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Addressing the digital divide of peacemakers — going beyond COVID-19

Published on Friday, 12 March 2021

CMI’s Project Manager Juhana Lehtinen and Head of Sub Saharan Africa unit Tiina Kukkamaa-Bah.

COVID-19 has critically altered peacemaking and mediation methods. Many such changes are only temporary, but some have the potential to remain in use beyond the ongoing pandemic. Mediation is crucially based on building trust between the conflict parties through the facilitation of face-to-face dialogue. How this is possible when travel is no longer an option is a key question all peacemakers have had to face.

It has long been acknowledged that technology is not merely an option in the peace mediation field, as it is both a driver of conflict and essential to peacemaking efforts. There is a clear trend toward greater digitalisation in peace processes. The changes brought about by COVID-19 have magnified the need to look for technology-based solutions. Digital technologies can provide new opportunities for engaging and including the perspectives of a wider group of stakeholders and for breaking some of the traditional barriers for inclusive participation.

The global Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has set concrete goals for advancing women’s participation in peace processes. But after two decades of efforts to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on WPS, there is a persistent gap in transforming the agenda to women’s political influence in peace processes: the results are scant, and there is a lack of practical implementation. The main reasons for women’s minimal participation in peace processes relate to their overall low involvement in political processes. Women remain under-represented at all levels of governance. They comprise only about six per cent of heads of state and nine per cent of heads of government, and only 25 per cent of members of elected legislatures globally.

When discussions are held virtually and so are not limited by space or time, more flexible modes of participation can allow for including of a wider variety of stakeholders. In a conflict setting, the physical safety of women is also often of great concern and something that digital participation can augment. The same applies to people with disabilities or the elderly, whose participation might be impeded by physical barriers, and new technologies can assist here. At its best, technology can help reduce bias, diversify talent pools, and benchmark diversity and inclusion. Studies indicate that increasing diversity, equity and inclusion brings a host of benefits to businesses in terms of profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement. When it comes to peace processes, the participation of a diverse set of people ensures the greater sustainability of results.

Digitalisation is not a panacea

Regardless of the clear benefits that digitalisation can bring to peacemaking it is good to note that it is by no means a panacea: a presence at the negotiation table, especially virtual, is only valuable if the voices are actually heard. To some extent, virtual participation might make it even easier to dismissing contributions from minorities or traditionally excluded constituencies.

There are also many factors hampering the broader shift to using technology and virtual spaces. Access to virtual connectivity is far from being equal to all. Globally speaking, Africa is still behind other continents in numbers of internet users. Despite the growing reach of mobile phone usage and rapid developments on connectivity, on average just 46,7% of the population of the African continent uses the internet. Great variation exists between African countries. Internet use in Nigeria is 96% of the population, whereas the figure for Eritrea is only 6.9%. The costliness of devices needed for internet connections — laptops and smartphones — as well as the actual price of data are a significant barrier to connectivity for most people across Africa. The latter is something that African countries are addressing with good results – while Africa remains the continent with the lowest average score for internet affordability (ADI score), in 2020 Africa scored the fastest improvement.

However, tackling any of these barriers takes time and requires significant efforts and investments. In this context, Covid-19 should be seen as having a positive impact in the resulting drive for finding solutions to connecting people. The need for peacemaking and conflict resolution efforts has not declined with the pandemic, quite the contrary. On the African continent, the African Union and other regional organisations have managed to adjust to the prevailing situation well by embracing virtual means of convening.

New digital solutions will continue to render peacemaking more inclusive

The African Union’s Femwise-Africa network of African women mediators has had to adjust their work in the digital sphere. FemWise-Africa has grown to be a network of close to 500 members covering nearly all African countries. The network has continued its many activities throughout the pandemic. A digital solution facilitated by Zippie, a payments platform, in cooperation with CMI, has played a role in supporting the network’s virtual meetings. The platform enables airtime vouchers to be sent to mobile phone users in almost any country in the world (currently 170 countries). The service cannot solve the problems of internet connectivity in areas with inadequate ICT-infrastructure. But it is a very helpful solution in situations where local participants would otherwise not be able to join virtual meetings due to the high cost of data. The service has helped ensure that women stay connected to the peace and security discourse throughout the pandemic.

This kind of solution is an example of innovations that will keep their value well beyond the era of Covid-19 restrictions. Other digital solutions include online consultation platforms, actor mapping tools, direct communication tools, Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI) tools or live transcription tools helping individuals with hearing impairment for example. The list is growing. These innovations will continue to render peacemaking more inclusive by enabling the participation of local level mediators, and in bringing together a diverse set of actors across the globe.

Face-to-face meetings will certainly remain essential for many occasions. The need to be in the same physical space to build trust is a prerequisite that is difficult to replace. However, the experience gained during the pandemic, as well as new technologies, will lower the threshold to organise meetings virtually that in the pre-pandemic era would have automatically been held physically, involving costly and time-consuming long-distance flights. This has the potential of increasing the connections between local, national and international levels, and thus improve the diversity of voices.