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Post-war trauma, mistrust, fuel Ebola crisis

A posse of young boys armed with slingshots blockades a road to prevent a Red Cross vehicle from bringing medical supplies into a village wracked by Ebola. In another area, residents throw stones at an arriving health team. And in a another, villagers flee when a health worker in a white lab coat makes calls in the neighborhood.

Christian Zigbuo (right) works to distribute printed information to educate people in Liberia  about the Ebola virus.  Photo courtesy of Christian Zigbuo.

Christian Zigbuo (right) works to distribute printed information to educate people in Liberia about the Ebola virus. Photo courtesy of Christian Zigbuo.

Why?

These reports remind me of conversations I have had with survivors of horrific conflict. Having worked around the world, I have seen and heard the fear and mistrust that people have of government and others in official capacities in places such as Kampuchea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa. In these places, the common historical theme is social conflict, and in some places outright war.

I recall a conversation I struck up with a young man sitting under a large umbrella by the roadside in Monrovia a few years ago. He was selling lottery tickets and gasoline in quart glass bottles. I learned he was a high school student when his education was interrupted by the civil war in Liberia. He wanted to study agronomy, but the post-war economy was making survival difficult and the dream of college unrealistic.

I asked him where he spent the war. His voice lowered and his expression changed.

“I moved about,” he said. “Sometimes to the bush, sometimes hiding in the city.”

Pointing to a now-empty swimming pool in an abandoned hotel across the street, he said, “See that pool? I was caught once by a gang of young guys who put a tire around me and threw me into that pool to drown. They were crazy.”

As if the war was not horrific enough, when peace came, gangs of young men armed with military weapons roved the city, robbing and intimidating the people until the U.N. established order and disarmed the former fighters. Without effective government, there was no security, and pronouncements by those who claimed leadership were unreliable. The nightmare of war does not end when the shooting stops.

Liberia and Sierra Leone are post-conflict societies. They are recovering, but strong civil institutions and governance are still evolving. Infrastructure such as sanitation, electricity, communication, health and education are weak. In both, a generation of children lost their childhood because they were born in a time of war. They didn’t attend school, and many were internal migrants or refugees in neighboring countries. And they’ve experienced trauma.

Health systems, never particularly strong, remain weak and fragile. For example, in the county most affected by Ebola in Liberia, according to a story in the New York Times, the health surveillance officer does not have a computer to track disease statistics. As a consequence, the health officer could not track the outbreak of Ebola in real time, and was relegated to an inadequate pen and paper record that was woefully behind the rapid spread of the virus.

Trust depends on the effectiveness of the government and its institutions to deliver adequate, impartial service to its citizens. Weak institutions cannot do this.

Hidden source of conflict

It’s true that people fear the Ebola virus and the toll it takes. But I think there is another, less obvious factor at work as well. It is the residual emotional state of people who are recovering from traumatic experiences in post-conflict societies. This trauma is often masked.

In daily survival it goes unnoticed, and in many places it does not figure into ongoing relationships. In others, of course, it remains a prickly source of conflict that has not been resolved. However, it’s been my anecdotal experience that in post-conflict societies, trauma is not far below the surface, and in times of crisis, when trust is on the line, it can rear its head.

Efforts to create reconciliation commissions have been tried with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they provide a platform for the abused to have a voice, sometimes they exacerbate unresolved divisions.

When I talk with people who have been through terrible experiences such as civil war, I often hear stories told in soft voices that surface pain and loss. Sometimes this pain is expressed with strong language that reveals unresolved feelings of injustice and indignity. Sometimes people are reticent to talk about their experiences at all. They fear retribution. Some don’t want to recall horrible memories. These unresolved conflicting emotions are carried silently. They reflect great personal loss. Spouses, children and whole families have been lost. Homes and sometimes entire communities have been wiped out.

