It is 7pm and darkness has settled on the small town of Eyl on the Somali coast. Benefiting from the complete absence of light pollution, the starry African sky unfolds like a kaleidoscope above the heads of the crowd gathering outside the small town hall building. The cool Indian Ocean breeze carries a refreshing scent of saltwater that mixes with the distinct smell of human settlement. The air is filled with the buzz of anticipation and the scraping noise of plastic chairs against the dusty ground as people get comfortable. A diesel generator roars to life in a cloud of smoke. The gathered crowd of young veiled girls, bearded men, rowdy teenage boys and elderly women fall silent and turn to face the man with a microphone as he introduces himself in front an inflatable white screen. A few minutes later, the Puntland Development Research Center’s film on the social effects of maritime piracy captures the crowd.
While the world has made giant technological leaps over the past two decades, conflict of varying intensity has embroiled the Somali region. Although the devastating effect on Somali society is all too obvious, Somalis have created indigenous technology-based solutions to challenges they are facing as a result of the conflict. Telecommunications and innovative banking based on traditional systems are examples of two industries that have prospered despite the conflict. In a volatile environment characterized by insecurity and limited government regulation, private entrepreneurs have built a mobile phone and data network with highly competitive rates, providing citizens with a viable means of mobile communication. Somali money transfer and banking companies such as Dahabshiil have become vital to the Somali economy. When Mogadishu was recently connected to the world through a fibre-optic cable, the high speed was a “shocking” experience for some internet users only familiar with mind-numbingly slow satellite connections. According to the World Bank, mobile phone ownership stands at 49 percent and rising. 3G technology is being rolled out despite a recent ban by Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist organization controlling large parts of the central and southern regions.
Successful peacebuilding requires a readiness to adapt and adjust, to find new approaches building on existing structures in society. Unlike most neighbouring countries, Somali society is linguistically homogenous. After ancient Somali writing scripts were lost in time, it took until 1972 before a new script based on the Latin alphabet was developed and taught. As a result of the long absence of a written language, Somalis nurtured an oral tradition based on poetry and music. Building on the oral tradition, and taking into account the high levels of illiteracy in the Somali region, Interpeace and its partner the Puntland Development Research Center (PDRC) developed a Mobile Audio-Visual Unit (MAVU). Using basic and affordable technology, MAVU is tasked with reaching out to rural communities, using film to inform target audiences of key issues related to peacebuilding, civic participation and reconciliation. This allows women, men and youth living in urban areas or remote communities beyond the tarmac roads to take part in important societal conversations as the film screenings are followed by moderated discussions on the same topics.
The results yielded by MAVU quickly became indispensable to the work of Interpeace. With the development of MAVU, a modest investment in film equipment and human resources allowed Interpeace to tap into the Somali tradition of storytelling and community dialogue, making it an integral part of our peacebuilding work in the 21st century. Following the establishment of MAVU in Puntland, the concept has now been replicated in Somaliland by Interpeace’s partner Academy for Peace and Development (APD).
A more recent project uses mobile- and web-based technology. Inspired by Interpeace’s partner in Cyprus, the Interpeace Somali Programme launched a participatory polling project in the Somali region. Participatory polling is an innovative action research methodology through which the public opinion on pertinent issues is gauged using questionnaires designed with the contribution of societal and political stakeholders. The project has benefitted from the use of mobile technology combined with a web-based platform for analysis and visualisation of results. The technology has enabled fewer staff polling more people in less time. Another key advantage of using technology in the analysis phase is that it allows for greater creativity in designing visualizations and creating informational maps, while also proving fun to use.
Interpeace’s peacebuilding philosophy is based on the belief that the “how” is equally important to the “what” and that peacebuilding work needs to be locally owned and anchored in internal dynamics. Peace is always perfectible. It is a process, not a destination. We believe that peace can prevail only if anchored in internal dynamics and processes. Peace can only be successfully pursued by internal actors as it is ultimately the result of their will, their imagination and their commitment.
Our approach to technology-based peacebuilding tools is therefore one of great interest and receptiveness, but applied with caution and attention as we work to ensure that the technology serves our peacebuilding mandate and fits the local context where we work. Technology in peacebuilding should not simply be a tool for data extraction but rather an enabling factor to foster closer relations between all stakeholders in society. As technology becomes increasingly accessible, acceptable and affordable in poor and conflict-affected areas, its potential in peacebuilding will grow exponentially. There is little doubt that, just as technology has changed every other aspect of our lives, it will also change the way we build peace.