Online advocacy principles and case studies within the context of ICT and Conflict Transformation
Discussion paper written for Oneworld South Asia Partners meeting, 3-4 February 2003, Delhi, India (1)
Information Communications Technology (ICT) in South Asia, as well as in the rest of the world, is an experiment in progress. Reading the wealth of literature on ICT, it is easy to forget that it is not a panacea for problems facing developing nations. Normative assumptions about ICT tend in most cases to outstrip knowledge of how technology is actually used(2) . ICTs cannot magically liberate people, alleviate poverty, erase the 'digital divide', and ensure prosperity. Much of the literature written on ICT does not treat it as one factor amidst a myriad of others that shape inter-state and intra-state relations in developing countries. Furthermore, in planning for and using ICT, many countries often concentrate on ICT itself, rather than what they want to accomplish through it. It must be remembered that ICT is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
This paper will concentrate on the increasing confluence between ICT and Conflict Transformation. Case studies in this field are rare, since ICT and Conflict Transformation is still at an embryonic stage. Interestingly, while NGOs working in the fields of human rights, conflict transformation and governance etc. have been quicker to adopt IT savvy advocacy principles, governments in South Asia are also increasingly aware of the potential of ICTs to buttress interventions, on an official level and grassroots level, to transform ethno-political conflict.
What is ICT? What can it do?
It is almost facetious to ask, given how much has been written on it, what ICT is. Though we may encounter it daily, and only realise its importance in its absence, ICT has been defined by different bodies as being, inter alia:
· A bridge between developed and developing countries
· A tool for economic and social development
· An engine for growth
· The central pillar for the construction of a global knowledge based economy and society
· An opportunity for countries to free themselves from the tyranny of geography (3)
Often touted as the harbinger of a new world order, ICTs are now considered "a viable option for development policy where other needs, such as building roads and hospitals and providing drinking water etc. were considered more urgent." (4)ICTs are also considered an important tool to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the UN.
While most of these definitions capture the essence and the potential of ICT, they ignore major challenges facing developing nations entering the 'information society' and 'knowledge economy'. Countries in South Asia for instance, are racked by internal conflict, border disputes and are economically under-developed, socially fragmented and very often, politically weak. While most of the definitions of ICTs come from countries where the exercise of nation building is complete, ICTs are an intrinsic part of the nation building exercise in South Asia, and do not stand apart from it. As such, ICTs are also caught up in the complex web of inequalities and social disparities that continue to be the source of conflict in South Asia.
The crucial question here is of access to technology. While ICT reflects the growing convergence between the Internet, telephone and wireless technologies, e-government is a cruel joke for someone without clean drinking water and digitising government forms and putting them on the internet is meaningless for those who do not have the language skills and computer literacy to use this information.
While this alone does not belittle the potential of ICT, one must also recognise that ICTs can help only if the necessary under-pinning for social reform is present - the respect for human rights, democracy and equitable distribution of technology. The digital divide is nothing more than a reflection in the world of bits, the inequalities in the world of atoms.(5) Peoples who are dispossessed, and live in oppressive regimes, can never harness the enormous potential of ICT.
ICT and South Asia
Providing access to technology is critical for socio-economic development, but it must be about more than just physical access. Computers and connections are insufficient if the technology is not used effectively because it is not affordable, if people do not understand how to put it to use or if they are discouraged from using it or if the local economy cannot sustain its use.
This is precisely why ICT will play, for the foreseeable future, a role limited to complementing interventions by other actors working on the ground to resolve conflict. However, the converse also holds true. Recognition of the future potential of ICT and developing inclusive, participatory long-term plans to upgrade existing access to ICT can help those who have traditionally been excluded from developmental processes take part in the exercise of nation building. One can see this dynamism in progress in the North-East of Sri Lanka, where as part of the wider Regaining Sri Lanka (RSL) framework, basic telephony and the birth pangs of an ICT infra-structure have begun after decades of severe armed conflict. There are already two operators delivering GSM mobile telephony services to the region, a new telephone exchange has been set up, and the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) is rumoured to be interested in procuring an External Telecommunications Gateway License from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), as part of the opening up of international gateways when the state owned telecom company ended its monopoly recently.