Steps to rebuilding trust

Nurses listen intently during a panel discussion at The United Methodist Church's Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone, to help prepare health care workers for dealing with the Ebola virus. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Nurses listen intently during a panel discussion at The United Methodist Church’s Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone, to help prepare health care workers for dealing with Ebola. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

This emotional reservoir, along with weak government, social structures and economies, creates a stew of uncertainty, unmet needs and struggle. In the case of Ebola, I think it points to a need for clear, trusted voices to interpret the reality of the virus, and to encourage people to get medical care and avoid traditional healing. It’s also important for the church to provide messages of hope, comfort, encouragement and concern. In this circumstance, it’s a form of public witness in addition to a vital community service.

This alone cannot heal the broken trust, but it is a step toward healing. Other actions must be taken as well. Improving the health system, physical infrastructure, education and governance are critical. Economic development is necessary to improve work opportunities.

The church has another important gift to offer people in these societies. While large group gatherings are being discouraged during the contagion, under better conditions local congregations are communities of support where spiritual comfort and assurance are given, and personal growth and development occur. In faith communities, people are assured that life is sacred. Life is a gift of God, and God’s intent is not for us to suffer, kill or be killed. God’s intent is for us to flourish, and to find purpose and meaning. In The United Methodist Church, we speak of God’s graciousness. In post-conflict societies, the community of faith can be a means of grace.

What the Ebola crisis has revealed is that residual trauma and weak civil society infrastructure have long-term effects. Untended, these can threaten global well-being in unexpected ways. But this is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Ebola: Texting hope and busting myths

Ebola text message from Bishop Innis

The first Ebola text message from Bishop John Innis addresses both health and spiritual needs. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

Ebola is real. It kills with little warning. Please adhere to health messages to safeguard your family. Let us be in prayer. God is with us. – Bishop John Innis

This first text message coming from Bishop John Innis to people in Liberia was not only history-making, but more importantly, it addressed a popular rumor that Ebola is not real but a ploy constructed by the government to get money into the country.

Ludicrous as this sounds, it was used as the pretext for gunmen to force patients from an Ebola isolation unit in a Monrovia suburb a few days ago.

The bishop’s message encourages people to follow the officially recommended precautions. It calls people to use their spiritual resources, and it says God is with us — that Ebola is not a punishment inflicted upon us by God.

Trusted voices must be raised to encourage people to take the threat of contagion seriously and seek medical attention when symptoms appear. And religious leaders can affirm our spiritual resources, as Bishop Innis has done.

Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia receving text message on Ebola from Bishop Innis

Communicator Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia, receives a text message on Ebola, written by Bishop John Innis. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

When trusted leaders address rumors and misinformation, it’s more likely the rumors can be deflated. Texting is not the only way to do this, but it’s important in this crisis in particular. Mobile messages can reach a significant segment of the population. Sixty-nine percent of Liberians have a mobile phone, and texts can be received by conventional mobile phones, not just smartphones.

In addition, mobile messages can span broad distances. This is especially important. Text messages can reach people in affected areas that have been cordoned off by the military. They can remind people they are not forgotten.

Recognizing this, United Methodist Communications has been laying groundwork for the distribution of messages through mobile technology in areas where the need is great.

Now, for the historical part of this post. Because the communicator in Liberia was experiencing difficulty preparing and sending texts from the conference office, he requested United Methodist Communications’ assistance. A list of names provided by the conference was uploaded to a cloud-based database, UMCom staff got the message from Bishop Innis, and the text was sent on his behalf from Nashville to people in Liberia. The software used is open source and cost-free.

It was a first for us, and perhaps a first for a faith-based organization. It reveals how the world has shrunk, how information and communication technology contribute to our well-being and how valuable the connection of The United Methodist Church is as a strategic asset, especially in circumstances such as this.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

The Malaria-Ebola Nexus

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of other illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak an international health emergency, with 2,000 people infected so far and more than 1,000 deaths in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. As these countries frantically try to contain Ebola, fearful people are not going to health clinics or hospitals for other illnesses. These illnesses add to the burden created by Ebola.

