Beyond ICT: Designing cutting edge ICT solutions for South Asia

Beyond ICT: Designing cutting edge ICT solutions for South Asia

A recent presentation at a workshop on ICT for Peacebuilding (a field that many still refuse to acknowledge is markedly different from ICT for Development and other existing ICT frameworks) in Nepal flagged a number of points that Sri Lanka in particular and perhaps other countries in the region would do well to heed and respond to. The author has explored in practice and research the use of ICT for Peacebuilding for a number of years, pre-figuring an increasing interest and awareness in the field.

If the challenge of South Asia, long before 9/11, is to fashion creative and forward thinking processes to address the challenges of terrorism, under development, corruption and internal and cross border conflict, ICT was looked upon as a harbinger of an early promise of resolution to much of these socio-political ills. Unfortunately, this early promise did not hold true and we have now reached a stage where voices, rightfully sceptical of ICT and any term prefaced by an ‘e’, hold centre stage and caution against the over zealous adoption of technology to address socio-political needs.

South Asia lives in a perennial oscillation between hope and despair, social progress and micro level social enterprise amidst the pall of State failure to guarantee basic human interests to all communities. Where crumbling frameworks of governance exist cheek in jowl with advanced telecoms infrastructure and national ICT agencies and the spectre of terrorism hangs in a Damoclean balance atop sustainable development, where corruption and zero sum partisan politics undermine the development of legitimate peace processes, where hope itself is strangled by the Hydra of inflation, human rights violations, cultures of impunity and violence, one could be forgiven at laughing uncontrollably at the mere prospect of using ICT for peacebuilding and by extension, sustainable development and social empowerment.

It is the contention of this essay, however, that despite the difficulties involved in setting up ICT for Peacebuilding structures in countries coming out of protracted conflict, it is possible to successfully fashion technologies and frameworks that are resonant to demands from the grassroots, sustainable, empower communities by taking ICT to the people instead of making the people come to technology hubs and create architectures that can enable processes such as Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) to take place from such locations as paddy fields, the post office or the village chieftain’s residence.

As the author has noted in earlier work, given the extremely complex nature of violent and protracted ethno political conflict, and the familiar litany of issues related to the digital divide, ICT must not be seen as a panacea that is the magical harbinger of a new social order overnight. Rather, the use of ODR in peacebuilding has to be deeply cognisant of, inter alia, social schisms, changing power centres, emerging stakeholders and new actors, spoilers, the fears and concerns of the masses, partisan and zero sum politics and politicians, intra party tensions and ethno-religious tensions. Without such a holistic framework, the blinkered use of ICT may lay the foundation for the continued marginalisation of certain segments of society, and may create new rifts that hinder the transformation of violent conflict.

It is dangerous to underestimate the subversive power of information and knowledge. In new paradigms where information becomes a currency more powerful than traditional architectures of nepotism and top heavy / centrist systems of governance, the internet is less important than the creation of pervasive knowledge networks within and between communities. The emphasis here is on the mapping of community knowledge for use in that community itself – from GIS mapping of herbs unique to the region, to oral histories that capture the rich voices of elders, women, youth, children from all communities, digitised government forms in all languages, audio help for filling out the forms for those who are illiterate, resource centres that are linked to vast repositories of knowledge on peace and conflict transformation and centres which reflect the diversity of voices and full spectrum of knowledge of the grassroots. One notes that the emphasis here is not in educating everyone to use a PC, but rather, enabling communities to use sophisticated ICT frameworks that are transparent and just help them to what they do better.

It is the author’s submission that the PC is sub-optimal for most ICT implementations because of its very nature as a high maintenance device, ill fitted to cope with the dust, grime and dire circumstances in much of our hinterlands. Present day ICT frameworks also rarely acknowledge the power of the more humble, but incredibly widespread, cost effective and powerful medium of radio. As recently as three years ago, the mere mention of mobile telephony as a subversive and deeply empowering technology for remote communities under the footprint of invisible high speed GPRS mobile networks would have been a laughable proposition.

No longer is this true.

However, the arguments against expanding the terrain and definition of ICT to encompass radio and in mobile telephony in particular are oftentimes linked to their ostensibly tenuous links with PC based ICT frameworks and blue prints of national ICT Agencies which are usually staffed by those who lack the vision and capacity to think beyond the box and address ways in which to truly grapple with the problems that define our shared realities.

