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Empowering local communities and giving them agency in the peacebuilding process is the key to overall success. By pairing up online strategies with offline strategies we can achieve maximum impact. Ushahidi's story illustrates the importance of an inclusive approach, where citizen are active participants in the peacebuilding process.
In conversations about digitalization, it comes naturally to think of all the benefits they bring. And sometimes, we lose sight of the potential threats and non-technological strategies required to build successful outcomes in the quest for social justice. One of the biggest lessons I've learned through my work at Ushahidi is that It truly isn't just about the technology. The tools we build are undoubtedly powerful. But they are not all-encompassing solutions. They are but powerful enablers, some examples:
Ushahidi's story began with the post-election violence that broke out across Kenya after results from a highly contested election, marked by high tribal tensions, were announced in 2007. Unfortunately, a lot of what was happening on the ground was primarily underreported or not reported at all. So, a group of five Kenyan bloggers came together to help ordinary Kenyans shed light on what was happening around them. They built a platform where people could text in, fill out a web form, and aggregate that information on a map. They gave Kenyans a voice when no one else could or would. Citizen witnesses became empowered to document violence in their communities, share information globally, and – where possible – feed data to domestic or international investigators and prosecutors working toward accountability for crimes.
In November 2008, Butterflyworks and Media Focus on Africa launched the Unsung Peace Heroes project to recognize individuals and organizations that participated in peace efforts following the 2007 Kenyan post-election violence and conflict. The project used the Ushahidi platform to collect nominations and map the locations of peace efforts via SMS, email, and filling out nomination forms at peace events. The Unsung Heroes Map proved to help highlight peace efforts and note where violence occurred.
In August 2010, Ushahidi launched the Uchaguzi project to provide a channel for Kenyan citizens to communicate openly about the 2010 Kenyan referendum. Since then, we've run the project for the 2013 and 2017 general elections in Kenya to help Kenyans protect their vote.
We used a three-part strategy:
Mobilize ordinary citizens to share information on irregular electoral malpractices.
Liaise with responders on the ground to ensure we receive credible information.
Close the feedback loop and ensure that action is taken if need be.
Each time, we've collected thousands of reports from citizens countrywide and, in some cases, facilitated resource mobilization to deal with security incidents.
There's no doubt that digital technology tools have transformed the field of Peacebuilding. In her report on Digital technologies, Peacebuilding, and Civil society, published in 2021, Julia-Silvana Hofstetter found that technology;
helps to provide critical access to information, especially to sources that were previously not accessible before.
offers an opportunity for strategic communication, increased transparency, and dissemination to a vast audience.
encourages innovation in the forms of engagement. We've seen this more, especially during this pandemic season. Digital spaces such as Clubhouse, Twitter spaces, Zoom, Skype, Facebook, etc., provide new platforms where people can meet and engage, regardless of their physical locations.
Julia's points on how digital technologies transform the field of Peacebuilding resonated with me. The tools that we build at Ushahidi play a significant role in early warning and prevention, conflict transformation, transitional justice and reconciliation, and most of all, empower local civil society and alternative peacebuilding structures.
Technology tools we build are but powerful ENABLERS. Therefore, for intervention planning and implementation it is imperative we;
engage with the right stakeholders, grounding our work in a clear understanding of implementation contexts
evaluate the appropriateness of digital tools for those contexts
extensively assess potential risks digital tools could introduce and how to mitigate them
feeding back to those who contributed information (Closing out feedback loops)
One common lesson from fourteen years of experience in the conflict & humanitarian response sector is that citizen engagement and participation are integral in the quest for social change. We live in a world where people have more access to the internet and self-expression tools. Ordinary citizens are no longer passive recipients of information and have become actively involved by sharing their opinions on online platforms. As a result, it's no longer practical to avoid engaging with the people in solving problems within their communities. Therefore, it's essential to meet communities where they are and make sure that decisions reflect their needs and contexts. The Unsung Peace Heroes team noted that one challenge of having an internet-based project was that their target audience did not have access to the internet. Hence, to achieve their goals, they had to use both online and offline tactics (multimedia approach), including online presence, print media, live events, and word of mouth.