Malaria is one of the diseases either not being treated or being treated through self-medication, which creates its own  problems. The rainy season is under way, when more malaria cases occur. This compounds the problem. Improper use of malaria medications can result in resistance to the drugs. The medications require a patient to follow a course of treatment, and failure to do so can result in a more drug-resistant parasite in the future.

Researchers suspect a highly resistant parasite now affecting people in south Asia is a result of haphazard malaria drug usage during the Vietnam War.

Both diseases disproportionately affect the poor and ill-informed. Because Ebola and malaria have common early symptoms, such as fever, headache and vomiting, there may be confusion about the cause of illness among both those who are ill and health care providers.

Life-saving messages needed

While malaria is curable, Ebola is not. But there is real concern that the mortality rate from malaria may rise because patients will not seek treatment. Therefore, it is critical to get accurate, life-saving messages to people in these areas.

Communication and education are two of the four pillars The United Methodist Church and its health workers are using in the fight against malaria and Ebola. Neglect of any disease of poverty is costly in human lives and productivity, which means costs to national economies, added burdens for weak national health services, and great human suffering and death.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria's toll. Graphic by Work the World.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria’s toll – as well as lives saved by international efforts. Please click on the infographic link in the narrative to see the entire infographic Graphic by Work the World.

An infographic by Work The World of the UK illustrates both the severity of the toll malaria takes and also the hopeful potential to reduce its consequences. Behavior change communication is essential to reducing the humanitarian crisis of Ebola and the ongoing crisis of malaria.

Responding to the crisis

United Methodist Communications has provided $10,000 crisis communications grants to United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in Liberia and Sierra Leone to help get out health education messages through printed fliers, banners and radio. United Methodist Communications is also networking with other church agencies and international and interreligious organizations to coordinate communications efforts. It has also provided training and software to local communicators to enable them to send broadcast text messages to local people.

Similarly, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Indiana Annual Conference and the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection have provided cash assistance to affected regions for medical supplies and communications.

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund to provide support during situations such as this one so that funding will be readily available in the event of a crisis or disaster. Your help is needed to ensure that we are able to meet these needs as they occur. You can donate here.

This situation also underlines the ongoing need to continue the malaria work the people of The United Methodist Church have supported for the past seven years. The world has made great strides in reducing deaths from malaria, but we are still working toward the goal of elimination. To give to Imagine No Malaria, visit ImagineNoMalaria.org.

 

Poverty: The Common Vector

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

While the Ebola outbreak continues, media coverage, at least on television, seems to be waning. Print media continue to provide stories that enlarge understanding about how the crisis is being managed and its effects on people across the region. But this too will fade, and that’s part of an ongoing problem.

In this crisis, a familiar pattern of media coverage has emerged: Ebola has been presented as a mysterious viral disease with a horrific reputation. An outbreak is news. Blogger Michael Byrne, whose blog influenced the title of this post, attributes the mystery to the fact that the virus occurs in remote Africa and not in countries with facilities to provide the supportive care necessary for the body to rally its own protective measures. It’s there, not here, and it’s horrific. That’s sensational.

But once the sensational elements have been covered, unless a new angle appears, the media moves on. And the suffering continues out of sight.

Ebola, malaria, cholera and many other diseases that plague sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions are diseases of poverty. Whether the disease is borne by a virus or a parasite, the common vector is poverty.

Profits, neglect and the value of life

Diseases of poverty occur in places where life expectancy is already low and well-being already compromised by inadequate health care, sanitation and economic development. They are in locations where communication and education are weak. And these conditions are long-term, ongoing results of poverty.

In addition, more than one commentator has noted that research and development of drugs to prevent and treat Ebola lags because there is little profit in saving the lives of poor people in rural Africa. For example, Sierra Leone has three doctors per 100,00 population, Liberia one per 86,275, Guinea one per 10,000 and Nigeria one per 2,879 people. Pharmaceuticals and health care follow the money.