It is however atypical for governments in South Asia to take a proactive role in ICT development, an attitude, however, that is slowly changing. South Asia is defined by governments that look at the telecoms sector - the under-pinning of ICT - as a 'cash-cow' - an attitude that is inimical to the growth of this sector, since illiberal monopolistic policies inevitably lead to higher costs associated with the use of ICTs.
There are of course the exceptions that are markers to the future:
· The Radio-Internet Project in Kothmale, Sri Lanka (6)
Specific information requested by listeners on the improvement of crops, how to deal with pests and market their products are located on the Internet by the broadcaster and conveyed through a daily community radio broadcast.
· 'E-channelling' in Sri Lanka and 'HealthNet' in Nepal
'Healthnet' is a tele-medicine project in Nepal which reaches 500 health professionals and claims 300 hits a day through 150 user points around the country. 'E-channelling' is an online initiative in Sri Lanka that allows for online booking of specialists and health professionals in four leading hospitals in Colombo. The service, available through a GSM mobile phone network as well as 46 branches of a well-known bank, allows consumers to book and pay for their appointments using a credit card or an Internet banking account.
· MS Swaminathan Research Foundation's Rural Communications Network
This network uses the internet to provide fishermen and farmers innovative techniques relating to their craft and information on market conditions so that they get a better price for their produce.
It must be remembered however almost all of these projects are micro-level exercises, with little potential for replication on a broader scale. Ravinatha Ariyasinha, School of International Science at the American University, Washington DC, concurs and says that,
"The impression one is left with is that much of the Internet activities in South Asia has left out the State sector. This is a private sector driven initiative Government has been slow in adopting (the internet) for activities that have broader applications, particularly for the weaker sections of the population." (7)
Selected case studies of NGOs, ICT and Conflict Transformation
In both advanced and fledgling democracies NGOs have developed into major societal actors. NGOs serve as a source of political legitimacy for the system by providing voice beyond electoral participation. Since they channel dissent productively, NGOs can be considered a type of "safety-valve" essential to the functioning of a democracy. They are also based on the normative commitment to transforming the existing systems of governance, so that the workings of democracy become more responsive to the diverse and evolving needs of citizens. It is to this end that many NGOs have been quick to embrace the potential of ICT, for advocacy and the dissemination of information and policy alternatives. However, using ICT is no guarantee of any positive outcome in a given NGO (though, by the same token, its use cannot be regarded in itself as detrimental).
The problems that NGOs encounter in using ICT are serious and form a familiar
litany: lack of funding to purchase equipment or services, lack of skilled staff,
too little time and interest. We must not forget that the majority of NGOs in
South Asian countries by all accounts appear not to have computers, though this
will undoubtedly change in the future. There are also other problems not immediately
associated with the introduction of ICT to NGOs. The need for computers, bandwidth
and skilled staff affects the budgetary structure of NGOs, and raises new workplace
and accountability issues. Web sites are often carelessly designed, yet they
are increasingly becoming the representation of an organization to the outside
world. Thus while it is true that NGOs' functions significantly involve information,
communication and networking, it does not follow that these functions will necessarily
be improved by using ICTs.
One interesting example in Sri Lanka of an NGO using the Internet is the Centre for Women's Research (CENWOR). CENWOR, with financial support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), initiated a project in 1998 to develop an electronic information network. Simultaneously, CENWOR commenced the task of designing a web site, which also included information provided by the members. Training in the use of email was made available, technical support was given and the network members were regularly kept updated on the use of Internet based services. The web site was also up dated regularly. CENWOR also initiated a discussion list, which now has over one hundred subscribers. The CENWOR site is the only web site on Sri Lankan women and the discussion group the only feminist list in Sri Lanka.
The website of CENWOR (www.cenwor.lk) was conceived as one that would serve as an information source on Sri Lankan women. It is an interactive site and provides information on critical issues facing women, action taken by the government and other agencies on various issues, information of its network members, current events, a Notice Board, and an Opinion page. CENWOR programmes and activities, and publications are also included. The website has an integral discussion list to which one can subscribe to and contribute free of charge. The objective of the CENWOR initiative was to provide a communication platform transcending all types of boundaries to women and women's organisations striving to realise women's rights. It was expected that this initiative would have a good response given the cooperative endeavours within the NGO community. The project envisaged setting up communication links among the local, regional and international women's groups and individuals. Although initiated by CENWOR, it was to be a collaborative effort in achieving a common goal. Though much needs to be done, websites and discussion lists like CENWOR help the dissemination of viewpoints of particular importance and interest to women that in turn, inform and shape conflict transformation processes.
