by Nkateko Jannet Chauke and Steven Leach
For many societies affected by violence and social conflict, governmental responses occur only after the violence has surpassed critical levels. In addition to the inevitable destruction that accompanies violence, reactive conflict management often has less efficient and effective impacts. Early warning in managing conflict dynamics before they turn overtly violent has a strong direct practical application – to minimize the destructive effects and to maximize opportunities for engagement with conflicting parties, before open hostilities make this more difficult. Local communities often have the most grounded understanding of conflict dynamics, and are most easily able to spot shifts and trends in the changing dynamics. However they may lack the capacity to respond effectively to the complex dynamics surrounding the conflicting parties and may be affected by political, social or economic marginalisation. Communities are unlikely to have direct access to political decision-makers or security forces that would benefit from such locally sourced early warning intelligence.
The field of conflict early warning is preoccupied with efforts to forecast the outbreak of violent conflict, or, at best, detect the early escalation of tensions that may lead to violence. Several different approaches to conflict and early warning have been advanced for conflict monitors and forecasting.
An essential element of the work of the ASC is its commitment to research and strengthening feedback loops between government and citizens, and to increasing local level capacity for early warning and early response to escalating conflict, as part of a long term commitment to peacebuilding. The ASC is engaged in a research project called Making All Voices Count. This project explores innovative ways of using communications technology to connect stakeholders and bridge the gap between community practitioners and authorities. This has been used effectively in South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania. Through its work, the ASC focuses on establishing and strengthening collaborative relationships based on trust, communication, dialogue and active responsiveness between local communities and relevant stakeholders that are in a position to benefit from such locally-sourced early warning intelligence.
With mobile technology becoming the fastest carrier of information nowadays, there is an apparent advantage to using technology such as text messaging and social mobile networks such as WeChat and Whatsapp for both early warning and long-term peacebuilding. Over the past century we have also seen how new innovations in communications and technology have made weapons more lethal. The accessibility of simple technology has also made conflicts more organised and destructive, as exemplified by the recent use of SMSs in the Central African Republic to coordinate attacks.
Part of the ASC project within the framework of Making All Voices Count seeks to explore more effective ways of responding to these conflicts through innovative forms of citizen participation that can subvert innovations in communications and technology to be used in predicting and preventing conflict, and in contributing to the collective efforts to build infrastructures for peace.
Attempts have recently been made at analyzing information in databases to anticipate conflict, and wider access to communications technology has been viewed as an opportunity for citizens to have a more active and effective voice. Some of these efforts have been encouraging, some have fallen flat – many have started with importing outside technology. The ACTION Support Centre joins the conversation in the area of Research, grounding our work in a conflict transformation process that begins with people, rather than technology.
Through a conflict transformation process we will learn from our partners about opportunities and challenges for technological and communications innovations. Our research aim is to provide helpful analysis and guidance to improve warning-response communications between active citizens and those with the potential to respond to citizen concerns (including government and civil society). Our partnerships and our participatory inquiries will support a collaborative approach as we look to implement strategies to constructively respond to the complex dynamics of conflict. Research outputs will not only include contributions to the broader conversation, but also reports tailored to and in support of the local partners.
ASC looks forward to facilitating the inquiry and gaining insight into how innovations in communications and technology can support people-centred conflict transformation.