Beyond this neglect, corruption, poor governance and wars have kept these countries from building strong economies with an informed citizenry. And, as blogger Lindsay  Hilsum writes after decades of development schemes poverty persists.

This makes it more important to tell the story of people in these circumstances as well as address the conditions that persist and affect their quality of life. Otherwise, they will continue to be overlooked until another crisis strikes.

But in the 21st century, it may be even more critical to build the communication infrastructure that will enable people to gain access to information they need to improve their own lives and to communicate with each other and the outside world.

Combating information poverty

The Ebola crisis demonstrates that information poverty is a significant contributor to the spread of infectious diseases that can destroy whole communities. It points to the need to strengthen educational systems as well as national health systems. And it points to the necessity of major international organizations and partner governments to push for accountable governance and an end to corrupt practices.

At United Methodist Communications, we are providing skills training as we introduce technology after assessing needs with local partners. Technologies can be as complex  as servers and wifi systems or as simple as solar chargers for mobile phones. The technology must fit the day-to-day realities of climate, environment, power source and maintenance. But these are not insurmountable problems. The key is skills training and appropriate solutions for long-standing problems of info poverty.

Ebola is neither mysterious nor inevitable. With information, adequate facilities and procedures, it, along with the other diseases of poverty, can be contained if not eradicated.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Communication is Aid–and More

Ebola Prevention Banner

Workers hang an Ebola banner in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photos courtesy of Bishop John K. Yambasu.

Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee writes that her mother showed up at her office recently dressed head to toe in a winter coat and headdress in 82ᴼ temperatures. Her mother explained that she wanted extra protection against the Ebola virus.

Misinformation and misunderstanding along with superstition about Ebola abound. The virus is not airborne.  According to medical experts, it spreads through contact with the body fluids of an infected individual or the body of a deceased victim.

Lack of information is the fulcrum on which the spread of the virus tilts toward epidemic. With information about sanitation, abstinence from eating bush meat, and awareness that the disease results from a virus and not from evil spells or spirits, the Ebola outbreak can be contained. But this depends on timely, accurate and effective communication.

The role of communication is being recognized as critical to the well-being of people no matter where they live in the world, and no matter how well connected to the communication networks they are.

When Hurricane Yolanda struck the Leyte region of the Philippines a year ago, one of the first needs the Philippines government identified was for the restoration of the area’s damaged communication capacity.

Similarly, the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola in Sierra Leone, chaired by United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu, listed a comprehensive communications strategy as its first priority in a longer document spelling out response to the crisis.

Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, Sierra Leone

United Methodists in Sierra Leone are working with the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola to share information.

We live in a connected world, and lack of accurate information, coupled with incomplete communications infrastructure, is a matter of life and death. Ebola, as the world now understands, is only a plane ride away, no matter where you live.

At United Methodist Communications, we live by the phrase, “a clear message saves lives.” But we also understand that the ability to communicate is equally important.

In the Philippines, we helped to restore Internet connectivity and provide aid agencies with tablets, software and training to enable them to identify where aid was needed, coordinate with each other, and communicate with and distribute aid to survivors.

In the Ebola crisis, we are supporting the efforts of those already at work disseminating accurate information in the countries affected. We are also consulting about infrastructure and distribution tools that can reach the most people with accurate information.

Today, the ability to communicate and the quality of information that is communicated are critical to well-being in local communities and to people in every other part of the world. Communication — and the ability to communicate effectively — is not a simple matter of technology, tools and software. It is a matter of strategic importance.

In many emergency situations, communication capacity precedes other forms of critical aid. In the Philippines, communication preceded material aid. Communication had to be restored to get food, medicine and construction supplies to those isolated and stranded in places cut off from others.