The author has in earlier work explored the use of radio for community level dispute resolution ICT frameworks that use mobile telephony, radio and PC’s to best fit the dynamics of grassroots processes. ODR systems that use radio can, inter alia:

• Disseminate informational programmes that address issues that are specifically related to their local footprint
• Broadcast conflict management and mediation support programmes tailored for children and adult learning.
• Create a wider awareness of the rich textures community dispute resolution processes that disputants can avail themselves of instead of resorting to violence
• Seamlessly dovetail into ICT for Peacebuilding systems that record voice mails to respond to specific queries with information sources from local, regional and international mediation experts, ODR expert systems, online libraries and other electronic resources.
• Creating awareness amongst communities about the larger import of issues that bedevil their communities (from domestic abuse and its links to human rights, to land issues and its links to IDPs and the larger implications of violent conflict) to help them think more broadly about conflict transformation and eschew victim-aggressor mentalities.
• The use of pod-casting technologies etc, to fertilise radio programming with a multiplicity of grassroots voices that speak on issues important in their own communities, can again facilitate community level dispute resolution processes by putting a human face to problems and exploring the common aspirations of disputants to take them beyond localised conflicts into thinking about non-violent and transformative future scenarios.

Eschewing the tendency for PC based ODR systems to impose top-down hierarchies and sometimes exacerbate the digital-divide in the Global South, technologies that use mobile telephony and radio assume that communities are more comfortable using what is familiar as opposed to what is not, however sophisticated and powerful such systems might be. To this end, ICT for Peacebuilding systems must identify and develop existing local / grassroots capacities. In Sri Lanka for instance, this would involve using the very high literacy rate (91%), the ubiquity of radios, easy and low cost access to batteries, one of the most highly developed Alternative Dispute Resolution frameworks in the Global South with supporting legislation, thousands of trained mediators, multiple village level peace networks (very often with little or no communication within and between these social networks) and exponential growth of mobile subscribers and related services, with lower cost of access than PSTN telephones and coverage in conflict ravaged areas where traditional copper-wire infrastructure is still decades away.

How then can this powerful foundation, even in a war fatigued nation such as Sri Lanka, be used to facilitate processes that address macro, meso and micro level (Track 1 to Track 3) interventions for peacebuilding? While mobile telephony in particular can either be used as a first-mile access or last-mile delivery systems and community internet radio can be a very effective support mechanism in for ICT for Peacebuilding processes, the author by no means belittles the importance of PC’s to power the databases and knowledge repositories that power such hybrid systems. With their big screens, sophisticated operating systems, complex databases, vast amounts of storage and well established place in data management (one cannot, for instance, think of large databases of information residing in mobile phones) hybrid ICT for Peacebuilding systems that use of mobile telephony and radio cannot for a moment completely ignore the use of PC’s.

However, the central contention of the author is the need to move away from systems that do not engage with the potential of technologies that are already prevalent or easily accessible in grassroots communities. For communities cannot afford new PCs, cannot maintain the equipment, cannot afford internet access, do not have the necessary infrastructure (from regular supply of electricity to PSTN telephone lines) and lack the necessary IT skills to avail themselves of sophisticated ODR systems, a purely PC based solution would be sub-optimal and may give rise to even more structural violence on account of the marginalisation of those who do not have access to such technology. The perception that some disputants ‘have it better’ because they have access to computers itself can create societal rifts and increase communal conflict, irrespective of whether the communities that ostensibly visibly have access to ODR systems that use PC’s use the system or not.

It is evident therefore that the argument for the incorporation of mobile telephony and radio in the creation of new ICT frameworks & systems goes far beyond a mere technical or design issues and is deeply linked to conflict sensitive approaches to the creation of such systems in contexts of nascent peace processes or protracted ethno-political conflict. Low cost of access, their explosive growth, the ubiquity of radios – these are many other factors strengthen the argument that ODR systems that use mobile phones and community radio are better placed to be accepted by communities than frameworks that only concentrate on the use and promotion of PCs.
The architects of ICT blueprints for our region, most often the national ICT agencies, must take note of these emerging hybrid technologies and frameworks. A presentation to the Sri Lankan ICT Agency (ICTA) around a year ago, encouraging them to be a regional leader and a centre of excellence on ICT for Peacebuilding using their e-society fund, it is hoped, leads to the creation of frameworks similar to those which have been outlined in this essay that are able to grasp and the nettle of conflict transformation in a vice grip of creativity, vision, and forward thinking that is unshackled from the ICT frameworks of yesteryear.

There is a final point to be made. We need to eschew all technological frameworks written by those in the West that are ill-equipped to grasp the complexity of the vigorous dynamic of inter-locking interests that define politics and communal interactions in our region. ICT frameworks that address peacebuilding and other social empowerment intended for deployment in regions in South Asia need to be visioned, developed and championed by South Asians.

Our region does not lack those who pander to Western norms and the established cannon of wisdom that is handed down to us in gestures of largesse, sometimes with the best of intent. But our future resides in the equitable and sustainable transfers of knowledge driven by a vision for ICT that is unique to South Asia. There are many thinkers and practitioners in the region who are forging the way in the design of such systems & frameworks. They need to be supported, their work highlighted and their vision mainstreamed into national ICT strategies.

It is in them that the future of ICT lies in and not with the ossified and unimaginative mindsets of those who cannot go beyond the architectures of today to vision the technologies of tomorrow.

The PC may be dead. Long live ICT.

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