Sunday, March 28, 2010

Implementation of Networking Information Technologies for Social Transformation

“Social-network ties can—and […] usually do—convey benefits that are the very opposite of violence. They can be conduits for altruistic acts in which individuals pay back a debt of gratitude by paying it forward.” (Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives)

Costa Rica is experiencing a fast-growing rate of homicides that has already trespassed the threshold of 10 per 100,000 inhabitants, which the World Health Organization considers as a severe public health issue.

Among the wide range of options that can be chosen, adopted and implemented to transform the conflict, it is important to first bear in mind the framework of limitations or conditions within which the government authorities, the civil society and private corporations should act. The reason for this is that the cost-benefit analysis should conduct the nation towards an effective and sustainable change. It would not be considered a successful strategy if, for example, the suppression of violence by violent means will only provoke a new sprouting of violence in a decade from now. So, if violence breeds violence, by the same token it will be assumed that peace breeds peace.

The first philosophical condition is that the measures must be peaceful. This means, following a way of doing things that will breed further peace in the future, not further violence. The definition of peace followed to understand this concept is Johan Galtung’s definition: “Peace is the ability to transform conflicts empathically, creatively and nonviolently.” It can be assumed that nonviolence is a synonym of harmony. Then the definition adopts a more constructive sense. It can further be assumed that empathy implies nonviolence (“do unto others what you want done upon you.”) The definition can be shortened to “the ability to transform conflicts empathically and creatively.” Therefore, the proposed solutions must comply with it in order to be a peaceful solution.

Second, an ethical consideration is sustainability. Again, the intent is to eradicate violence, or at least drug-related violence. This is an ambitious goal, and a virtuous one as well. A goal will be sustainable if, by accomplishing it, future authorities can choose to run it again –after duly adapting it – confident that it is the right option in terms of public support and generation of political capital. In that sense, what the government is looking for is a permanent solution to drug-related violence not for the rest of the year or the rest of the decade, but for the rest of the century.

Third, the solution or group of solutions to be adopted is a strategic one: it must be effective. That is, to be the right thing to do and to do it in the right way. In terms of resource management, it should respond to a sound cost-benefit analysis, it should be feasible to implement in a short period of time, and, most importantly, it must be subject to objective parameters, such as statistical measurements, to determine its degree of successful achievement.

Similar to this, the options must observe financial limitations, or the obvious constraints of the national public budget destined to national security. A country like Costa Rica has a long history of sound prioritization of its budget towards health and education. This should represent no difference. The solutions must come precisely from those two sectors, in combination with others that may assist, for example science and technology, environment, tourism, and culture. In sum, the country should not readjust its historical priorities or cultural values to create a special budgetary fund to spend on security. In fact, Costa Rica’s institutional success as a nation is partly due to its reallocation of military spending into health and education since 1948. This strategy should render success again towards the future. To put it in Emile Durkheim’s words: “When cultural values are sufficient, laws are unnecessary; when cultural values are insufficient, laws are unenforceable.”

Apart from the philosophical, ethical, strategic, and financial conditions, there are four other considerations that are institutional, humanitarian, axiological, and intellectual. The institutional condition is the Rule of Law. The oldest democracy in Latin America owes its national success to a strict respect for the institutions created by law and by the Constitution. This is the foundation of the Rule of Law. It is understood by this that it is not people who govern the country, but laws instead. One of the first victims of rampant insecurity is precisely the Rule of Law, and this cost may be too high to bear.

The humanitarian limitation is the enforcement of Human Rights. Costa Rica in particular must be extremely careful with enforcing this code of humanitarian law since the Inter- American Court of Human Rights is headquartered in San José, capital city of Costa Rica. The country authorities must be conscious of the temporary stigma that criminals portray. A successful transformation of the conflict into the future should deem those temporarily stigmatized as free members of the community coexisting peacefully among the rest.

The seventh condition is axiological, and refers to transparency. This is not a war. This is more like a disease. What a patient wants, most of the time, is to know clearly what are the diagnosis, prognosis, and proposed prescriptions. To defeat drugs the entire national community should start talking openly about drugs. It is a reality that affects the security for all, not just for the families and individuals involved in the drug business. The entire population must engage in dialogue about the causes and consequences of drug addiction, ways to identify suspicious symptoms, and recommended suggestions for a healthy recovery.

Finally, the eighth limitation is an intellectual one. Again, one of the two characteristics of peace discussed above is that it be creative. Following Einstein’s idea that imagination is more important than intelligence, the options to be taken into consideration must be imaginative into the future; creative, in terms of innovation; and conducive towards a paradigm shift or a leapfrog in the nation’s status quo.

Three possible options are to be considered herein, ranging from the least desirable to the most desirable.

The least desirable option of the three is the status quo, or leaving things as they are. Under this premise, the government is to take no new decisions or implement no new courses of action to try to solve the conflict. In this regard, there are several outcomes that could be expected. For example, the homicide rate could continue its fast-growing trend and move from 11.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, to somewhere closer to the rates in neighboring Honduras (58), El Salvador (52), or Guatemala (48) , making of Central America one of the most dangerous regions in the world. This, of course, is the worst-case scenario. The costs in lives, national security, peace, political stability, economic growth, foreign direct investment, social security, and displaced and migrating populations, could be too high. Under such circumstance, it is doubtful that the most remarkable traits that have made of Costa Rica a success story would continue existing.