In the Ebola crisis, communication precedes prevention and treatment. The contagion cannot be contained without greater effort at sanitation, isolation of sick people, and proper handling and burial of the deceased. And this has to be communicated effectively and widely. In these circumstances, a clear message saves lives.

Over a lifetime of covering natural and human-caused disasters and writing stories about poverty and development, I’ve come to see that communication is more than the tools we use, more than the software that powers them, and more than the technology that drives the devices. It is a strategic asset that is important to our well-being.

In some circumstances, communication is aid, as a wonderful video produced by Infoasaid demonstrates.

And, if we believe (as I do), that it is God’s intent for all people to find meaning and purpose in life, and to flourish, then communication is actually doing theology. It is a way to fulfill our beliefs and follow our values.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

USAID and ZunZuneo

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.48.04 PMThe news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) surreptitiously sponsored a text messaging service in Cuba created a storm of criticism last week when the service stopped and the secret sponsor was revealed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It was also duplicitous and damaging, if not dangerous to others attempting to deliver humanitarian services.

Those who provide humanitarian aid, such as nongovernmental aid organizations – including those of religious groups – meticulously maintain a nonpartisan stance within the countries where they work. This is especially important where partisan conflict is rife and where governments are suspicious of such aid being used for partisan purposes. These agencies are compromised when they are viewed as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Humanitarian agencies cannot operate in a country without consent of the host government. Such duplicity adds to the perception that they are agents of external forces.

This cuts both ways, of course. Where governments are not popular and rule by coercion and force, the humanitarian organizations must also be seen as  functioning independently. It’s often a delicate dance.

This nonpartisan stance can be a matter of life and death. If  humanitarian workers in conflicted settings are viewed as agents of partisan agendas, their lives can be put at risk. Examples of kidnappings and murder of aid workers underscore this risk.

Beyond this life-and-death reality, the ZunZuneo texting service, as the Cuban SMS service was known, proved to be unsustainable. Sustainability is a key outcome of successful development, but perhaps ZunZuneo failed because development wasn’t the driving mission. The technology was implemented for other reasons.

In other difficult social situations, open-source texting services have been put to use in local contexts, and with adequate training and support, they have achieved much greater success at a much lower cost. These were implemented by small nonprofit organizations operating on shoestring budgets. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

USAID has been an effective partner for humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, including The United Methodist Church, in different parts of the world. Let’s hope this episode is an anomaly and that USAID will make the adjustments needed to ensure that its mission and work are not compromised again.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Communication is Aid

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 12.37.27 PM

Training to re-establish communications system in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, sponsored by United Methodist Communications. UMNS photo

On the threshold of a new year, information and communication technology plays a more critical role in shaping life than we have experienced before. This is especially true in nations with emerging economies, many of which have leap-frogged over hard-wired communications infrastructure and moved into  wireless infrastructure.

When Typhoon Yolanda, as it was known in the Philippines, devastated the central Philippines, one of the first calls for assistance from the government was for help to re-establish communications infrastructure. Without it, emergency aid could not proceed at the scale necessary to meet the widespread needs of the people.

In the second part of this series on how communication and technology are shaping the church today, I explain why I believe that in such crises communication is aid.

Communication Is Critical Aid

Communication is a form of aid when the need to communicate is critical to saving lives. This was boldly underlined by the Philippines government’s call for assistance to reconstruct the communication system following the typhoon. Communications had to be re-established to control aircraft that were delivering humanitarian aid, rescue and military personnel, and to tell people where they could receive food and medicine.

Without the ability to communicate, people were isolated and at greater risk of disease, lack of medical care, hunger and exposure. Communication in the aftermath of a disaster is as important as food, water, shelter and medicine, according to a project supported by the BBC called “infoasaid.”

Information is necessary to life-saving efforts, while inaccurate information can be costly in terms of human life.

Following the typhoon, United Methodist Communications worked with technology partner Inveneo to do a site assessment of church communications needs to help people recover from the devastating damage, including mobile and satellite phones, WiFi, and low power radio.

