How digital is transforming UN peacekeeping

It’s no ordinary transformation project. The United Nations has set out to digitalise its global peacekeeping operations. The stakes are exceptionally high, but what are the odds of success?

The business of warfare isn’t the same as it was even a few years ago. Conflict zones are now awash with data. Satellites, drones, radar systems and long-range cameras provide instant intelligence, while warring factions clash in cyberspace with their campaigns of disinformation. This trend is a concern for the United Nations, given that it devised its peacekeeping practices in an analogue world.

That’s why its secretary-general, António Guterres, announced a new digital transformation strategy for the organisation’s missions around the globe in August 2021. He acknowledged that the new technological aspects of conflict required the UN to change its peacekeeping culture to improve its responsiveness. 

A transition of this nature in such a large enterprise clearly can’t be achieved overnight. Indeed, the UN’s Department of Peace Operations (DPO) – which is running 12 missions on which 87,000 people are currently deployed – has given itself three years to put all the right systems in place. Its plan to make full use of cloud technology is crucial, but it has also identified the skills and capabilities it will need to bring in and/or develop internally. 

Mark Dalton is leading the implementation plan for the DPO’s digital transformation. He observes that it’s “inherently challenging to take on something like this. We’re continuously seeking new ways to work more effectively. We’re not only looking at technology; it’s an integrated approach involving people and processes too.” 

He continues: “This is a question of how we can help peacekeepers to implement their complex and demanding mandates. A priority is to ensure that we have the right data and digital architecture in place.”

This UN must manage the same kinds of problems that affect countless other digitally evolving organisations worldwide. These include complex management structures – the DPO relies on the support of myriad military, police and civilian organisations across its member states – and siloed data. It must also deal with conflicting goals, since mandates from the UN Security Council aren’t always aligned with those of national or local governments in war zones. 

In data we trust

Like many organisations wishing to transform themselves, the UN hopes that data will be the new glue. If all the data that’s produced is collated, stored and processed on one unified system, it can become a powerful analytical tool. 

Naomi Miyashita, leader of the policy planning team at the DPO, developed the digital transformation strategy. She observes that peacekeeping missions “receive and generate a huge amount of information. This all needs to be organised coherently, rationally and efficiently, so that we can have a common operational picture. Our new platform will enable us to adopt a much more data-rich and evidence-driven approach, deciding how we plan and execute our mandates and also how we report to the UN Security Council.” 

It will be no mean feat for the DPO to become a digitally advanced organisation that can, say, accurately predict trouble spots, give patrols early warnings of likely attacks and counter disinformation campaigns on various, all while achieving consistency in record-keeping across its various missions. 

Jake Sherman is senior director of programmes at the International Peace Institute, an independent think-tank that works closely with the UN. He believes that the DPO can make some comparatively straightforward changes – for example, ensuring that peacekeepers are equipped with night-vision systems – that will prove highly effective. 

But he adds that other aspects, such as ensuring “basic digital fluency, which includes providing real-time incident reporting, are more difficult. This transformation requires a long-term commitment to recruiting staff with new skills and addressing gaps in capability among the various countries’ contingents on deployment.”

The UN is also keen to reduce the disparities among its peacekeeping units. Some, provided by rich developed nations, have sophisticated technology and data-rich capabilities, which means that boots on the ground aren’t even needed sometimes. On the other hand, staff in units provided by some developing nations have never even used an Excel spreadsheet before, keeping them very much in the analogue world of conflict resolution. 

“We want to ensure that we’re putting in a system whereby we have countries with the technology and capacity to train and support countries that don’t,” Miyashita says. “This should help to level the playing field.”

New risks with digital shift

A key factor that inevitably comes to the fore during digital transformations is that of data governance. The UN has its own data protection and privacy principles, which define what constitutes best practice, but peacekeeping in a data-rich and connected world presents several new challenges in this respect. 

Jane Esberg is a postdoctoral fellow working on Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict project. She points out that, by their very nature, peacekeeping missions require the UN to work with vulnerable people. “Any attempt to integrate data will have to maintain anonymity and be sensitive to context. Protecting the populations that peacekeepers are there to serve will be vital.”

Another risk for the UN to consider is that a newly centralised digital resource could become a target in its own right. One of its challenges will be to make the system open enough for data to be added and accessed by thousands of authorised personnel, while at the same time securing it against hackers. 

“Digitalisation will increase the attack surface as more hardware and software is connected to the main network,” warns Dr Beyza Unal, deputy director of the international security programme at Chatham House. “As the UN considers applying more data-driven applications, it should also consider the possibility of data poisoning by malicious actors. This could corrupt models that run on artificial intelligence, for instance.” 

As with any other digital transformation project, the human element can often be overlooked. The talent required for these kinds of projects is in short supply to the UN in most parts of the world, given that the private sector can generally pay higher salaries to attract the sharpest minds. 

But Paul O’Neill, senior research fellow in military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, believes that the DPO digitisation project could prove attractive to members of generation Z. 

“It provides meaning and purpose that could appeal to the expectations of younger workers with a strong social conscience,” O’Neill says, although he admits that “whether it can attract enough for the ambitious agenda it has set is another question. I also think the timeline is also too challenging. Businesses that attempted digital transformations have noted that the barriers to this are often more cultural than technological.”

The success of the UN’s bold strategy will hinge on the support that member states lend its data-driven cause. Digital transformations are already shaping conflicts around the world. The hope is that they will shape peacekeeping as well.