In this scenario, drug gangs and international drug traffickers that operate in and from Costa Rica would enlarge their operations, recruit more people, take more risks, infiltrate public institutions such as Municipalities, court tribunals, political parties, hospitals, or religious congregations, to secure their business and make it more profitable.

Also, they would consolidate a workforce that would earn diminishing marginal revenues per unit of drug sold. This would push the suppliers of drugs towards increasing their levels of influence in the market, searching constantly for more consumers of their product. At the same time, this would generate greater frictions among different street gangs and drug cartels that make a living out of selling illegal drugs. Under such circumstances, revenge becomes a tool of containment of adversarial gangs from taking market sectors or geographical territories from one another, spiraling into a degree of fatal violence involving innocent people that have nothing to do at all with the criminal activity.

Finally, doing nothing could lead the society or at least several communities in the country to accept illicit drugs as a new reality, as a new way of life so that “if you can’t fight it, join it.” This shifts the role models for young children; alters the life expectancy of the population; deters positive values that aim at higher moral standings or ethical grounds; reduces the quality of life for the entire nation; scares away foreign direct investment and tourism, among the largest items in the services sector, which add up to almost 70% of the country’s gross domestic product ; chases away the supply of some basic public services from certain areas of the country, such as transportation, emergency healthcare, and education; disincentives several jobs that support rural communities and provide resources for the entire country, such as fishing and agriculture; and perhaps even changes the dynamics of free, democratic, and representative elections in the presence of fear or perverse monetary incentives that would worsen the game as it is today.

The next-to-last desirable option is that the government aims for the use of more force to fight violence with violence. Several changes would have to take place for this to happen. The first and most obvious one would be a budget reform to allocate more funds to police recruitment, police training, and purchasing of new equipment, including weapons, bulletproof vests, communication and monitoring technologies, and motor vehicles such as motorcycles, patrol cars and helicopters.

Additionally, the government would need to implement legal reform to pass legislation for more severe sanctions against drug-related crimes, such as illicit association to commit crime, drug-trafficking to end consumers, international drug-trafficking, and violent intimidation.

Perhaps more than that, the reform would have to include an amendment to the judicial procedure to incarcerate offenders. The process would need to ensure the degree of impunity is significantly reduced, and that the ratio of convictions per trial grows in effectiveness. This should also consider making trials more expedite to dedicate fewer resources per conviction. In other words, convicting a criminal would have to respond to a favorable cost-benefit analysis.

Also, the state would have to generate options for jailing a growing number of prisoners. This would be a challenge, as constructing and operating a prison is a costly public exercise and the country at present lacks infrastructure for a higher number of prisoners. In fact, Human Rights concerns have already been raised towards overcrowding conditions within prisons According to FLACSO, Costa Rican prisons in 2002 had a percentage of overpopulation of 110%.

The greatest concern, apart from the obvious budget impact, is the time span that would be required to accomplish a measurable improvement in the degree of national security through this option of increased force. A new legislature is taking over in May, 2010, and the official party does not have simple majority in Congress. This means it will have to negotiate all its bills throughout the term. It additionally means that all other minority parties conforming the opposition have a majority of votes. In other words, a well-organized opposition could have majority performance and impact in the four years to come. The counterargument would be that national security is atop the legislative agenda. Unfortunately, public opinion polls have revealed this as the greatest concern of the population. As of November, 2007, an academic study at the University of Costa Rica revealed that 73% of the population felt defenseless against crime.

The preferred option can be called as “Adoption of Network Information Technologies for the promotion of social harmony and sustainable peace.” This plan consists on the implementation of modern, free, and secure Network Information Technologies (NIT) such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Wikis, and blogs to more effectively exchange relevant information that will be useful in the promotion of social harmony within communities that will generate sustainable peace for all Costa Ricans. In the words of Harvard researchers Christakis and Fowler: “understanding the way we are connected is an essential step in creating a more just society and in implementing public policies affecting everything from public health to the economy.”

There are five methodological principles that will ensure proper implementation of this proposal. The first one is to consider civil society members –individuals and organizations – as volunteers driven by self-interest and the desire of recovering the feeling of security the country enjoyed only over a decade ago. This would mean that the recruitment of active participants would be conducted at all levels of the community, regardless of the person’s involvement in community affairs or their particular leadership role within it. The reason for this is that several different networks will be created, and nearly every person will find a place within one that meets their profile best. The different networks will be discussed below.

The second principle is capacity-building. This means that a group of professionals and experts from different fields will be training people in the networks to learn more about different issues regarding security. For example, doctors can explain the clinical consequences of drug addiction. Lawyers can explain the different types of crime, including, especially, threats and drug-related crimes. Also, the definition of an accessory to crime and the legal obligation to denounce criminal activity, since it is commonly believed sometimes that “don’t ask, don’t tell” behavior is sound policy. Policemen can offer training about ways in which a community can become more secure by assessing risks, and other ways in which organization and technology can render a more secure habitat for them. Local governments can explain policies and procedures to deal with crime, so that the people know how best to help.