Along with other partners, United Methodist Communications provided communications training, software and hardware to assist in the humanitarian effort, as well as assessment of the  long-term communications needs of The United Methodist Church in the region.

Solar cellphone chargers and combination solar lamps and chargers were distributed to local clergy in the affected area. Mobile phones and satellite phones were provided to United Methodist staff  and 50 tablets donated by Google were equipped with apps and maps in order to help 25 non-governmental organizations distribute aid and relief more effectively.

Tablets loaded with apple and maps were provided to  organizations providing humanitarian aid.

Tablets loaded with applications and maps were provided to organizations providing humanitarian aid.

United Methodist Communications also worked with NetHope, a collaboration of 41 leading international humanitarian organizations providing the best information communication technology and best practices, to coordinate a training event for the non-governmental organizations on the ground, including NetHope, Americares, CARE, Concern Worldwide, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, International Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Oxfam Great Britain, Plan International, Relief International, Save the Children, SOS, Children’s Villages, World Vision International, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and United Methodist Communications field staff.

Plans have been made to follow up with training participants to document how the tablets are being used to enhance recovery, looking particularly at emphasizing getting aid to areas that were ignored because they were “off the map,” or unable to communicate with the outside world.

The goal is to transition from assisting in the emergency to creating a sustainable communications system that will serve the church into the future.

Information has become essential to achieve a meaningful, productive life. United Methodist Communications is providing training and communications tools in areas where people have been left out of the communications revolution. Under the banner of information and communications technology for development (ICT4D), people are being trained to utilize sustainable communications tools that can be used education, health, agriculture and spiritual development.

In the 21st century, communication is aid.

The Astounding Impact of Innovative Technology in the Developing World

Nathan Myhrvold’s TEDTalk,”Could this laser zap malaria?” is an eye-opening look at how computer science and technology can help address an ancient and persistent disease that is responsible for 655,000 deaths each year. To think that it’s possible for a laser to not only kill mosquitoes in mid-flight, but determine from their wing beat frequency whether they are females (which potentially carry malaria) or males (which do not bite) is downright astonishing.

Yet even technology that’s far more accessible than what Myhrvold describes is changing the game in Africa — not only aiding in the fight against malaria, but opening a whole new world. Mobile technologies make it possible to have access to information that is transformative, whether it’s tracking disease outbreaks or educating children.

Once I was in a remote village in northern Senegal where there were no telephones or even electricity, disconnected from the rest of the world. Back home in the U.S., my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife, Sharon, was purposefully trying to get a message to me.

It took her an entire day to find someone who would agree to go to the village to locate me. It took a another day for that person to reach me by car — then yet another day for the two of us to navigate the poor roads to the nearest town with a post office that had phone service. Once there, I had to make an appointment to come back to use the phone the following day. By the time I was finally able to speak to her, my son was already recuperating.

Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

That’s what life was like in rural Africa before cell phones and satellites. Today, cell phone usage in Africa is commonplace, with more than 10.7 million mobile phones in Senegal alone. Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

Improving – and saving – lives

Pierre Omadjela, director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, is using FrontlineSMS to share health information and increase awareness about malaria prevention (a major focus for The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative). FrontlineSMS is free, open-source software that can be used to send text messages to groups of people without an Internet connection that is being used in a variety of ways to improve people’s lives.

Using automated messages to mobile phones, Omadjela says they have already realized a 5 percent decrease from the work they are doing teaching people in the Democratic Republic of Congo ways to prevent malaria.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Blantyre, Malawi, for a meeting of The United Methodist Church of Malawi. During a workshop on Transformative Communication, which included presentations from leaders at Inveneo and Medic Mobile, one workshop leader asked the group of 85 participants how many owned and use mobile phones. Virtually every hand in the place was raised.

