Digital Tech and Peacebuilding in West Africa
This week at the WAPSI Forum, we launched the report Leveraging Technology for Peacebuilding in the ECOWAS Region. This report presents the findings and recommendations of a regional consultation process, facilitated by Build Up on behalf of the ECOWAS Commission in the context of the GIZ ECOWAS Peace and Security Architecture and Operations Project.
Between August and September 2021, Build Up surveyed 64 organizations running peacebuilding programs, and held eight, two-hour online consultation workshops with 76 peacebuilding practitioners based in West Africa. The consultations aimed at understanding the types of interventions in the region that are utilizing technology for conflict prevention and peacebuilding, the challenges that peacebuilders face in adopting technology and the opportunities within their contexts that could advance and support technology-based programming to build peace.
Our conclusion, in a nutshell, is that the use of technology for conflict prevention and peacebuilding in West Africa is growing and will continue to grow.
78% of survey respondents reported that they use technology for their peacebuilding work.
The most commonly used technology was social media, which was used to conduct trainings, run online campaigns for sensitization and awareness raising on various social issues, as well as for storytelling and countering harmful narratives online. Despite the opportunities these digital technologies are opening up for peacebuilders in West Africa, challenges remain in this emerging field. Poor internet connectivity and lack of skills are the two biggest challenges in using technology, which is why many respondents continue to use analogue technologies such as radio to reach those with no internet access.
Four themes emerged from the consultations as areas where technology is currently used to amplify peacebuilding efforts in the ECOWAS region — and where it also has the most future potential. Technology can be used to re-imagine youth engagement for peace, to strengthen early warning systems, to counter harmful online narratives, and for digitizing mediation.
Re-imagining youth engagement for peace
Social media networks, messaging applications, digital games and tech-enabled polls can all be used in a way that amplify youth representation in decision making. The gravitation of youth towards digital platforms, creates an opportunity to plug in and connect with them. “Social media is where they (youth) can be found”, as one participant put it. The content youth share in online conversations creates an opportunity for peacebuilders to understand their needs, desires, hopes, worries and perceptions. Furthermore, digital tools create opportunities and spaces where youth themselves can connect across geographies and mobilize towards a common goal.
There are many examples of this use of technology in West Africa. For example, Coalition 2250 is an initiative by local organizations in Burkina Faso that aims to implement resolution 2250 of the United Nations. The coalition has been advocating to the government for drafting, adoption and implementation of a national plan of action for the resolution 2250 in Burkina Faso. The coalition has included Burkinabè youth in this process by giving them an opportunity and a platform to host discussions on peace and security whose insights would inform the coalition’s work and the national plan of action.
These opportunities to engage youth with digital technology come with some challenges. The emergence and growth of digital spaces and platforms in West African contexts has meant that existing conflict dynamics migrate from offline to online spaces. For instance, a participant from Côte d’Ivoire shared: “I have witnessed political thuggery find its way to social media platforms in the form of harassment and intolerant content”. Digital spaces where youth converge can easily be spaces where they are targeted by malicious actors who want to catalyze violence. As such, peacebuilders who want to get youth’s attention online are in constant competition with those aiming to spread violence.
Strengthening early warning systems
Early warning systems are not new to West African peacebuilders. From the region-wide ECOWAS Early Warning and Response Network (ECOWARN) to localized systems run by individual organizations, early warning and early response (EWER) systems have been a part of the peacebuilding infrastructure in several countries in West Africa. These systems have embraced the functions of technology to gather and analyze early warning information for conflict insights and trends. Digital technologies make available new information that existed in these conflict contexts but was too costly for peacebuilders to gather and analyze. Digital technologies can also be applied in response processes to supplement offline engagement.
Perhaps the best known early warning system in the region is ECOWARN, who have partnered with the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) to collect data using NEWS, an online system that facilitates the generation of data and information from human monitors and reporters across the ECOWAS region. There are also many local EWER systems across West Africa that are making use of digital technologies. For example, the Community Initiative for Enhanced Peace and Development (CIEPD) — a non-profit organization in Rivers State, Nigeria — has established and implemented the Conflict Watch Center (CWC). This is an EWER system that relies on various community-based sources of information, and community specific indicators to generate analysis on potential conflict hotspots. The public can report to the platform via text message, WhatsApp or the online platform. Verified reports are then visualized on a map running on the Ushahidi platform for geospatial and trends analysis.
