ICT, Africa, peace, and gender

Just in case you thought that the terms in the title are rather eclectic, or even mutually exclusive, then you are wrong. ICT4Peace is a well-known combination, likewise for other organisations and events, such as the ICT for peace symposium in the Netherlands that I wrote about earlier. ICT & development activities, e.g., by Informatici Senza Frontiere, and ICT & Africa (or here or here, among many sites) is also well-known. There is even more material for ICT & gender. But what, then, about the combination of them?

Shastry Njeru sees links between them and many possibilities to put ICT to good use in Africa to enhance peaceful societies and post-conflict reconstruction where women play a pivotal role [1]. Not that much has been realized yet; so, if you are ever short on research or implementation topics, then Njeru’s paper undoubtedly will provide you with more topics than you can handle.

So, what, then, can ICT be used for in peacebuilding, in Africa, by women? One topic that features prominently in Njeru’s paper is communication among women to share experiences, exchange information, build communities, keep in contact, have  “discussion in virtual spaces, even when physical, real world meetings are impossible on account of geographical distance or political sensitivities” and so forth, using skype, blogs and other Web 2.0 tools such as Flickr, podcasts, etc., Internet access in their own language, and voice and video to text hardware and software to record the oral histories. A more general suggestion, i.e., not necessarily related to only women or only Africa is that “ICT for peacebuilding should form the repository for documents, press releases and other information related to the peace process”.

Some examples of what has been achieved already are: the use of mobile phone networks in Zambia to advocate women’s rights, Internet access for women entrepreneurs in textile industries in Douala in Cameroon, and ICT and mobile phone businesses are used as instruments of change by rural women in various ways in Uganda [1], including the Ugandan CD-ROM project [2].

Njeru thinks that everything can be done already with existing technologies that have to be used more creatively and such that there are policies, programmes, and funds that can overcome the social, political, and economic hurdles to realise the gendered ICT for peace in Africa. Hardware, maybe yes, but surely not software.

Regarding the hardware, mobile phone usage is growing fast (some reasons why) and Samsung, Sharp and Sanyo have jumped on board already with the solar panel-fuelled mobile phones to solve the problem of (lack of reliable) energy supply. The EeePc and the one laptop per child projects and the likes are nothing new either, nor are the palm pilots that are used for OpenMRS’s electronic health records in rural areas in, among others, Kenya. But this is not my area of expertise, so I will leave it to the hardware developers for the final [yes/no] on the question if extant hardware suffices.

Regarding software, developing a repository for the documents, press releases etc. is doable with current software as well, but a usable repository requires insight into how then the interfaces have to be designed so that it suits best for the intended users and how the data should be searched; thus, overall, it may not be simply a case of deployment of software, but also involve development of new applications. Internet access, including those Web 2.0 applications, in one’s own language requires localization of the software and a good strategy on how one can coordinate and maintain such software. This is very well doable, but it is not already lying on the shelf waiting to be deployed.

More challenging will be figuring out the best way to manage all the multimedia of photos, video reports, logged skype meetings and so forth. If one does not annotate them, then they are bound to end up in a ‘write-only’ data silo. However, those reports should not be (nor have been) made to merely save them, but one also should be able to find, retrieve, and use the information contained in them. A quick-and-dirty tagging system or somewhat more sophisticated wisdom-of-the-crowds tagging methods might work in the short term, but it will not in the long run, and thereby still letting those inadequately annotated multimedia pieces getting dust. An obvious direction for a solution is to create the annotation mechanism and develop an ontology about conflict & peacebuilding, develop a software system to put the two together, develop applications to access the properly annotated material, and train the annotators. This easily can take up the time and resources of an EU FP7 Integrated Project.

Undoubtedly, observation of current practices, their limitations, and subsequent requirements analysis will bring afore more creative opportunities of usage of ICT in a peacebuilding setting targeting women as the, mostly untapped, prime user base. A quick search on ICT jobs in Africa or peacebuilding (on the UN system and its affiliated organizations, and the NGO industry) to see if the existing structures invest in this area did not show anything other than jobs at their respective headquarters such as website development, network administration, or ICT group team leader. Maybe upper management does not realise the potential, or it is seen merely as an afterthought? Or maybe more grassroots initiatives have to be set up, be successful, and then organisations will come on board and devote resources to it? Or perhaps companies and venture capital should be more daring and give it a try—mobile phone companies already make a profit and some ‘philanthropy’ does well for a company’s image anyway—and there is always the option to take away some money from the military-industrial complex.

Whose responsibility would it be (if any) to take the lead (if necessary) in such endeavours? Either way, given that investment in green technologies can be positioned as a way out of the recession, then so can it be for ICT for peace(building) aimed at women, be they in Africa or other continents where people suffer from conflicts or are in the process of reconciliation and peacebuilding. One just has to divert the focus of ICT for destruction, fear-moderation, and the likes to one of ICT for constructive engagement, aiming at inclusive technologies and those applications that facilitate development of societies and empower people.

References

[1] Shastry Njeru. (2009). Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Gender, and Peacebuilding in Africa: A Case of Missed Connections. Peace & Conflict Review, 3(2), 32-40.

[2] Huyer S and Sikoska T. (2003). Overcoming the Gender Digital Divide: Understanding the ICTs and their potential for the Empowerment of Women. United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW), Instraw Research Paper Series No. 1., 36p.

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One response to “ICT, Africa, peace, and gender

  1. Pingback: UNESCO’s take on engineering and development « Keet blog

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