Later, at another training conducted in Madisi, Malawi, on how to use FrontlineSMS to communicate with key groups of people, local church personnel and caseworkers who work for ZOE Ministry, a program that helps empower orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, were in attendance. As one woman sent her first FrontlineSMS text message, she shrieked with wonder. “It worked!” she marveled.

While 75 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone, smartphones make up only 15 percent of the global market. biNu is a platform that allows those with feature phones to have a smartphone-like experience through cloud-based apps and services, providing them with immediate access to email, news, books, health information and social features.

That means the world’s information library is available through not only smartphones, but also conventional mobile phones. Children are able to read books they could not afford and have access to educational information they otherwise would not.

‘All about potential’

Access to information is also giving people the means to have more control over their circumstances. In Kenya, I watched as two women used a teacup-sized satellite receiver plugged into a boom box get audio digital information that was then translated into text, allowing them to check the market price of beans so they could negotiate a fair price for their own crop. No longer must they rely solely on the price quoted by a distributor.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Remarkable new information technologies are unlocking the potential of developing countries in ways that are not only empowering, but revolutionary. As new innovations and new possibilities continue to be presented, the digital future is becoming the digital present. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

Digital Technology: The Future in Present Tense

Fasten your seatbelt. No seatbelt? Well, Hang on.

Fasten your seatbelt. No seatbelt? Well, Hang on.

A few days ago I was in Haiti. We traveled in public transportation, a small pickup truck called a “tap tap” with a wooden passenger compartment built onto the truck bed.

Our “tap tap” was not up to the task of pulling some of the steep grades in the mountains and on several occasions we had to hop out and push. Unloaded, the driver would creep to the top of the mountain and wait for us. Invariably, I arrived huffing and foot sore. But this is Haiti. And I was having a blast.

WIFI in the mountains

One night we turned from a paved road onto a nearly trackless path that wound upward. In the dark it looked more like a rutted, rocky wash than a road. We got out and pushed often. Walking on the rocks and stepping across the gouges cut by water was difficult by flashlight. Eventually, we arrived at the grounds of the Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI), a group providing women artisans with training to make and sell craft goods.

After a good night’s sleep and a pleasant breakfast outside, four children settled in at the large table under the shelter of the sleeping quarters. They were on break from school. They carried a laptop and a tablet. They began to surf the internet, play games and eventually play YouTube videos.

One little girl was proficient at a tablet game that required considerable dexterity and quickness. Another was intent on a children’s website. Eventually they both pulled down a YouTube video of a little girl singing a children’s song in French. It was a circular tune. Each time it repeated, they changed gestures, facial expressions and body movements.

Singing

Children singing along with a YouTube video

It was a memorable scene. In a place where physical access is difficult, wifi signals, beamed across the mountain and pulled down to computers powered by solar energy, were connecting these children to the outside world. They don’t yet have computers in their schools, but they are coming. Meanwhile, The Haitian Artisans for Peace International is installing a community technology center that will make it possible for local people to use computers in a cyber cafe.

Across Haiti, community-based information communication technology (ICT) centers are being installed. United Methodist Communications is a member of a partnership working toward this goal.

The little girls I saw in Haiti are ahead of the curve. Widespread access to wifi across the country, as in many other parts of the world, hasn’t happened yet. But it’s no longer something in the distant future. Low cost, low wattage computers powered by solar energy, impervious to sand, salt and humidity, along with durable “ruggedized” tablets are being manufactured now for global markets. My hunch is they will be ubiquitous before long.

Technology and Education

In the U.S., digital tools have entered the educational mainstream and they are radically affecting how we go about our lives daily. Cellphones made it possible for Africa to leapfrog over the technology barriers of landline communication. Asia is leading the world in digital technology. The process isn’t slowing, it’s speeding up.

While it’s ironic that it’s easier to reach out to the world from a mountainside in Haiti than it is to get to a place on the mountainside, that’s the reality. It’s happening. The digital future is becoming the digital present. And as the transition takes place lives will be changed. The world will continue to shrink. New possibilities and potential will be presented.