However, the CENWOR network is limited in membership and is more or less confined to those in urban centres. Network members still do not use even email as effectively as they should. There is tardiness in obtaining information on a regular basis and the email list subscribers are mostly recipients and not sufficiently active. The challenge for CENWOR in the future lies very much in animating online dialogue, where women's issues, inextricably entwined with conflict transformation and resolution, are discussed more openly. The leitmotifs of such online discussion could be then used to stimulate participants in real-world events. (8)
Another interesting example is the Mandate the Future project in Sri Lanka, the website of which can be found at www.mandatethefuture.org. The project is designed to harness the power of Internet to the advantage of youth across the globe. Mandate the Future is a forum created and driven by youth. It gives them an opportunity to voice their views and concerns on global issues and address concerns and fears that in many cases affect communities and youth over vast geographical areas. The project seeks to involve youth in the policy making process and play a proactive role in shaping their future. Mandate the Future is the first online venture of Worldview International Foundation, an organisation involved in ICT and development. For the Mandate the Future project, computer centres were set up and youth were encouraged to voice their opinion online. MtF organises online discussions under seven broad categories - Poverty, Health (HIV/AIDS), Gender, Education, Peace and Democracy, Environment, and ICTs for Development. Every week MtF highlights new issues. Brief, multi-angled articles that stimulate debate and discussions are carried on www.ctrlaltesc.org or MtF's 'community area'. This is a highly interactive site powered by non-proprietary software. Approximately three thousand ICT disadvantaged youth in Sri Lanka participate on MtF through the Community Communication Centres established by WIF. The output of youth discussions at community level is the content-input for www.ctrlaltesc.org. As with other online initiatives that engage the youth, it is unclear how the output of discussions online is channelized to the policy making levels of government. Online discussions also have the tendency to become esoteric and regional, and often taper from a large user base to a handful who continue to use the service. Sustainability is also an issue, as is content management.
The Technology for Peace (TFP) initiative in Cyprus is another interesting case in ICT and conflict transformation. In Cyprus, while the historical roots of the conflict are complicated, the present situation in simple - Cyprus has been partitioned into segregated Greek and Turkish communities, separated by a buffer zone that is patrolled by the United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). While the UN blue-caps have greatly minimised the incidents of inter-communal violence, the continuing division of the island has consistently obstructed, except for a short period of time, physical contact between the two communities, and by extension any consistent and lasting peace-building and confidence building measures between the two communities.
The design and development of the Technology for Peace project (www.tech4peace.org) was conceptualized in the framework of complimenting the need for a structured, organized and lasting communication between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities in Cyprus. Originally, it started as a collaborative effort between the Institute of World Affairs in Washington D.C., the International Communication and Negotiation Simulation Project (ICONS) at the University of Maryland, the Peace Centre, Cyber Kids, the Greek Cypriot's Peace Net and the Turkish Cypriots Peace Net. The vision, which underpinned the TFP project was to enhance in Cyprus one of the most basic human rights, the right of communication, by applying modern technology in the service of peace with emphasis on the usage of internet and internet-based applications.
Within the context described above, more precisely the project's goals are:
· To render all peace promoting groups in Cyprus computer literate and
Internet users, so as to introduce an Information Technology dimension to their
work, thus ensuring continuity and sustainability, while at the same time creating
a permanently accessible and ever updated record of the work, activities and
end products of each group.
· Create a central reference, information and meeting point, which will be providing different types of support to the various peace building initiatives.
· Facilitate information sharing and establish itself as a platform for ideas and debates.
· Track and evaluate the importance of new information and communication technologies as they transform international relations and raise the level of public awareness about the new possibilities emerging for the prevention, management and settlement of conflicts in a speedy manner.
· Provide timely access to the content as well as context underpinning the bi-communal projects in Cyprus, monitor their results and disseminate their potentials to a wider audience both in Cyprus and overseas.
· Define, promote and intensify new peace pathways as they pertain to Cyprus by determining the conditions by which these can be achieved.
· Promote cross-cultural, international interaction, potential cooperation and involvement between individuals and organized groups and improve their response times.
· Push forward the idea and principles of Peace, frame the leads and potentials for Cyprus peace and tackle the challenges facing us.