Transparency and openness are vital for this kind of collaborative action to thrive, and digital technology tools have created conducive environments for this. However, that in itself is not enough to generate change and accountability. Many of the successful projects using Ushahidi that I know of have been a culmination of extensive partnership building and stakeholder engagement to identify shared goals, assign responsibilities, publicly communicate, and coordinate response. It's equally important to communicate clearly and manage target audiences' expectations from the get-go. A big part of building trust and seeing behavioral change lies in closing out feedback loops. If I share a report regarding an issue that affects me, and I receive a response, I am more likely to submit another report in the future, or better yet, encourage my peers to do the same. It is not enough to collect data; we must ensure some form of response to information shared. Failure to do so opens up the door to mistrust and disillusionment. Effort needs to be put into building trust - likely taking place offline with pivotal assistance from experienced intermediaries.
The Uchaguzi project is a prime example trust-based partnerships between Ushahidi and organizations such as CRECO, Infonet, human rights organizations, community based organizations, law enforcement, and many others.
During Ushahidi's 2013 election monitoring project in Kenya, we received an SMS claiming that young men with machetes were congregating around polling stations in Molo. Fifteen minutes later, over 100 police officers arrived at that polling station. The context here is that Molo is a region with a history of violence. Using the Ushahidi platform, we were able to receive this report in near-real-time, coordinate between election observers and our peace partner, UWIANO, and finally escalate to law enforcement, all in under 15mins. We were able to collect nearly 5000 reports in two days, with about 2700 of them being verified, primarily because of the extensive partnerships and coordination established before kicking off the project. Therefore, we need to invest not only in digitizing projects, but also in building the relationships that will enable effective response.
Mitigating limitations and risks
Further, we have more work to do to bridge the digital divide. Technology can be a driver of exclusion if we're not building with inclusivity in mind. In an article describing the fourth industrial revolution in 2016, Nicholas Davis rightfully pointed out that aspects of the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions are yet to be experienced in many parts of the world, yet the Fourth is already emergent. The situation is further complicated because new technologies can "leapfrog" older ones in some cases. For example, a report by The United Nations in 2013 pointed to more people worldwide having access to a mobile phone than basic sanitation. In a recent article by Douglas Bloom illustrating the digital divide that COVID-19 has exposed, he noted that only 55% of households globally have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. It's alluring to create sophisticated software, but it is moot if it only meets the needs of a subset of your target populations. At Ushahidi, we intentionally used a mobile-first approach to building our software, recognizing that a vast majority of people reporting to the platform would likely not have sophisticated devices. Technology companies need to take time to understand their audience and build tools that are appropriate and relevant to the needs of civil society and local communities as well. Iterative design and being responsive to feedback are imperative.
Digital tools also present significant risks to civil society actors and local communities, exposing them to potential persecution, intimidation, and manipulation by bad actors. For example, it's been noted that technology has enabled surveillance during the pandemic. Additionally, with the increased speed of access to and sharing information, the spread of misinformation is more rampant. The importance of privacy and data protection is increasingly recognized worldwide. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 137 out of 194 counties have put in place data and privacy protection legislation with different levels of adoption. However, we need to take it further and help people understand their digital privacy rights to support enforcement efforts. There's a solid need to invest in awareness and education to mitigate this risk effectively. Similarly, to address misinformation, solutions should move further into equipping ordinary citizens on how to detect and counter misinformation, rather than viewing them merely as passive consumers who cannot be a part of the solution.
At the core of my points above, empowering local communities and giving them agency in the peacebuilding process is the key to overall success. We must pair up online strategies with offline strategies to achieve maximum impact. We also need to critically assess risks introduced by digital tools and ways to mitigate these risks as technology needs to be inclusive and facilitate engagement with all stakeholders. Finally, and most importantly, we need to look at ordinary citizens as active participants rather than sources of data extraction or passive recipients of information.
This inclusive approach is not only limited to the development of digital tools and community engagement. We must also broaden it to how we structure peacebuilding initiatives as a whole. With funding and technical support coming from external actors, they hold power. More needs to be done to shift this dynamic. External actors, be they donors or international development organizations, should lean into the expertise of on-ground actors and co-create priorities with implementing partners who will offer insight into the context of their support needs. Providing more core and unrestricted funding would be a good step in demonstrating trust in local organization’s understanding of issues affecting their communities. Additionally, technical support should focus on knowledge and skills transfer to reduce the dependency on external actors.