Virtual peace-building: Can social media help to reintegrate ex-combatants?

Lessons from the use of ICT for natural disaster early warning and humanitarian relief can help determine its usefulness for demobilising and reintegrating former combatants.

In the aftermath of armed conflicts the greatest challenges facing ex-combatants are income generation and reintegration into society. Since the 1970s, international organisations, development agencies and donor governments have spent billions of dollars on the demobilisation and reintegration (D&R) of former combatants in Africa, but with only modest results.

D&R is likely to be a key aspect of peace-building programming for the foreseeable future, and complex and costly D&R programmes are underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan. Consequently, it is worth exploring possible alternative tools that will be beneficial in D&R, such as information communication technology (ICT).

Research has shown that social networking is fundamental to the reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life, not only in pursuing post-war livelihoods, but also in their social reintegration into their original or new communities. Ex-combatants also use their personal social networks for various means of support, such as finding work or potential investors and sourcing credit. In Africa, social networking is usually conducted via telephone, text messaging and face-to-face interaction.

However, in recent years there has been an exponential expansion and popularisation of new forms of ICT, principally in the areas of mobile telephony, Internet interaction and the integration of the two technologies. The most innovative ICT growth has been in the use of Internet-enabled mobile phones and social media applications. In emerging economies the increase in the use of such mobile devices has been brought about by the expansion of mobile phone infrastructure and networks, as well as reduced bandwidth versions of Internet-based applications.

A host of new mobile phone and Internet applications or ‘apps’ are being developed on a daily basis, with there now being close to one million apps available globally. A study by Flurry Analytics indicated that, in the last quarter of 2012, iOS (Apple) and Android smart phone users with Internet access made use of 7,9 apps a day. In May 2013, the Apple iTunes online ‘App Store’ recorded a total of 50 billion app downloads since the creation of the store in July 2008. The app economy, which has only been in existence for five years, is now estimated to generate annual revenues of US$25 billion.

Given this noteworthy ICT progression, it has now become substantially easier, compared to five years ago, to access electronic data, publish or share information, and interact on the Web. These developments have had profound implications for the manner in which people communicate with each other, express opinions, organise activities and events, socialise and even mobilise others towards specific objectives.

These dynamics have also created new marketing opportunities for the business sector (over-and-above the app economy); advocacy and fundraising prospects for non-profit organisations; data for researchers from a wide variety of fields; and expedient mechanisms for emergency response/disaster management agencies, as well as for the development assistance community. It has also been widely suggested that the expanded use of ICT and social media was an important element in the mobilisation of people for the pro-democracy movements and protests in North Africa and the Middle East during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’.

ICT and ICT-enabled social media may have the potential to enhance D&R initiatives by providing platforms for knowledge exchange and information dissemination among ex-combatants, between ex-combatants and development and/or relevant government agencies, and within the communities where the ex-combatants live. It may also contribute to community sensitisation activities to help facilitate reintegration into environments potentially hostile to ex-combatants. However, to ascertain how useful ICT will be for D&R one has to examine the way in which ICT has been used in the related fields of natural disaster early warning, humanitarian relief, crisis response and post-conflict reconstruction.

ICT is the foundation of most tsunami early warning systems, which incorporate seismic sensors, tide gauges and buoys anchored to the ocean floor that transit data to warning centres for analysis, often via satellite communication. Information is then relayed to the populations at risk via traditional communication media (radio and television broadcasts) and new communication media (text messages and social media posts). However, in Indonesia, for example, inadequate maintenance of the land-based warning infrastructure in some areas seriously undermined the effectiveness of the entire system. Researchers from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) found that some communities were wary of technology-based early warning, and preferred natural warning signs.

Over the past decade there has been increasingly innovative and open-source ICT initiatives in the event of humanitarian emergencies in order to share and manage information about crises; determine where priority humanitarian assistance is required; and coordinate and monitor the relief efforts. Central features of these platforms have been ‘crowdsourcing’ and crisis mapping. Crowdsourcing essentially entails the acquisition of online and mobile phone-generated information from a large group of people. Where appropriate, this information is displayed on a geospatial-mapping interface, often referred to as a ‘crisis map’, in order to assist with relief efforts.

Crisis mapping and crowdsourcing have been used on numerous occasions since 2005, such as during post-election violence in Kenya (2008); earthquakes in Haiti (2010), Japan (2011) and New Zealand (2011); floods in India (2008), Colombia (2011), Russia (2012) and Indonesia (2013); and various hurricanes in the US. However, crowdsourcing could increase digital noise at times when rapid solutions are required. In addition, where there is limited participation from the crisis-affected communities, decisions could be based on partial and/or inaccurate information.

ICT tools are also increasingly being used to facilitate reconstruction and development projects in post-conflict settings. An innovative example is mobile money transfer systems, such as M-Pesa, which was developed by Safaricom in Kenya and then used by development agencies to provide financial support to affected communities in the aftermath of the 2007/08 Kenyan electoral violence. Nonetheless, research undertaken by InfoDev in Liberia, Rwanda and East Timor has indicated that the use of Internet and mobile phone ICT in post-conflict settings has been hampered by underdeveloped ICT infrastructure, limited access to ICT services among the general population, and cultural aversions to the use of ICT, as well as a range of other factors.

This means that ICT and social media are unlikely to be a panacea for the challenges of D&R programming in Africa, especially given the high illiteracy rates among ex-combatants in current programmes. In addition, it has been estimated that only 16% of the population in Africa have made use of the Internet this year. While ICT and social media applications do have definite advantages for D&R with respect to project management, monitoring and evaluation, information dissemination and distribution of financial assistance, the words of internationally renowned peacemaker Martti Ahtisaari are worth considering: ‘ICTs in the field do not always work as promised or expected due to technical problems, the reluctance of individuals to share information and complex information management architectures that severely impede information flows.’

The World Bank’s Transitional Demobilization and Reintegration Program (TDRP) is sponsoring a project on the use of ICT in D&R and peace-building, on which this article draws. For more information see the ISS Facebook page

Guy Lamb, Director, Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI), University of Cape Town and ISS Associate

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