Building a Nation
At this weeks Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society weekly meeting, Ethan Zuckerman and Eric Osiakwan made a fascinating presentation on Africa Internet Infrastructure: Opportunities and Challenges (see slides here) They showed that there is a huge opportunity for African's accessibility to increase while their costs drop. This is wonderful, because I've been fascinated how an accessible Internet in Africa can help countries recover from conflict and rebuild themselves. One question I'm battling with now at USAID is:
Can personal media and new technologies help connect a country that has been disconnected in the most fundamental ways since its creation?
A few weeks ago in Gulu, northern Uganda, the LC5 Chairman Norbert L. Mao (yes, he goes by Chairman Mao) was speaking at a community meeting about what to do now that 20 years of LRA pogroms are over. In between bemusing jokes about meeting Joseph Kony at the recent peace talks at Juba, Mao spoke about the need for a strong 'glue' to keep together this utterly fragile peace. This glue, he said, is Ugandans themselves. However, long before the most recent conflict, Uganda has been an utterly fragmented state, not only in the commonly acknowledged north/south divide, but even within the greater North, which is home to the broadly different cultures in Acholi, Lango, Teso and Karamoja. This fragmentation has caused everything from marked suspicion and mistrust to the horrific blood baths of Amin and Obote.
Making the Ugandan people the glue to a lasting peace and a reconciled nation is a complex process. No one in Uganda knows what this process will look like, but it will involve elements of transitional justice, psychosocial counseling, reparations and traditional forgiveness. There is no simple formula, and the experiences in South Africa, Mozambique, Rwanda and Sierra Leone can only provide limited guidance. What we do know is what Mao emphasized in Gulu: only if people feel included in reconciliation will the process be effective.
So far, the process of reconciliation has yet to become an inclusive process. Traditional, cultural and political leaders in the North are beginning the conversation, but as peace looms, not enough are involved. Enter personal media and new technology. I'm working on creating a USAID website whose goal is to raise the caliber and inclusiveness of the debate on Uganda's future. We are designing the first draft of the site with the following tools:
--A BBC News-like 'Voice Your Views' section with periodically updated questions
--A citizen media blog with several carefully selected and eloquent youth authors from around the country, many of whom are currently taking part in a North-South student exchange program
--A media space which will contain (i) video montage of the mato oput traditional reconciliation process (ii) podcasts with views from all regions, including those usually excluded from the national dialogue
Absolutely none of these tools are new, but from what I can tell, they have not been used by development practitioners to connect and involve a nation in its rebuilding and reconciliation process. I'm inspired by my friends at EchoDitto, who use the Net to raise the real world profile of political and community campaigns.
However, as one author recently wrote on the World Bank ICT discussion board, we have to temper our excitement about ICT in Africa with acknowledgement of the overall readiness of the continent for ICT solutions. First, I would respond that more people than we think use the Internet in Uganda, especially young people, even in remote regions. Second, our site is inspired by the 'bridge blogger' concept at Global Voices, utilizing eloquent young Ugandans from around the country who can collect and present the views of their community members and present it to the country at large.
Surely, the serious projects of reconciliation, transitional justice and nation building are not tasks accomplished by participatory media. However, there has never been more of a need for Uganda to engage itself in a national conversation. The question is, how much can participatory media contribute?