· Provide an active interface to access all information and incorporate TFP content with content available outside the project.
· Extract valuable lessons and insights for future training of Peace builders, whether in government, international organizations or the private sector.
The TFP initiative provides a body of material and knowledge relevant to the peace efforts in Cyprus on which new initiatives can be built. It makes available online, an entire spectrum of information, which gives the broader profile of the Cyprus situation and the range of peace building efforts and related culture. It has become a vital reference point for all those interested in, and working with, the Cyprus problem ranging from Greek and Turkish-Cypriot citizens, professionals, academics, educators, students, policy makers, and third parties.(9)
A similar initiative, albeit with a narrower mandate, has been setup in Sri Lanka to disseminate information regarding the peace process in Sri Lanka. The website of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), at www.peaceinsrilanka.org, was launched in response to the need for accurate and timely information regarding the peace process. The well designed site offers daily updates, and is the repository of documents, press releases, and other information related to the on-going peace process. However, a major failing of the site, till date, is that it does not include the URL's of NGOs which play an active role in conflict transformation. Nevertheless, the site is presently the best online resource for information related to the interventions on the ground by donors, the government and the LTTE. One hopes that the site will mature into an information portal, with features like online polls management, user groups, and calendar and link sharing, along the lines of the TFP initiative in Cyprus.
The website of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in Sri Lanka is an example of an NGO using the Internet and ICT for advocacy and the dissemination of information related to conflict transformation and governance. The Centre for Policy Alternatives was formed in 1996 in the firm belief that the vital contribution of civil society to the public policy debate is in need of strengthening. Focusing primarily on issues of governance and conflict resolution, CPA is committed to programmes of research and advocacy through which public policy is critiqued, alternatives identified and disseminated.
CPA's website (www.cpalanka.org) functions as an important channel of disseminating policy papers and other documents to advocate issues that range from the Freedom of Information to conflict transformation in Sri Lanka. Recording an average of 1,800 hits a month, the website is visited by policy makers, government ministers, NGO and peace activists, civil society actors and bi-lateral and multi-lateral donor agencies.
CPA also functions as the Secretariat for the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV). During the General Election of 2001, the CPA website recorded approximately 1000 visitors per day for a week. The CMEV was able to utilise ICT to bring out multiple reports of election violence daily, which were then posted on CPA's website. Since election violence easily shapes the contours of ethno-political war, CMEV was able identify those who were inimical to conflict transformation by highlighting their brutality during the General Elections.
Known as a think-tank and a public policy advocacy organisation, CPA has the largest collection of policy papers, research papers, reports, surveys and draft laws available for free download of any NGO in Sri Lanka. However, more content needs to be added in the vernacular (Sinhala and Tamil) since documents and information in English are of little value to the hundreds of peace activists who are not conversant in the language, but have access to the Internet.
Problems of Online Conflict Transformation
Before using ICT for online conflict transformation strategies, there are five
key attributes of online communication that must be taken into consideration:
· Lack of physical communication cues - We cannot utilize the huge range of non-verbal cues we use during the course of conversation to discern if our audience is agreeing, disagreeing or getting uncomfortable. In cyberspace, we must explicitly ask for this information or proceed on potentially erroneous assumptions. MSN Messenger and online bulletin boards are not yet a replacement for people-to-people contact.
· Potential impersonality of the medium - There is something about working in front of a monitor that is cold and detached from real world interactions. This could make online debate formal and stiff. Conversely, some people like the impersonality of online communication, and open up in ways they would otherwise not in real world meetings.
· Time - The more time you have to think about your response, the more balanced it should be. On the other hand, issues may build up when unaddressed for a seemingly long time since in online conferencing the perception of time may differ from person to person.
· Public vs. private spaces and perceptions - People have different tolerances of what they think should be "public" or "private." These differences need to be taken into account when choosing to deal with issues in public and/or private spaces.
· Limitations of writing and reading - Not everyone is a Byron or Shakespeare. Misinterpretation in online communication can be the result of inattention to details, ambiguous sentences, or even the inappropriate use of the CAPS LOCK key.
Any individual, organisation or government that wishes to employ ICT for conflict transformation, must be acutely aware these considerations.
