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Obama Administration Looking To Award Prize Money For Ideas On Preventing Mass Atrocities

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, April 23 2012

An exhumed mass grave outside of Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2007. Photo: Adam Jones

The Obama administration on Monday issued a call to the public to come up with creative ideas for tracking and preventing mass genocide and other atrocities in countries across the globe. The call is part of the Administration's new campaign against mass atrocities, and involves $600,000 in prize money that will come from USAID and The Omidyar Group's Humanity United foundation.

"The President announced what we are calling a tech challenge for atrocity prevention," said Dr. Sarah E. Mendelson, USAID's deputy assistant administrator in its Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, Humanitarian Assistance. "We want to invite students, individuals, and folks who are savvy about tech, to help us think about new applications of science and technology for a range of atrocity prevention challenges."

In an interview, Mendelson said that USAID and Humanity United are open to a wide range of ideas. In the past, the United States has helped to build cell phone towers to create mobile phone networks in Uganda so that citizens could alert each other to the whereabouts of warlord Joseph Kony's militia. Invisible Children, for its part, has funded a radio network that is also designed to help Ugandans track and locate crises as they happen.

President Obama delivered a major speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and signed an executive order on Monday that was designed to exert pressure on foreign governments and officials (in particular those in Syria and Iran) to stop using technology to repress their citizens. Among other things, Obama also created a new Atrocities Prevention Board, which will bring together the leadership of officials in the departments of State, the Treasury and Defense to come up with strategies to head off looming atrocities. The idea for the board has been in the works since 2008 -- it was developed by the Clinton Administration's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

The first round of awards from USAID will be announced January 2013 after subject matter and tech experts review the proposals that USAID receives.

The contest is the first step to what USAID calls its "Grand Challenge" for Atrocity Prevention, which is a program that USAID has run in partnerships with outside groups in other subject areas like health and education. These programs are typically multi-year initiatives that are $30-$50 million projects that involve several different groups working together.

"[Grand Challenges] are essentially collaborative efforts where you boil down a development challenge to a very specific, bite-sized element," Mendelson said. "For example, in the health field, we have a 'Saving Lives at Birth,' initiative. We need to do the equivalent for atrocity prevention. It’s identifying a problem and the critical barriers to solving that problem. Implicit in the problem is the idea that science and technology could help solve it, and that whatever solution you have is scalable, and that it’s a problem that USAID alone cannot solve."

She added that the tech challenge is part of a more holistic goal of helping dissidents and citizens in crisis situations protect themselves physically from repressive governments and entities that are themselves are becoming increasingly agile with emerging technologies.

The photograph accompanying this story has been changed.