As I watched the little girls at HAPI, I realized I was looking at the future in the present tense.

Social Media and Street Protest

Protesters in Syria are using text messaging, and social media to organize and satirize the government. Street dancing as a form of protest goes against the grain of a more somber, repressed social order, while it confounds and confuses authorities, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

Technology does not lead social change, it follows. Social change is rooted in the aspirations of local people in communities. It is dependent upon their experience. If their experience is of injustice, being ignored and/or abused, technology that allows them to tell their story is a tool for organizing and empowerment, but it is not the driving force. The driving force is the human desire to be heard and treated with dignity.

People in local communities are learning how to use technology to tell their own stories and to act collectively. There is a good discussion of this in SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa. Jeannie Choi provides an overview about online organizing in the United States in the July issue of Sojourners.

When people who have not had the means to tell their own stories find the mechanism to do it, they become empowered. There is a relationship between the ability to tell your story and the legitimizing function of technology. Simply put, if people listen to your story, the act of listening itself is affirming. It can be empowering to discover that your story is important enough for others to listen to it. This affirmation can become a driving force that reinforces your belief in the rightness of your cause. Today you can tell your story globally.

Coalescing frustrations

It’s often said that media shape culture and values. It’s also true that media give expression to culture and values. They provide the means for expressing frustrations and angers denied or ignored. The relationship between media and empowerment has become even more direct in the age of Twitter, the web and SMS (short messaging service) texting with an important caveat: the power of new technology depends on where it is available and who can afford it.

Protesters across the Middle East have used social media to coalesce the frustrations of people who are economically repressed and denied their rights. Emboldened by social media and its extensive reach, they have been able to use it strategically to counter official propaganda and coalesce large numbers of people to act in concert and call repressive governments into question.

The conflicting narratives being told by state media and independent media in Egypt today are the result of the earlier use of storytelling and calls to action through social media that gave protesters a voice and the capacity to act. Alternative reporting, often first-hand and in-the-street, challenged the narrative provided by the state-controlled media and continues to do so today.

The larger challenge

In a more ominous use of social media, it’s being reported that the Shabab Islamist militia in Somalia is using Twitter to reach an English-speaking audience outside the region for recruitment. The Shabab have imposed harsh punishment upon those who break their interpretation of Islamic law — amputating limbs, for example — and have restricted the distribution of food aid to starving Somalis unless they control it.

Some U.S. Somali youth have been recruited to Somalia and have died as suicide bombers and militia fighters. As U.S. officials consider how to shut down or immobilize the Shabab’s Twitter account, they must also struggle with the underlying alienation that attracts recruits, and the narrative of Shabab that makes it attractive. This is a far larger challenge than the use of technology itself. And it’s one that the repressive governments of the Arab Spring must contend with as well.

Herein lies a cautionary concern. The same media that empower can be used to disempower. If governments pass restrictive regulations that require media companies to turn over tracking information, personal data and airtime use for cellphones, for example, or tracking data for online use (among other data), the potential for harm to genuine grassroots activism is real.

We’re not at that point yet, but as we celebrate the opening of the repressive regimes in the Arab Spring, and as we see the empowerment of peoples across the African continent and the United States, we must also recognize the tenuousness of the technology that is being utilized — and with it, the fragility of the hopes that lie deep within the human breast to be free, to speak openly and to be heard.

We must work to ensure that the irrepressible desire to make the world a better place does not fall victim to the principalities and powers that would seek to use this technology for evil purposes, and we must resist those oppressive forces that would contain it or snuff it out.

(Postcript, Dec. 29, 2011: A report in the New York Times on Dec. 29 tells of an alarming increase in rape of women and girls in Somalia. The report says gangs of young men have raped women claiming jihad as justification and others have abused women in lawless refugee encampments with no security.)

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