Inside the Information Society: ICTs and post-conflict reconstruction

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week's blog post looks at the relationship between ICTs and post-conflict reconstruction.

ICTs are becoming more important in every aspect of our lives – and that includes the ways we fight and make up afterwards, as people and as countries.

I'll look later in the year at downsides – ways that ICTs are changing how conflicts occur. Today it's mostly upside – the contribution ICTs can make in bringing back normality when conflict's over (plus some risks associated with this). I'll draw on work I did, with others, for the World Bank, three or four years ago.

A word on violent conflict

Conflict's normal – in families, in countries, and between them. We have different interests that need to be accommodated. Most of the time we resolve them peacefully. It's violent conflict that's the problem.

These days, most wars are civil wars. Three things seem to raise risk – low or declining economic outcomes (GDP per head), high levels of income inequality, and dependence on commodity exports (rather than manufactured goods or services). If inequalities are rooted in ethnic or religious differences, that obviously doesn't help.

Paul Collier's written about a conflict trap facing vulnerable countries. In spite of peace agreements, almost half of those that emerge from conflict return to fighting within five years.

Post-conflict reconstruction

Post-conflict reconstruction is about trying to prevent recurrence, and it's not a simple task. People don't come together quickly after fighting over power and resources. Trust's slow to return. Economies and social systems have been undermined and are hard to rebuild. Infrastructure's often been destroyed.

Post-conflict strategists believe it takes a decade at least to bring about sustainable transition from war to peace: a decade full of risk, in which renewed prosperity is just as important to success as improved community relations.

There are two priorities here, then. In the short term, stabilization: preventing an immediate return to conflict. In the long term, development: creating the conditions in which people see a better future in collective prosperity than in fighting over scarce resources with their neighbours.

What can ICTs contribute? That was the question for our World Bank work four years ago. Four main areas, of varying importance over time.

Stabilisation

The first priority for governments and peacekeepers, post-conflict, is to stop factions fighting once again. That means disarming and demobilizing combatants, and building institutions that enable disputes to be settled peaceably. ICTs can help here (though they can also hinder).

They can help by coordinating government departments and other agencies involved in peacemaking and planning for the future. Post-conflict government often brings together people who've not worked together (or been fighting one another), along with some outsiders (peacekeepers, development agencies). The risk is high that they will have diverse agendas. So shared computer systems and robust, well-used communication networks are priorities.

Early warning systems matter too, alerting peacekeepers to risks of renewed violence before they get out of control. ICTs have offered new ways of monitoring such risks, from crowdsourcing reports of violence (as pioneered by Ushahidi) to big data analysis of social media posts.

Stabilisation requires renewed trust in populations that have learnt to fear. Returning refugees need to know where they'll be safe before they'll return home, start businesses, rebuild communities. Reliable information is critical for this. Phone networks enable those thinking of returning to learn how things are going from those who have already done so. That may be treated as more reliable than "official" news or encouragement to return. But there's also risk of rumour and "fake news".

Second, infrastructure

Conflict destroys infrastructure. Post-conflict, communications infrastructure often needs to be rebuilt – sometimes from scratch, certainly to keep pace with recent developments elsewhere. That's a challenge and an opportunity. Investment risks are high, but so's the benefit of being first to market – so mobile phone companies have often been the first to start rebuilding infrastructure.

Infastructure-building can be encouraged by regulation that supports investment, perhaps by small-scale local initiatives as well as large-scale national networks. International development funds can support backbone infrastructure and connectivity in areas of highest risk. Both can back broadband over networks with less capability.

But communications infrastructure on its own is not enough. Communications networks need complementary infrastructure, especially electric power. Revitalising economies depends on renewed transport links, especially for commodity exporters. ICT networks should be part of comprehensive approaches to rebuilding national infrastructure.

Reconciliation, media and public engagement

One crucial part of reconstruction is normalising relationships between communities that have, just lately, been at one another's throats. This requires confidence-building, reconciliation and a shift in attitudes towards resolving disputes politically rather than with guns.

A lot was written at one time about the potential of "truth and reconciliation commissions", based on post-apartheid experience in South Africa. In practice, though, reconciliation's about what happens in communities rather than in formal processes.

Some of the points made about stabilization are important here – contact between refugees and the resettled before refugees return, for example; and early warning systems. Mobile phones can add significantly to people's feelings of security simply by offering ways to seek help if it's needed.

But there's also risk involved here, in what gets said and how. Hate speech is offensive in liberal democracies; in countries emerging from civil war it can lead to renewed fighting, even genocide. The role of Radio Mille Collines in inciting slaughter in Rwanda, 1994, is well-known. Afghanistan and other countries have experienced "warlord radio". There's been an upsurge in nationalist extremism on social media in many countries.

One of the most difficult questions in post-conflict reconstruction is about ways to rebuild public engagement in politics and national development while minimising risks of extremism and renewed conflict from those who think they'll gain from fighting rather than talking with opponents. The emergence of social media has made this relationship between stabilisation and liberalisation harder to manage.

Towards development

Post-conflict reconstruction aims to normalize economic, social and political development. There'll still be underlying conflicts in societies – especially where there are ethnic or religious tensions – but, it's hoped, they'll no more likely lead to violence than would be the case elsewhere.

Stabilisation should, in time, if reconstruction works, become mainstream development; reconstruction strategies become ordinary development strategies. And, as in other countries, ICTs should play their part in these – as cross-cutting general purpose technologies, supporting economic growth and social welfare. No need to go into the detail here, because we've gone into it (and the challenges that inhibit it) elsewhere.

A World Bank summary

As in other areas of development, ICTs don't provide guaranteed solutions for post-conflict reconstruction. They present new ways of doing things, which include both opportunities and risks.

ICT policies won't be top priorities for peacemakers and policymakers, but ICTs need to be taken seriously by them. If used effectively, they can contribute positively to stabilization and reconciliation, and to stimulating the economic and social development needed for vulnerable countries to escape the "conflict trap". But if the risks aren't taken seriously, ICTs can also facilitate return to conflict.

In the World Bank study mentioned earlier, we made six recommendations. Stabilisation, we said, was the first priority, and communications policies should seek to reduce the chance that conflict would renew. And communications networks should be priorities in rebuilding infrastructure because of how they can support economic revival and social cohesion.

ICT strategies should be part of comprehensive development plans, we said, aimed at moving from stabilisation to long-term development. Greater public engagement will be essential to development but should be carefully monitored, with active steps to foster reconciliation and prevent propaganda and hate speech reinvigorating conflict.

Remembering the context

One final recommendation stands above these. "As in other areas of development, ICT strategies for reconstruction need to be rooted in local contexts and linked with other aspects of reconstruction."

Every conflict's different like every country's different. What worked in Liberia or Bosnia fifteen or twenty years ago won't necessarily (or even probably) work in South Sudan or Syria tomorrow – though looking at past experience may well be useful, particularly concerning how displaced communities learnt to gain confidence from one another in returning to their former lives.

But the underlying causes of conflict vary from one conflict to another. Ultimately, it's addressing those underlying causes and providing alternative ways forward to conflicted groups, not new technology, that enable countries to escape the conflict trap. The key for us is identifying how ICTs can best contribute to that in the different contexts of different conflicts.

Next week I'll look at another aspect of ICTs and development – facilitating trade.

Image: AU-UN IST PHOTO / TOBIN JONES.

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