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?

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  • Joshua, i just flew into Oakland and was picked up my colleague who told me he is going to Guinea on Tuesday to establish our long distance wifi links (am part of the team doing this in Ghana as part of the TIER Group @ UC Berkeley) to connect radio stations so they can share information and this is funded by USAID Washington (Brian King, really nice fellow).

    Ethan could not emphasis this more in our talk, imagine community radio stations with seamless wifi connectivity. Even without that i can say that the radio community in Africa is largely responsible for the democratic tenats we have and Ghana is a typical example.

    Once such a cheap and inexpensive link is in place in a place like Guinea when war breaks (am not saying it should happen) it can serve as a major resource for combat and when the war is over it can serve a useful resoruce for rebuilding because this would take care of the major communication needs in terms of voice and data.

    Post 9/11, Barry Greene and a Cisco team build a massive VoIP network which was used in the disaster recovery. When Kathrina came, Jim Forster, another Cisco friend told me how they immediate deployed a wifi network with voice and data capabilities that was used to restore the situation.

    So my answer to you is, worry less about the skeptics they would always be there when African is mentioned. Am an optimist and a pragmatic one at that who believes that the availability of these resources could be used in the positive good as well as negative bad.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:03 PM  

  • You are doing some great work to make the rest of the world proactive in what faces the African continent on a day to day basis. Providing information and making it accessible across nations and continents is no mean achievement.

    By Blogger Id it is, at 12:11 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Henio, at 2:35 PM  

  • Joshua, Really great to hear what you're doing with these tools -- looking forward to seeing where it goes, what role the site plays in the process, and how citizens take to it... Really fascinating. Looking forward to the next update

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:22 PM  

  • Hey Joshua! Just discovered your blog and its excellent! I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    By Blogger Cocacy, at 4:43 PM  

  • good job joshua

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:16 PM  

  • Thanks for sharing. It was very insightful.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:30 PM  

  • Great blog!

    I once worked for USAID on its education programs in the conflict areas of Mindanao, Philippines.

    By Blogger Tng Man , at 12:27 AM  

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