In Africa, fast-paced technological innovation was a reality long before the surge of COVID-19. Nevertheless, the outbreak has highlighted how many African countries are early adopters when it comes to digitally coping with crises. Tech startups have pioneered ingenious ways to address challenges posed by lockdowns and restrictions. In Ethiopia, tech volunteers have developed apps for contact tracing; in Uganda and South Africa, information and communication technology (ICTs) has played an instrumental role in making sure that COVID-19 measures are respected; and in Nigeria, free e-consultation tools help individuals to self-assess their symptoms. Digital innovation is no longer on the ‘to-do list’, but the pandemic is paving the way for a mass digital transformation, which could trigger a new wave of digitisation in Africa.
African responses to COVID-19 demonstrate the potential for home-grown digital innovations that can strengthen societal resilience and promote inclusivity, peace and sustainability @hirblinger & Elin Berg @CCDP_IHEIDTweet
COVID-19 has accelerated this transformation in a wide range of sectors, including healthcare and education. However, when laptops, tablets or other digital technologies become higher in demand, there is the worry that supply will fail to meet increased needs – at least for a while. The pandemic caught sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, in a state of poor digital infrastructure readiness, with some communities being very vulnerable to the crisis’s negative socio-economic effects. While African countries move towards valorising new competencies – ranging from basic tech literacy to more complex skills such as coding – there is momentum to think ahead in terms of how this digitalisation can be made to promote inclusivity, peace and sustainability.
Inclusion must take centre stage in peacebuilding efforts. As digitalisation accelerates across the continent, digital literacy will therefore become increasingly important. The COVID-19 pandemic makes current gaps in digital literacy even more marked: Many occupations that depend on movement or in-person exchange cannot go digital, proving an important obstacle to those who do not benefit from the luxury of working from home. Those who live in disconnected areas are already at greater risk of getting infected by the virus, as the lack of reliable internet connectivity and electricity supply intersect with fragile health infrastructure. We should also assess the gendered implications of the digital divide and how this disproportionately shapes the usage of technology. The gender digital divide proves an imbalance not only in relation to access, but also to a broader divide in digital literacy.
That said, how can this digitalisation be harnessed in Africa’s post-COVID-19 strategies, in a way that does not foster inequality and exclusion? This is particularly important to consider for peacebuilders. No part of society will be left unaffected by the crisis, and those who wish to stay offline or those without the opportunity to go online risk being left behind. This digital divide risks being exacerbated when urban parts of African societies, in particular, fasten their pace towards digitalisation and connectivity. The current crisis makes it clear that digitalisation is not only an important driver for economic growth, but also has broader implications on societal resilience. The broadening of access to the internet and digital technology, through the provision of e-government services, e-learning and e-health, would make it possible to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic, as well as strengthen the population’s capacity for dealing with other societal and political challenges.
Similarly, peacebuilders have taken their activities online. Digital technologies are now increasingly used at all stages of conflict to enable participation and inclusive processes. Physical meetings, talks and events − mechanisms that normally act as confidence-building measures between conflicting parties and stakeholders – have had to be cancelled. Seeking digital alternatives, the UN Peacebuilding Fund, for instance, partnered with the non-profit Build Up to run a public consultation in Somalia, leveraging WhatsApp to assess what peacebuilding efforts the country should focus on for the upcoming three years. Almost 400 Somalians participated in the consultation, and the results were later discussed in a virtual discussion between high-level United Nations (UN) and government representatives. Such an approach comes with added value. For instance, by going online, it may be possible to include stakeholders or conflict-affected populations that normally would not have a seat at the offline table, and to involve participants in more flexible and fluid ways.
The same technologies and apps that are helpful to promote unity and inclusion in peace processes can also have negative effects on peace. As COVID-19 has accelerated the online presence across Africa, particularly among youth, peacebuilders must be cognisant of issues related to online radicalisation and hate speech. As an example, due to an increase in online misinformation on the pandemic in Cameroon, digital first responders have taken to social media to debunk myths about the virus. Similar initiatives exist in South Africa and Ethiopia, where efforts to reinforce fact-checking and guarantee access to reliable information are identified to not only help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but are also an important peacebuilding initiative. This may indicate how peacebuilding organisations broaden their spectrum of activities, as conventional methods are less easy to implement and may even appear less pressing, compared to building society’s resilience against the consequences of the pandemic.
However, questions must be asked about the sustainability of such digital peacebuilding interventions. For instance, digital approaches may replace, and possibly undermine, conventional and offline capacities to organise for peacebuilding. They can also create ‘virtual’ results – for instance, by offering online spaces for participation that result in little tangible outcomes, or merely lead to a change in perceptions and narratives, without affecting people’s everyday lives. Any digital efforts should therefore be grounded in a strategy that aims to impact the offline world. Digital interventions may be initiated by implementing organisations based outside of the local contexts that aim to maintain a degree of remote engagement. In fact, digital approaches can be seen as a more economical alternative than maintaining an offline presence in conflict-affected contexts.
Digital approaches can, however, increase dependencies on global tech firms, if they rely mainly on ‘off-the-shelf’ applications and platforms. This points to an urgent need for discussion on the regulation of the companies behind social media platforms, smartphone apps and other digital technologies. Finally, evidence about inclusivity and digital capacity-building is often anecdotal, which means that it is difficult to assess what effects such interventions have on long-term peacebuilding. The current situation provides a good opportunity for peacebuilding actors to enter innovative partnerships with organisations involved in the pandemic response, to jointly push for better digital infrastructure and increased digital literacy. Active collaborations with stakeholders across a broad range of sectors – including public health, development and local tech startups – will make sure that these capacities will be built and utilised in a sustainable manner. The pandemic has created innovative, bottom-up responses. Now is the time to translate them into long-term change.
Andreas Hirblinger is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) of the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He conducts research on inclusive peacemaking, the impact of digitalisation on peace processes and the role of knowledge-making practices in peacebuilding. His research findings have informed global policy processes, such as the UN–World Bank study Pathways for Peace, and have been published in renowned academic journals, including Security Dialogue and the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.
Elin Berg recently graduated with a master’s degree in power, conflict and development from the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and is currently working as Dr Hirblinger’s research assistant at the CCDP. She has a particular interest in understanding the gendered dimensions of human-machine interactions, and their implications on peacemaking and conflict.