Rasna Warah, journalist and independent researcher, analyzes key themes and conclusions emerging from a July 2014 workshop on the role of ICTs in statebuilding and peacebuilding in Africa.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and new media have often been viewed as a solution to Africa’s myriad problems, including poor governance, conflict and poverty. From the M-Pesa mobile banking system in Kenya to the aggressive adoption of e-governance in Rwanda, the role of ICTs in improving Africa’s economy and governance systems cannot be underestimated.
However, while innovations and the use of ICTs on the African continent are on the rise, they have not necessarily reduced the threat of conflict. Evidence of a direct correlation between increased ICT penetration and innovations and peace and stability on the continent is sketchy at best, and quite often anecdotal, based usually on the innovators’ own assessment of the technology and its impact. For example, the Ushahidi platform, which has been praised internationally for allowing conflict-prone countries to track sites of violence and conflict within a region, and which played an important role in identifying areas of conflict during Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence, has not helped the country to significantly reduce the prospect of future conflict. On the contrary, the country has witnessed increasing terrorism-related violence and insecurity in recent months. Such innovations point to the fact that innovative technology by itself cannot reduce conflict if the social, economic and political conditions in a country are not conducive to peace and stability. It also shows that when the “hardware,” such as the police force and security and intelligence services are substandard, no amount of technology can prevent the threat of violence, conflict or insecurity.
To interrogate the assumption that new media and ICTs improve peacebuilding and statebuilding in Africa, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy brought together a group of African and Africa-based researchers to Oxford University in July 2014. The researchers were invited to unravel some of the myths surrounding ICTs and their role in improving participation and accountability in conflict and post-conflict situations.
A key theme that emerged at this workshop was that while many governments and political parties in Africa have adopted new technologies and interactive platforms to engage with citizens and to improve accountability, increased use of ICTs by governments and political parties is not always based on democratic ideals. For instance, in Niger, a majority of the political parties’ websites are used to showcase the leader of the party rather than to allow supporters to debate and highlight issues of concern to them. In Kenya, social media is being increasingly used anonymously by Kenyans to post hate speech and tribal sentiments and has proved to be a polarizing, negative influence on Kenyan society. In Rwanda, the government has adopted e- governance, but media freedoms are being curtailed and citizens’ internet activity is heavily monitored.
ICT optimists also tend to underestimate the infrastructural challenges faced by most African countries. Electricity coverage remains low in most countries, and high costs prevent many users from accessing the internet. Poor connectivity, power cuts and poverty levels have a direct impact on people’s ability to use ICTs. In some cases, corruption and reluctance by governments to make data more accessible to ordinary citizens have put the brakes on initiatives such as OpenData in Kenya, an initiative of the previous government intended to make official data and records public, and which allowed users of the data to interact and make comments and suggestions for the site’s improvement.
Researchers at the workshop recognized that more information does not necessarily lead to better decision-making, and that while ICTs and new media have a great potential to reduce poverty, improve governance, promote better accountability and reduce conflict in African countries, the technology itself cannot resolve deep-rooted issues, such as historical injustices, inequality and radicalization. The “software” needed to resolve these problems, such as improved literacy, civic education, equitable distribution of resources, better and less corruptible security services, and political motivation require approaches that involve face-to-face interaction and community participation, which is not always possible through ICTs, particularly in challenging environments where most people do not even have access to safe water, let alone access to cheap and reliable electricity to power their mobile phones.