Helena is transforming peace processes worldwide. She bridges the gap between institutional and governmental organizations who officially lead peace processes and the communities who suffer the harsh consequences of conflicts, and who are generally excluded from peace-making decisions. She is democratizing peace processes by working with local peace activists worldwide and designing scalable peace interventions that connect local voices to decision makers.
The New Idea
Helena identifies and empowers local peacebuilding organizations to achieve deeper and broader participation in peace and governance, through meaningful participative peace processes. This grass-root participation increases trust between citizens and authorities, and also empowers local communities to take greater ownership for peace within their own context.
Helena´s organization, Build Up, works with actors across the whole chain of a peacebuilding process, from the local communities and direct victims of the conflict, to national and international decision-makers, in order to ensure peace processes that are more expansive, representative and prevalent. Citizen participation is what defines the areas to be worked on, breaking the traditional hegemony of “experts”.
Helena´s approach is easily scalable through her community building. She organises an annual conference for the Build Peace community that brings together practitioners, activists and technologists from around the world to share experiences and ideas on using technology for citizen engagement and conflict transformation from the bottom-up. Build Up´s Fellowship programme identifies and supports social entrepreneurs working in peace building, creating a global network of peace builders.
Traditional forms of consultation often have trouble reaching certain groups, including women, youth and children, and individuals affected by violence and trauma. Helena has been able to reach them and give them a voice, engaging them in each step of the debates, consultations and construction of peacebuilding policies. To overcome problems such as illiteracy or language which can act as barriers to participation, she uses technology, plastic arts, film-making and other tools which allow them to freely express themselves.
With this methodology in place, Build Up has led and implemented over twenty peace building processes in countries such as Somalia, Burundi, Colombia, South Sudan, USA or Syria.
In too many regions, the process of peacebuilding is given over to technical experts, policy-makers, mediators, and peacekeepers who do not strategically engage local communities.
While there are many organizations who work closely with local communities in peacebuilding or conflict mitigation, they generally focus on the grassroots level only – without connecting them with decision-makers. In most cases the local community does not exert sufficient influence and attempts at sustainable peacebuilding are dominated by a traditional hierarchical approach with a wide gap between a) those responsible for governance and b) those on the ground directly impacted by governance.
This hierarchical and exclusive approach, and the lack of citizen participation often lead to peace processes being more open to failure, as there is no buy-in from conflict victims. This results in many countries and subnational areas facing cycles of repeated violence, weak governance, and instability. 90% of the last decade’s civil wars occurred in countries that already experienced a civil war in the last 30 years.
This problem of participation in peace processes affects formal negotiations, where inadequate public participation leads to limited buy-in on the ground - the recently failed referendum on the Colombian peace treaty is an example of such consequences. But, it also affects peaceful coexistence in countries like the USA or Spain, where disaffection with political processes fuels violence locally, leads to mistrust in our institutions and communities, and erodes our collective hope.
The fast-paced growth and access to technology is an opportunity for such processes, but also a tool that is used to promote violence, perpetuate wars and encourage intolerance. Such threats must also be taken into consideration for building lasting peace.
There are three main stakeholders who are traditionally involved in peace processes: international organizations and authorities; NGOs and non-profit organizations; and local communities. Helena’s approach is to bring power to the latter, the local community, so that it can influence the other two stakeholders and transform the peacebuilding system from the bottom-up.
Build Up’s strategy is to identify an organization, person or group of people who already have a strategic connection to a peace process, and work with them to look at the conflict context, develop an explicit theory of change for their work in that context, and identify key entry points that are ripe for innovative intervention.
Build Up identifies these partners through two paths:
1) launching an international call for peacebuilding institutions open to collaboration and innovation. Over 350 applications are received every year.
2) working with international organizations like Interpeace, the United Nations, the British Council and others to support their local partners.
With each partner, Helena and her team design creative interventions to bring hard-to-reach populations into peace processes.
Build Up is dedicated to learning, testing, and collaborating with thought leaders, policymakers, activists and peacebuilders at all levels to advance innovation in peace building, to establish core standards around the ethical use of technological tools for peace, and to build a supportive, global community of peace innovators.
To do this and create an effective and global movement of citizen participation in peace processes, Helena created Build Peace, a community that brings together practitioners, activists and technologists from around the world to share experiences and ideas on using technology for citizen engagement and conflict transformation. Helena brings this community together once a year at the Build Peace international conference. Unlike other peacebuilding conferences, Build Peace focuses on showcasing the work of grassroots peacebuilders and places a strong emphasis on gender, age and national diversity.