Commenting more generally on the opportunities for digital technologies to support EWER work, participants of the consultation were in agreement that WhatsApp was widely used in their contexts by multiple actors and would be a great tool to use in gathering early warning information and disseminating early response content. Participants also noted that hybrid methods to collect and disseminate information are most appropriate, given patchy connectivity in the region. In areas with limited electricity supply and internet connectivity, peacebuilders have been working with transport actors. One workshop participant noted that: “the transport actors have been crucial in gathering and disseminating information in regions where technology use is absent”.
There are a number of existing challenges to EWER systems that are amplified when the use of digital technology increases the quantity and speed of information. Late reporting and limited analysis skills can result in delays in warning, critical information can be missed or misunderstood, and it ultimately becomes very challenging to respond to or prevent violence outbreaks despite having a resourced system. There is also a balance between ensuring all voices are heard in an early warning system and ensuring the reliability of verified information about incidents. Verification processes are critical to systems that solicit reports, but can also delay reporting and response.
Countering harmful online narratives
Across West Africa, harmful content on digital platforms is becoming increasingly visible in the forms of misinformation, rumors and hate speech. Peacebuilders are realizing that a collaborative approach with key actors on digital spaces such as social media influencers to deliver alternative narratives, allows them to access insights and audiences that they would otherwise find challenging to reach.
Participants highlighted that harmful narratives will sometimes cross the offline — online divide, and spread even further in either direction. This has triggered the emergence of various programs that aim to report and flag harmful narratives to relevant authorities in their countries that handle content regulation, develop and deploy counter messages and narratives online, sensitize the public on the dangers that harmful narratives pose when they are online and research programs that study the types, context and spread of these narratives online among other programs.
Bassiki Kalan Sô is a project in Mali that started in 2020, to address the spread of hateful revenge narratives online. Bassiki Kalan Sô uses Facebook and WhatsApp to share sensitization videos and messages to encourage social media users to post positive content online and refrain from spreading hate. Offline, the program also engages other members of the public for instance in the local mosques where people are sensitized on using speech that is peaceful, tolerant and uniting and why inflammatory speech should be avoided. This program has reached multiple groups in urban areas using social media platforms and communities in rural areas through offline engagement spaces such as the mosques.
Work in this area is in a more nascent state. Participants from Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Mali and Nigeria noted that there were limited programs focused on countering hate on digital platforms and a lack of a clear strategy for collaboration around this work. These limitations are connected to the particular challenges to this kind of work, such as the fact that language changes over time and new terms emerge and old terms can get new meanings. Peacebuilders have to not only counter these narratives but constantly and closely monitor the shifts in meaning of these narratives and their potential to harm. This can be a time consuming and resource demanding process. That said, Senegalese, Malian and Burkinabè participants mentioned that in their contexts, social media companies such as Facebook and other public information platforms have established technical and automated social media monitoring systems based on specific key words that are inflammatory or hateful.
Despite these challenges, participants noted that there was a huge potential in West African countries to create strategic online campaigns that can be deployed to address and counter hateful narratives online. And where connectivity is an issue, it is possible to run coordinated campaigns on internet-based platforms and on SMS to ensure that the approach covers different digital spaces that hate might emerge.
Digital mediation programs were the least common among the four themes covered in these consultations, due to some of the challenges presented below. We found no examples of digital mediation in West Africa, the closest was a consultation process: in 2020 Build Up ran an entire participatory research process in Burkina Faso on conflict and resilience drivers over WhatsApp.
Digital mediation processes have been used elsewhere, and consultation participants found the concept practical citing that the approach would be useful in their contexts but would have to be preceded with other aspects such as training of offline mediators on digital facilitation skills, access to the internet and digital literacy training. Moreover, the presence of offline mediators in the region creates an opportunity to capacitate them to be able to adopt digital platforms and continue their work despite hurdles such as lock downs and gathering restrictions.
Participants shared a concern that the online space can easily create a distance between participants instead of bringing them closer, making them feel detached from the process and ultimately lose trust in the process. A participant from Burkina Faso, shared that they were faced with criticism from religious and community leaders who were to be involved in mediation dialogues, for suggesting and using social media for mediation and conflict mitigation. The negative perception of social media can easily cloud the view of various actors who are key in the mediation process.
Peacebuilders need to think of alternative ways to build or re-establish trust in digital spaces. This is less straightforward than it seems: we know good offline facilitators are not always good online facilitators. When dialogue processes shift to digital spaces, offline facilitators need to adjust their facilitation skills to take advantage of the digital spaces.
Developing and strengthening the technology skills of West African peacebuilders offers enormous opportunity to engage youth, improve early warning systems, counter harmful online narratives and leverage digital spaces for mediation. There are many more concrete recommendations for how to support peacebuilders in West Africa to continue using digital technologies that increase the impact of their work.