Communication for Peacebuilding in Sudan

Many Sudanese refer to Blue Nile State as the microcosm of Sudan. Located in the south-east, bordering Ethiopia and South Sudan, the state is home to many tribes that migrated there from across Sudan and across the Sahel in previous centuries. Most of the population engages in either sedentary farming or nomadic pastoralism. In this very rural setting, SUDIA (a leading Sudanese NGO) is starting a conflict prevention project using cutting-edge technology and methodologies.

Over the past few years, conflict between farmers and pastoralists in Blue Nile State has become more acute as a result of increasing demands on the land available for both grazing and farming. The expansion of rain fed mechanized schemes, the increment in numbers of cattle, and the expansion of a National Park have all contributed to this growing demand. In 2011, the situation was aggravated further by blockages at the borders with South Sudan following independence (which have caused some pastoralists to remain in Blue Nile State at times when they would normally be in South Sudan) and by the eruption of conflict between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (which has rendered the general security situation unstable).

In this complex setting, SUDIA’s upcoming project is truly remarkable. The NGO has identified that communication is typically poor along the migratory routes. Local people rely on community leaders, mobile phones and community radio to receive what information they can but this flow is patchy, and there are rarely opportunities for people to contribute information. SUDIA believes that enhancing information flows along the routes can help prevent conflict in two ways. First, misinformation about the timing of migrations or the availability of water can be a direct cause of conflict. With accurate and up-to-date livelihoods information, communities can understand, influence and adapt to the fluid situation in the state. Second, there are many local initiatives to foster better understanding and coexistence between farmers and pastoralists. This work needs to be publicized to create a discourse of peace. SUDIA believes that the participatory dissemination of information on peace activities can become a locally-owned early response mechanism.

With this in mind, SUDIA is designing a participatory digital mapping process along three migratory routes in Blue Nile State. The system will collect, geolocate and code information on migration issues, resource issues and peace activities in near real-time. Information will be collected using bounded crowdsourcing in communities via mobile phones, and triangulated with traditional media sources including community radio and local newspapers. Most importantly, SUDIA is focusing on communicating all this information back to communities on the ground, and facilitating discussions to respond early and peacefully to any emerging tensions.

This is a very ambitious project, but SUDIA’s pilot (starting in September) has a carefully worked out strategy, rooted on extensive experience on the ground in Blue Nile, and leveraging the local relationships their outreach teams have already cultivated. Outreach teams will work with community representatives selected by community members. Representatives will be given mobile phones and trained on how and when to communicate information via SMS in a standard format. This SMS feed will be collected using FrontlineSMS. SUDIA’s Media Monitoring Unit will then triangulate this data generated by the community with two additional sources. First, SUDIA has already trained the community radio department on conflict sensitivity in reporting, and will engage them to report on agreed issues. Second, the Unit will monitor other relevant local media sources, drawing on their experience of similar media monitoring during the elections and referendum in Sudan.

The SUDIA team will use all this real time information to produce maps, analysis and summary bulletins on a weekly basis, which will then be shared with community and state radio stations. Community members reporting in to the system will also receive weekly summary updates via SMS. Every two weeks, the SUDIA outreach teams will travel to the participating communities with paper maps depicting summary information and will facilitate meetings to discuss upcoming issues.

These meetings are the key to linking the information collection (early warning) to local capacities for peace (early response). Meetings will focus on helping communities think through necessary responses to emerging resource-based issues, such as timing of arrival of herds or early signs of water scarcity. They will also discuss the culture of peace that is emerging along the routes, in an effort to change any existing conflict discourses. SUDIA hopes that through these meetings, it will be able to facilitate direct contact between communities and stakeholders, and thus support local early responses to prevent conflict. The team will be working with government, international and civil society stakeholders where relevant.

SUDIA’s initiative has the potential to demonstrate how technology-enabled conflict prevention initiatives can be put to work in remote environments, enhancing existing local networks for peace. The team at SUDIA (which I am honored to be supporting) hopes this will be a pilot for future expansion. For anyone who wants to follow this project, SUDIA will also be putting up an Ushahidi instance on their website, with a redacted version of information collected.

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