In addition, to nourish and give access to this new vision in peace building, Build Up gives a Fellowship each year to support social entrepreneurs working in peace building. The Fellowship are supported through mentorship, training, financial and technological guidance, but also act as ambassadors of Build Up’s approach across their networks.
The use of technology is a transversal element in Build Up’s working, understanding it as an opportunity to counteract against those who apply technology as a tool to spread intolerance, propaganda or violence.
An example of her impact: in Central Africa, community arts interventions were used to help citizens who cannot access formal negotiations have their voices heard inside the government consultation on disarmament. On the Sudan-South Sudan border, Build Up taught women how to make films so their views on the cross-border agreements could be heard and shared. The films were first screened in Majok and caused a strong impression on the community, bringing them together with a shared narrative. The films were later shown to international donors working in the area, directly resulting in a new set of program priorities.
Currently, Helena is co-leading a project with 10 Syrians on 5 tech-enabled coexistence projects in Syria: a Facebook messenger bot that matches job seekers with jobs in areas with high populations of displaced people; an online, youth-led TV channel with programs to break stereotypes between communities in Syria; an initiative using animated films and a Facebook messenger bot to promote a culture of non-violence; a digital game that enables Syrian children to gain artistic skills and education around the theme of peaceful coexistence; and an interactive map that documents memory of places inside Syria, challenging existing perceptions of Syria as defined by conflict.
More examples of national projects that were led or co-organized by Build Up are:
• Use of Information Communications Technology to capture and disseminate the views of Somalis on their home-grown democracy efforts. Results on key questions were considered by both the UN and the Somali government.
• Coordinating with Burundian youth working on their future in the face of ongoing instability, which resulted in placing young decision-makers in government;
• Engaging local population in participatory municipal budgeting in Colombia, in reference to peace related projects, an initiative which has now been adopted by the city council of Medellín to be implemented on a regular basis.
• Mitigation of polarization in the USA using online volunteers and chatbots on Twitter and Facebook. 10% of over 1,400 automated prompts received replies, and of those, 50% of users engaged in longer conversations that prompted reflection on polarization.
Build Up has created an evaluation process to measure impact on three levels – on the individuals on the ground, on the organizations involved in peace-building and in the wider context of governance and public discourse.
Helena and the local organizations fundraise together to fund the project costs. In addition, she and her team cover part of their salaries working as consultants for large institutions such as the UN and Interpeace. This consultancy not only provides financial stability, but also gives them credibility, contacts, influence and access to local organizations to start their work.
Helena has also addressed the UN at the Geneva Peace Talks regarding her model of widening citizen participation in peace processes.
Helena´s motivation and concern for peacebuilding comes from her Spanish citizenship and her family’s own experience with conflict. In 1964, Spain’s then-dictator Francisco Franco celebrated 25 years in power with the slogan “25 years of peace”. The counter-slogan from anti-fascist activists was, “we don’t want the peace of the graveyards.”. This slogan is enormously relevant for Helena, even today. It is a call to remember that a peaceful society is not one void of violent conflict, but one where all voices can negotiate a shared understanding of peace. Like many Spaniards, Helena´s family was marked by the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. Her grandparents were fascists, yet both her parents were anti-fascist activists during Franco’s regime. Her parents’ values were key in her upbringing, underscoring the importance of civic responsibility, non-violent activism and freedom.
Helena received a scholarship to study at the United World School in Wales, UK and then later studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. It was at university that she first understood her ability to change things from the bottom up. Helena started working as a student campaigner, eventually becoming president of Oxford’s Student Union. She spearheaded an opposition campaign to the introduction of tuition fees for university, which had previously been free. The campaign inspired mass participation from Oxford students in London in front of the British Parliament, enabling the students to influence a very tight parliamentary vote. A deep desire to combat injustice, coupled with the history of conflict in Spain and within her own close family was the spark that led Helena to specialize in conflict resolution and peace building.
In 2008, she joined the United Nations Development Program in Sudan, initially as an intern. By 2009, she was managing a peacebuilding program in the Nuba Mountains, one of the most conflict-prone areas of Sudan.
During her time at the UN, Helena began to use digital mapping and other data tech to empower the local peacebuilders she worked with. This experience exposed her to the potential that the growing democratization of technology has and how important it can be to shift the balance of power in peace processes.
In 2011, Helena left the UN and began consulting independently on technology and peacebuilding. By 2014, when she launched the Build Peace conference and founded Build Up with three peers, she was already considered a thought-leader in innovation for peacebuilding. She continues to be sought after to speak and write on this topic.
Helena considers herself a caretaker of the values her parents defended, they continue to inform how she works and her son is also a large part of her motivation. She wishes for him to be able to live a free, open and diverse life, in a world where he can re-imagine, every day, new ways to live together.