Perhaps the most effective use of ICT thus far has been with Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). ODR takes place on an increasingly regular basis in countries like America, where in tandem with Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) techniques, ICT is used to settle litigation and to encourage out of court settlements of disputes. (10)
The transformation of complex ethno-political conflict will however not be entirely possible using ICT. ICT is no substitute for face-to-face negotiations to end protracted civil war. Trust building cannot be nurtured online between two or more parties who have been at loggerheads for decades. However, once that trust has been sufficiently established, and the peace process gains a momentum of its own, ICT can buttress moves on the ground to build bridges between communities and peoples. Furthermore, ICTs can engender greater communal understanding by providing information of the 'other', dispelling falsehoods and misconceptions, and helping people-to-people contact. It will be interesting to see, for instance, how the Telecom / ICT Action Plan of the Government of Sri Lanka (as part of the Regaining Sri Lanka framework) augments other developmental activities and confidence building measures to help bring the North-East of Sri Lanka on par with the rest of the country through a comprehensive ICT infrastructure and telecommunications backbone.
The future of ICT
"The same Internet that has facilitated the spread of human rights and good governance norms has also been a conduit for propagating intolerance and has diffused information necessary for building weapons of terror." (11)
ICTs are unlikely to bring about anything better than the best intentions of those who use them. While many look at modern technology as a panacea for old problems, unfortunately it appears that their power for enhancing transparency, imposing international accountability and fostering cooperation stretches only as far as the will of respective nation states bends to embrace and adopt them. This is especially the case in South Asia, where governments are only too aware that too much information in the public domain subverts attempts at illiberal undemocratic governance (very often the status quo).
ICTs are not used in a normative vacuum. Even assertions about the enhancement of democratic participation by ICTs must be tempered by a broader understanding of the power dynamic between an empowered public and those who wield authority.
However, there is immense potential for the use of ICT in the exercise of development and nation-building. Even as ICTs help nations enter into the global 'information superhighway', so too does it render it an object of global scrutiny. ICT networks increasingly lend to the subversion of attempts of human rights transgressors to hide their deeds. Governments are realizing the futility of trying to block or filter information, and are instead beginning to work proactively to harness the potential of ICT for development. In Sri Lanka, both through the E-Lanka policy and the Regaining Sri Lanka (RSL) framework, projects like the Viswa Grãma initiative will hopefully herald a more participatory and inclusive development process for the whole country.
The recent Durban Declaration on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, included an entire section dealing with "Information, communication and the media, including new technologies." This declaration recognizes the potential of ICTs as a positive instrument, along with the possible risks caused by their abuse. Participants expressed their concern at the use of the Internet for the dissemination of racist and discriminatory ideas and called upon governments to take action on these issues. However, they also recognized that "new technologies can assist the promotion of tolerance and respect for human dignity, and the principles of equality and non-discrimination." Hence the need "to promote the use of new information and communication technologies, including the Internet, to contribute to the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance". (12)
ICT is not a magic formula that is going to solve all our problems. But used wisely, it can help with peace and development, and build a nation that is responsive to the needs and demands of its entire people.
(1) Written by Sanjana Hattotuwa, Research Associate, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Colombo, Sri Lanka. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
(2) Siobhan Mahony and Stephen R. Barley "Do Digital Telecommunications Affect Work and Organization? The State of Our Knowledge" Research in Organizational Behaviour, 1999.
(3) "Elements and Principles of the Information Society", Caludia Sarrocco (email@example.com)
(4) Developing Countries and the ICT Revolution: Final Study, Directorate General for Research, European Parliament, 2001
(5) The idea is taken from 'Being Digital', Nicholas Negroponte, Coronet, 1995
(6) See the website at www.kothmale.net
(7) "The Internet in South Asia: Opportunities and Challenges", Daily News, 23.1.2002
(8) See "Computer-Based Communications and Women: The Case of Sri Lanka", Leelangi Wanasundara, CENWOR
(9) See "Technology for Peace: Innovation used towards the Cyprus Problem", Dr. Yiannis Laouris and George Tziapouras http://www.tech4peace.org/nqcontent.cfm?a_id=719
(10) "Online Dispute Resolution: An Overview and Selected Issues", T. Schultz, UNECE Forum on ODR, Geneva, 6-7 June 2002, publication forthcoming.
(11) Kofi Annan, "The Work of the Organization", A/54/1; para. 254
(12) Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia
and Related Intolerance, South Africa, 31 August - 8 September 2001, Art. 143-145
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