Blog | January 14, 2015 | Steven Leach, Richard Smith, Chas Morrison and Laura Payne

A protester uses his mobile phone to take photos of demonstrators protesting against the removal of a popular fuel subsidy by the Nigerian government.

George Osodi / Panos Pictures

The following is the second of three blogs written by members of the ACTION Support Centre and the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, in which they reflect on the early engagements of their research project funded by Making All Voices Count. Read the first blog here and the third blog here. 

Various tools have been developed to support warning-response systems in recent years, notably a range of crowd sourcing technologies. For example, they have been employed in monitoring electoral violence, responses to natural disasters and public health initiatives. Innovative ways of using ICT to bridge the gap between communities and authorities have been used effectively, with Kenya and Ghana often cited as examples.

Crowd sourcing tools used for conflict prevention and response include FrontlineSMS, UshahidiUwinao Platform, Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME), UchaguziSisi Ni Amani Kenya and PeaceTXT. Similar examples from Western countries include CureViolence and Standby Task Force, which also cover humanitarian mapping and crisis responses, such as Ebola outbreaks. However, one notable drawback for such technologies is how fast they become defunct, obsolete or unsustainable. Early warning systems also appear to be dependent on the organisations who run them, and their effectiveness is linked to people rather than technologies. For example, the ‘Forum on Early Warning and Early Response’(FEWER) no longer operates despite its original popularity, and similar initiatives in West Africa and the Horn have yet to demonstrate their durability.

Weaknesses of ICT-focused approaches

International funders, governments, and NGOs have moved to capitalise on technology to create conflict prevention architecture for monitoring and interpreting conflict-data trends. Yet a persistent gap between warning and response remains. While ICT-driven tools remain a favourite with donors and the international community, there is a serious possibility that, like much else in the international development world, top-down solutions imposed or suggested by outsiders will not reflect local needs and priorities. Basic questions about access and usage are overlooked in the face of generalised statistics. Analogous use is assumed between project designers and local would-be users and there is seldom allowance made for context specificity.

In Kyrgyszstan, for example, Anna Matveeva describes an SMS communication system, designed and implemented through the international community, only to learn that the design did not work: “Rural women, most of them elderly and semi-literate, could not use text messaging and were unwilling to be trained.”

Our first field visit noted such a gap. We spoke with the Zanzibar police, who operate a Facebook Page (last updated in September 2014) and we met with an organisation conducting a survey by phone. The communications weaknesses do not seem to be the presence or lack of cutting-edge technologies. Instead, there is a shortage of location-appropriate methods that can build on existing communication channels and strengthen trust between those communicating. Participation in the mobile survey rose onlyafter those surveyed met the people conducting the survey. In-person meetings took place to build confidence and establish trust.

We observed that improvements in conflict prevention appear more likely to emerge from building relationships of trust between different sectors of society, and between them and the authorities, rather than developing yet another crowd sourcing ICT tool and training stakeholders how to use it.

Early warning and response ‘gaps

The potential for Early Warning (EW) infrastructures in local communities is hampered by a combination of factors, some of which include:

  • The lack of any communication channels between communities and authorities;
  • In-actionable or untimely communication;
  • Political elites may not act on information from the grass roots, through unwillingness or inability;
  • In some cases elites have a vested interest in allowing or even promoting violence;
  • Disagreements within the authorities about how to prevent conflict;
  • Conflict prevention mechanisms may actually exacerbate local tensions;
  • Local people may be scared of providing information, especially if this leads to them being identified as dissenters or provocateurs.

Our project aims to assess the effectiveness of the role of communication tools and the opportunities to build trust and support relationships that connect ‘warners’ (local organised community members), to ‘responders’ (local authorities and decision makers). Both groups are stakeholders able to mobilise human resources aimed at transforming conflict, preventing violence and harnessing the potential for constructive outcomes from escalated tensions. Through the learning, we intend to initiate wider dialogue and violence prevention processes in support of local responses.

About the author

Steven Leach and Richard Smith from the ACTION Support Centre (ASC) together with Chas Morrison and Laura Payne of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.