Your work primarily focuses on development and conflict management. Please explain to the reader what this entails?

C MS: In my work I generally look at development and humanitarian aid as tools for lowering the risk of violent conflict. At the German Development Institute I am part of a project titled “Reducing Root Causes of Forced Displacement and Managing Migration”, and one of the things we focus on is how development programs that support good governance and equitable economic growth can reduce the kind of violence that leads to forced displacement. Development and aid cannot completely eliminate conflict, but by supporting livelihoods and helping develop systems for managing conflict peacefully, development policy can help lower the risk of violence.

Your other areas of expertise comprise political economy, conflict analysis, technology & innovation and peacekeeping on migration. Share your views on the impact of development and peacekeeping on current migration flows.

C MS: I think the development field, on both the academic and practice sides, is still working out how it contributes to modern migration policy. If, for example, people are migrating to find work, how can development cooperation support job growth in developing countries? This question is not as straightforward as it seems – as people earn more money, there is evidence that they become more mobile and likely to migrate. These complexities force us to ask an important question: Are we using development to improve opportunities for people, with possible increases in migration flows, or are we using development and aid tools to just keep people in place regardless of improvements in quality of life? This is an ethical and normative issue that development practitioners and policy makers have to grapple with.

When we talk about peacekeeping and migration, I think it is better to think in terms of forced displacement and refugee policy. If we look at contexts where modern peacekeeping operations are deployed, these are places where fighting is ongoing and people face acute threats to their physical safety. In countries like South Sudan and Central African Republic, the focus should be on the safety and security of displaced populations. We have to remember that peacekeeping missions are not refugee agencies though – UN member states need to meet their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, and provide safe haven for people fleeing war and persecution.

Could you please explain how technology plays a major role in peacekeeping missions and during crisis?

C MS: This is an exciting space, especially with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) releasing its Performance Peacekeeping report at the end of 2014. This report codified many of the technology and innovation strategies that were already taking place in missions, which have ranged from using open-source mapping software to track elections in Liberia to the deployment of unarmed drones in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In humanitarian response, particularly in natural disasters, the increased role of mobile phones and digital mapping has made coordination between response agencies and crisis-affected populations significantly easier. None of these technologies can solve every coordination problem in conflict and crisis-affected settings, but they do make it easier for agencies and populations to share information quickly and organize responses.

June 20th marks World Refugee Day. With your research experience in using technology to avert crisis, is there a technological innovation that refugees in distress can use to make their circumstances better?

C MS: I would argue that the rapid expansion of access to mobile phones in developing countries and crisis-affected contexts has been crucial for refugees. Mobile phones, especially smart phones, allow for communication with diaspora communities as well as the ability to stay connected with family back home. You can imagine the emotional and psychological stress that would come with wondering whether you loved one survived a journey, or the need to let your family know you’re safe. A mobile phone makes it possible for refugees to stay connected.

Mobile phones also allow refugees to connect with services provided by NGOs in the camps or cities they end up in. Groups like Mercy Corps and companies including Google have created apps that provide refugees with information about local laws and processes, like, as well as translation apps for staff who are helping new arrivals with paperwork and integration.

What motivates you in the morning and how do you think about it in the evening?

C MS: I get to go to work every day knowing I’ll be doing research and writing policy advice on the nexus between technology, development, conflict and migration. This space presents so many opportunities to do compelling research, and to produce results that can have real impact on policy. As a researcher at the German Development Institute I have the opportunity to do rigorous research on a fascinating topic, and have a platform to make that research directly accessible to policy makers. That’s pretty motivating! Once I leave work at the end of the day, I try not to think about work so that I can recharge. Since moving to Bonn I’ve found that an evening bike ride along the Rhine is one of the best ways to wind down and prepare for the next day’s work.

Which question would you like to answer that you have never been asked before?

C MS: What are the social and political contexts where technology is most useful to refugees and people in developing countries?

This question is one that has always interested me as a social scientist. When we talk about using technology to support refugees, or for doing crisis response and peacebuilding, I think it is crucial to understand how political and social context influences peoples’ information gathering and sharing strategies. There are practical reasons for this, such as privacy and safety issues; unsecured digital information can put already vulnerable people at greater risk. From a policy perspective, there is the issue of resource allocation. If people get all their information from the radio, is it a good use of time and money to develop smartphone apps that people may never use? Understanding the contexts in which people turn to mobile devices and digital media is theoretically interesting, and can inform the safe and effective use of these tools by refugees and development organizations.

Interview led by Nteboheng Phakisi