborators to gain trust and understanding of how information is produced and exchanged by one another. This process, although crucial, can take time and could be a drawback in time sensitive projects.
While peacekeeping missions tend to focus on peace, security and elections, other UN agencies focus on humanitarian aid and sustainable developments. Affiliates including such non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) focus on medical assistance.
These organisations may compete for similar resources and may have overlapping goals. There are initiatives to consolidate concerted efforts under one banner for UN agencies and NGOs, to collaborate and coordinate information and resources.
Information systems can assist in these coordination initiatives. ReliefWeb, a global hub for information, developed by the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 1996, is such an example. Through this hub it coordinates the various relief efforts of both UN agencies and NGOs’ responses to international emergencies and natural disasters.
The newly created Peacemaker portal, developed by the department of political affairs, provides an online mediation support for international peacemaking professionals and is a databank of modern peace agreements. Resources include the ‘peacemaker’s toolbox’, a kit to find operational tools to help draft agreements, and knowledge essays, provided through collaborations with the American University’s Public International Law and Policy Group and the University of Colorado’s Beyond Intractability Project.
The Peace Operations intranet for DPKO, serves as a community of practices connecting the peacekeeping community. Resources include standard practices, policies and directory of specialists for reference. It is also a gateway to headquarters’ and peacekeeping missions’ websites and is aimed for knowledge sharing amongst the missions, through the reports, surveys and hand-over notes; mostly in English, is catered for administrators in the field.
From the Middle East to
Peacekeeping missions will always face serious challenges, not just on the ground (as you would expect), but in terms of achieving a streamlined, efficient and uniform way of managing information, taking into account the human and cultural factors.
However, with such challenges and the absence of a singular model, it is astonishing to see many success stories. Its history can be traced back to 1948 when the UN set up the Truce Supervision Organization to handle the fragile peace following the first Arab-Israeli war.
Since then, peacekeeping missions in
And in 2002, history witnessed the creation of newly sovereign state of Timor-Leste (
In recognition of the lasting peace achieved by the organisation, the new government requested archival documents relating to the UN mission in East Timor (UNTAET), in order to preserve them as historical national records. With that, information of a peacekeeping mission became part of the new nation’s history.
Danny Myint served with the United Nations’ Stabilization Mission in Haiti during its initial phase, from 2004 to 2006. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peacekeeping-101: An example illustrating how a peacekeeping mission is conceived
A country is experiencing an escalation in violence in its prolonged civil war between the government and rebellious factions. Its instability is now threatening regional peace and security and an outflow of refugees to neighbouring countries requires increased humanitarian assistance.
Upon the insistence of the international community – expressed through the United Nations (UN) – a ceasefire has been agreed and the UN Security Council has established a peacekeeping mission in the country to observe that ceasefire. Through the Security Council, the peacekeeping mission is provided with unparalleled legitimacy to intervene to address the crisis.
During this period of interim peace, the UN will try to coordinate and organise free and fair elections, re-establish the rule of law and civil society, disarm and demobilise competing factions, and relocate refugees by an agreed mandate with the country. Through this mandate, donor countries are encouraged to contribute funds, troops, equipment and expertise to execute these tasks.
Once these elements are in order and approved by the Security Council, it is the responsibility of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to oversee the deployment of the peacekeeping mission. It is an exercise involving multiple nations and possesses the twin complexities of a military operation with the aspirations of nation building. It is fair to say that the objective of peacekeeping missions resembles the European Recovery Plan (the Marshall Plan) after world war two.
While the Marshall Plan in 1947 cost $13 billion – $130 billion in today’s money – 18 peacekeeping missions around the world today operate on an annual budget of just $5 billion. Since 1948, a total of $42 billion has been spent on peacekeeping efforts by the UN. But peacekeeping is only possible when there is a peace process. This process is brought forward by those who can put their differences aside and agree on mutual terms for peace.