Thirdly is communication. The main idea behind NIT is to raise awareness about problems, reveal diagnosis of the situation clearly through statistics and trends, offer mappings of different areas and different risks, and offer tools to better equip communities to help the government help themselves. This communication aims at sharing information that adds value to the community in the form of a connected network where the sum of its parts is greater than the separate parts individually. This is the true value of networks with a synergistic outcome. “Just as brains can do things that no single neuron can do, so can social networks do things that no single person can do.”

The fourth methodological principle is connectivity. People that belong to different networks must be connected to them either by word of mouth or a periodical meeting with other members. Ideally, the cost-effectiveness of virtual connectivity through NIT will allow participants to have a greater reach in a shorter time with a lesser effort. Therefore, the possibility of people to use their land and mobile phones, personal or public computers, radio and television devices, and other means of technological communication, will enhance their participation and make them more interconnected with one another, and their networks with the coordinating entity (see below). The main purpose of this is to allow people to develop trust and rely on their corresponding network. Trust is essential for this nation-building type of endeavor. “The main principle of establishing Societal Trust is contribution. It is demonstrating the intent to give back, to be a responsible global citizen, and it is becoming both a social and an economic necessity in our knowledge worker age.”

Finally, the fifth element is proper and swift coordination by government authorities. Although this project is doable without government support, it would have farther reach and depth if the government offered its support in terms of: human and financial resources; public authority spread locally throughout the country; and the support of the Rule of Law. By the end of this project, then, a side-result would be ever-greater trust in government authorities and support for public action towards a severe public conflict.

Several networks may be created. Here, eight suggestions are proposed:

1. Mothers: a high percentage of the population, mothers are driven by their desire to see their children succeed and to stay away of harm’s way. A tight coordination among mothers in a community could bring a lot of authority back to the household to be able to more closely monitor their children’s behaviors and offer qualified assistance for better decision-making towards a more sustainable future;

2. Doctors: Costa Rica is a country renowned by its healthcare coverage that reaches every corner of the country. Almost everybody is born in the care of a doctor or a trained assistant. This gives doctors recognized authority among the population to refer to different ailments and public health concerns. The participation that a group of coordinated doctors could have in terms of training other networks and raising awareness about behaviors that represent a risk to health or a threat to life could be critical in achieving a better quality of life for the community;

3. Teachers: As with health, the public education service has national coverage. There is an army of trained teachers that work towards the improvement of children’s capabilities to develop as individuals, therefore developing their communities as well. Teachers are good communication vehicles not only with students but also with their parents. Teachers gather valuable information that could be made available in a sensitive manner to solve security-related issues;

4. Municipalities: local governments reach far out into the communities they represent. People usually know the name of someone that works at the Municipality. The power that these leaders could exert upon their communities in terms of network-building towards greater security is undoubted;

5. Moral leaders: a predominantly Christian country, most Costa Ricans attend to the church of their favorite denomination, where a religious or community leader dictates moral principles periodically. These leaders, with proper training, can also become important messengers of peace and facilitators of security among their congregations;

6. Media: the role of media in free democracies is critical in the formation of opinion and perceptions by the public. “[I]t is well known that media overlaps other functional areas of democracy and governance. For example, support for media may yield results in governance activities, particularly those related to decentralization, anti-corruption, and citizen participation in the policy process.” Their role as capacity builders and change agents is fundamental in this process;

7. Street gangs: although not as feared as their Central American counterparts, drug-related gangs in Costa Rica have risen in size, criminal organization, and violence. They also have the option to help in the promotion of social harmony in the community. They are an important sector of the “market of peace” aimed for with this proposal. Bringing them on board would be a sound success, as well as an important asset for this network’s capacity-building;

8. Musicians: Violent people need outlets to their attitudes and behaviors. This will not be achieved within a prison cell and will not be overcome in a short term. Providing violent people the tools to express themselves artistically could become a therapeutic way of treating their dysfunction. Also, it could become a way of generating income if the market supports their talent. Several music schools and expert musicians in the country, coordinated through a network to promote harmony, can foster this.

In order to achieve more social harmony within the nation, we need to start talking less and less about violence and more and more about peace. This is the beginning of the leapfrog or paradigm shift that needs to take place. As Sir Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”


1. Center for Democracy and Governance, U.S. AID. The Role of Media in Democracy: A Strategic Approach. June, 1999. In Last reviewed March 26, 2010.
2. Covey, Stephen M.R. The Speed of Trust. Free Press, 2006.
3. Christakis, Nicholas A., and Fowler, James H. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Amazon Kindle Electronic version, released Feb. 4, 2010.
4. CIA, World Factbook. In Last reviewed March 26, 2010.
5. La Nación newspaper. “Honduras is the most violent country in the region.” March 23, 2010. In Last reviewed March 26, 2010.
6. Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). In Last reviewed March 26, 2010.
7. Poltronieri, Jorge. Research Project on Public Opinion Structures. University of Costa Rica, 2007.


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