Mr. Muriuki Mureithi is founder of Summit Strategies Ltd based in Nairobi, Kenya and CEWARN consultant on ICT 4 Peace project. He has extensive experience of consulting in policy, regulatory and strategy evolution of ICTs in Africa with special focus on empowerment ofcommunities in rural and disadvantaged communities through ICTs.
Below are excerpts from an interview he gave to the CEWARN Public Relations and communications Officer on use of information communication technology for conflict prevention and the CEWARN ICT 4 Peace project.
What is the ICT 4 Peace project? What is its relevance for CEWARN?
The ICT 4 Peace project is an innovative project conceived by CEWARN with the support of USAID/EA to exploit ICTs for timely transmission of early warning information on violent conflicts to decision makes of IGAD Member States for timely response.Research commissioned by CEWARN and USAID/EA in early 2000’s noted that the conflict-prone areas in the Karamoja cluster and other CEWARN areas of operation had very poor communications infrastructure. In all the four countries in the Karamoja Cluster in particular, there was no telecommunications coverage including Turkana areas in Kenya, Karamoja areas in Uganda, Southern regions of Sudan and Ethiopia. Without telecommunications, the only means available to CEWARN’s Field Monitors to report on situations of potential or actual conflicts was to walk or hike a ride to areas with communications coverage in order to transmit the information. The research also showed that some hotspots were up to 400 km away from telecommunication coverage. Thus, early warning information would take days or even months before assistance was available. When the assistance came, it would be too late – lives were needlessly lost, property destroyed and communities and families dislocated. It was then noted that ICTs could help by instantly delivering information from the hotspot to the relevant offices for intervention. This is how ICT4Peace was born. Although a number of ICT options were considered for use by CEWARN, HF radios were chosen as the most sustainable solution for reasons including mobility and sustainability. Accordingly, through this project, CEWARN provides HF radios and high gain antennae phones to local peace structures in ‘hot spots’ (conflict-prone areas). The project is currently at a pilot phase and being rolled out in the Karamoja Cluster that covers the cross-border areas of Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.
To what extent, in your view is the significance of ICT in conflict Prevention/ mitigation efforts?
In all CEWARN areas of operation in the sub-region, the road infrastructure is very poor. Other telecommunications infrastructures are also weak or non-existent which makes timely reporting of impending conflict nearly impossible. ICTs thus present a great potential for timely communication of early warning information. That being said, it is also very important to address the root causes or motivations for these conflicts. In this regard, another form of ICT i.e use of community radios has been conceived by CEWARN. In the context of CEWARN’s current focus on cross-border pastoral and related conflicts, community radios are considered as practical solutions in order to engage communities in long term dialogue with the aim of changing deep-rooted cultural beliefs and attitudes that contribute to the current cycle of conflict. These dialogues could also help communities in exploring alternative ways for economic gain and prestige other than cattle rustling.
What is the status of the project? What are the future plans?
ICT4Peace project is a combination of technology and community empowerment. Thus, its full implementation is an evolutionary process. At present, the HF radios are operational in Kenya and Uganda. CEWARN expects to launch the HF radio component in Ethiopia and Sudan before the end of September 2010. Like I mentioned earlier, In addition to the HF radios, a studyon the opportunity of community radio for long-term peace building will be completed shortly. Once the project is fully functional in the Karamoja Cluster, there is a plan to expand to other CEWARN’s areas of operations.
Have there been any success stories in countries where the project was launched? What are the challenges?
In the short time that the ICT4Peace project is operational, it has clearly demonstrated that rapid information is the cornerstone for success in conflict prevention and mitigation, which is the mission of CEWARN. With the system, Field Monitors are empowered to move information faster while the national Conflict Early Warning and Response Units (CEWERU’s) and District Peace Committees are able to respond rapidly. Numerous success stories of effective response interventions based on timely information received through the radios to mitigate potential conflict in Uganda have been reported. In Kenya, the radios have been used to transmit early warning information on an impending health crisis. The main challenge so far in implementing the project has been delay – in some instances - of securing licenses and frequencies for operation of the HF radios.
How can the effort be sustained and expanded to support wider conflict prevention and peace building efforts in the IGAD Sub-region?
Expanding it to the wider IGAD Sub-region is critical and urgent. The ICT 4 peace has demonstrated its value in conflict prevention in parts of Karamoja cluster where it is operational. The lessons from this pilot phase should be used to expand the system to other conflict prone areas in the sub-region. In my view, governments can speed up the process of utilization of ICTs for conflict prevention and peacebuilindg through a variety of measures including encouraging cellular operators to cover hotspot areas and provide frequencies to communities for HF operation free of charge. CEWARN, on its part, can facilitate the development of a regional framework on use of ICTs for conflict prevention and peace building that would address regulatory issues of use of HF radios in cross-border areas.