According to the United States Institute of Peace, there are around 100 conflict situations in the world today. This armed violence not only kills thousands of people every year but many more are forced to leave their homes, are permanently disabled or severely affected by trauma. The infrastructure of countries hit by war is often so badly damaged that it takes years to rebuild. Broken road and rail systems leave rural areas cut off from the main administration centres and limit distribution of agricultural products. Clean water, electricity and telecommunications services are often beyond the reach of those outside the urban centres.
With rural areas in conflict zones lacking even the most basic services why should introducing ICTs be important? For the team at BOSCO Uganda the answer is very simple: give people the chance to communicate and you give them the chance to ask for the things they need. Communities can determine their own priorities and use technology to influence the work of international relief organizations operating in their area.
BOSCO Uganda developed a long-range wireless internet and telephone network to cover seven IDP (internally displaced persons) camps in northern Uganda. Communities within the camps have already developed proposals to attract funding for farming and education projects. But BOSCO also designed the system with a long-term outlook, making a network that could be easily extended to cover the towns and villages in the region when peace returns.
Another advantage of the BOSCO network is that it requires very little electricity. Communications systems with low energy demands are very important in times of conflict when electricity supplies are damaged. For this reason radio remains an important medium in emergency situations. During the genocide in Rwanda, for example, many people fled their homes taking only some food and their radio. Regular broadcasts kept them in touch with what was happening in the rest of the country. Radio, however, was also used to incite hatred at the time of the violence. In fact, two executives of the station RTLM have since been found guilty of genocide by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
But radio is now promoting a more positive message in the country. The organization, Radio La Benevlolencija, works with psychologists specialized in the causes of genocide and reconciliation to produce programmes to help Rwandans overcome the trauma incurred during the violence.
Human rights organizations blamed the international community for ignoring the murders in Rwanda. Those same organizations are now determined that the conflict in Darfur is not forgotten. While mainstream media is worried that constant reports from the region would cause audiences to switch off, human rights activists use internet and web 2.0 applications to maintain focus on the situation in Darfur. Amnesty International and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum use regularly updated satellite images to show the destruction in Darfurian towns and villages. Other activists produce online games, blogs, podcasts, mashups, video reports and use social networks to engage a broad range of audiences and alert them to the violence in this part of western Sudan.
Much of this technology was not available during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Web 2.0 applications, in particular, now play an increasingly important role in providing valuable information in conflict situations. It is often rural areas that are cut off first after war breaks out, and the last to be reconnected when peace returns. Connecting rural communities in times of conflict gives the people a chance to determine and express their own needs and priorities. And, with more opportunities to contact the wider world, the more chance they have of finding someone who will listen.