by Ben Parker

Based on a presentation made at the North East Africa Seminar workshop on Information in the Disaster Zone, St. Anne's College, Oxford, UK, 27 September 1995.

Net worth

In Africa, the Net is spreading fast and, for a small sector of society, is making existing patterns of information exchange cheaper, faster and more efficient. Not only is it doing the usual information things better, but it's offering new ways of working, and creating new meeting places and new avenues of civic participation and action.

The Net - a phrase we will use to describe the convergence of computing, telecommunications and broadcast media - has become the press sensation of 1995, and the global digital revolution seems to have officially begun. Africa is no exception. The questions now are how will it develop, and to whose benefit? And in particular, for our purposes today, what difference can it make to humanitarianism and the so- called disaster zone?

The Net in Africa, or for Africa?

The expansion of the Net in Africa - and the definition of a Net that serves Africa's needs is not just a preoccupation of foreign techies. Whatever the new information era may bring, the consequences of African countries being left on its margins could include greater instability, further economic decline and indeed future humanitarian crises.

Three hundred delegates at a conference in Ethiopia in April 1995 declared that if the gap between information haves and have-nots widened further, "cultural, religious and ethnic ghettos" will be created, leading to "regional and inter- regional conflicts."

African Communications Ministers met a few weeks later, again in Addis Ababa, and resolved to build "the African information highway", and urged "member states which have not yet done so to take the necessary steps to build national information networks".

Developing countries need at least to be equipped with the choice to participate in the global information networks. Until there is a link of some kind, their citizens will be unable even to know what may be useful and what harmful. One of the most intriguing things to watch in coming years is how the Net will be adapted in African cultures - and how the Net itself will be changed by the participation of people in and from the continent.

But some of the most starry-eyed forecasts see the Net as a technology which Africa can adopt and use to "catch up" with the rest of the world economically.

According to the World Bank, "the information revolution offers Africa a dramatic opportunity to leapfrog into the future, breaking out of decades of stagnation and decline." It is a tantalizing but fantastic prospect - who could deny the appeal of a technology which allows an economy on its knees to skip everything from the industrial revolution all the way up to monetarism and structural adjustment, and emerge on the sunlit uplands of a new global econo-information order?

But there is a very long way to go. Thabo Mbeki, Deputy President of South Africa, recently pointed out that there are more telephone lines in Manhattan than the whole of Africa south of the Sahara. Despite some radio links, essentially the Net of today can only go as far as the existing telephone network. And even then it needs electricity and a computer and a modem. Mind you, costs at present are about 10p a page for international mail - about one tenth of the price of a fax. Local messages are generally free apart from the cost of a brief local phone call.

But the equipment costs should not be a permanent hurdle. Most of Africa's urban population can't afford a car, but they can rent space enough to sit or stand in a bus or taxi for a particular trip. The features of a Net in Africa that would serve Africa well would, I believe, include kiosk-style services which would allow you to send or receive messages from a shared computer, paying per minute of use like a phone box. Already some of the heaviest e-mail traffic in the Horn of Africa is travelling to and from shared computers at the departments of Addis Ababa University, where twenty or thirty people share the same machine to send and receive e-mail. Privacy, unlike at the phone box, can be guaranteed by scrambling software.

So let me continue on the assumption that at e-mail and other electronic services will grow, and hopefully public services will require little more than two finger typing ability to join in. Let's also assume that anyone who has ever sent or received a fax is potentially a user of the new media over the next few years. So we have a small but influential constituency whose working lives will probably be affected by the new technology.

Later on, but there is no time to go into it now, more advanced services might be tailored to those who can't read or write and don't live near a phone - just like radio and television. Internet for the illiterate will be an interesting side road on the information highway.

One of the most common worries when the Net in developing countries is raised is the spectre of cultural imperialism. But, unlike fast food or synthetic clothing, the Net is flexible in ways unanticipated by its inventors. Just as US military planners never expected the Net to be used to swap dirty pictures, it also didn't expect it to be used to help organize protests against nuclear testing. One example from North East Africa is of Oromonet. This Oromo electronic forum has worked on a dictionary of 5,000 technical terms to keep the language relevant to science and technology in the next century. It's hard to see that work getting done any other way.

Having tried to set the scene, and, I hope deflected a few of my own scepticisms if not yours, I shall try to point out a couple of ways in which electronic communication in disasters might develop, and some ways in which we, as producers and consumers of disaster information might try to steer things in future.

What can we do with electronic communications?

First. It can help to share information on a disaster - whether the situation is approaching, ongoing or in the past. It can increase efficiency and add value to existing information flows. Hopefully, a better and more appropriate response for those in need is the end result. Those who stand to benefit include local authorities and organizations, international agencies and the general public of the donor and recipient countries.

For an agency in a disaster zone whose only means of communication is a satellite phone it is not economically feasible to fax - let's say - a five page report to the hundred or so agencies that might have operations going on in the same field. Unless another agency is aware of the existing material, it may pay someone to go out and ask the same questions and take the same pictures all over again. Given the volumes of reports, assessments, press releases, graphs, maps, photos, videos, audio interviews which a major emergency produces, the problem grows exponentially.

It is however, possible to send one copy of a document in a minute or two to a forum on the Net, or to a mutually agreed archive site, from where others may pick it up during a search of the literature available or along with their other mail.

This sharing of information would surely help in humanitarian coordination. But it can only work as part of a change in the information professionals' culture. Let me coin a phrase: the "Pushmepullyou principle". We need to depend more on the "pull" of the consumer to catch what's available than the "push" of the producer who has to photocopy or fax dozens of copies of everything, not knowing who is reading it.

The increasing volumes of information, art, comment and analysis that are be generated and circulated by the Net are already forbidding. The process of information triage - to find what you need, and discard or postpone the rest is time- consuming. In the long run, it is hoped that machines will be able to collect, collate and deliver only the information you want, when you want it, to your mailbox or TV set. Until that time, you will need the skills of an human information broker (a Net- literate information officer or researcher) or start in a small way with the help of your friends who are on the Net to guide you and supply the contacts and leads you seek.

Cutting out the middleman

Now for the second, and more significant, difference between the old and new media in the disaster zone: cutting out the middle man - or woman. The Net makes it possible to distribute locally- produced information and opinions directly to the rest of the interested world without major expense, excessive filtering or manipulation by the state, national or foreign media or the aid community. At the same time, information from abroad can be imported "duty free" - i.e. without harassment, censorship or pilfering.

It also opens the way to very specialized - or very obscure - information reaching a tiny, but appreciative, audience, widely separated in space and time. Virtual communities like these can transcend barriers of distance, time and income and also even ethnicity, gender and nationality which would otherwise have prevented even the chance of a real meeting.

The Net may also help to redress some of the historical and economic injustices that have resulted in - for example - foreign universities holding more African material than African universities. There are some moves to redress the balance. The largest electronic collection of African Studies material at the University of Pennsylvania, is actively working with bodies in Africa to achieve "data repatriation", by sending, on disk or CD-ROM, as much material as possible back to Africa so that it can be held locally in African countries and made available on low-tech networks.

Similarly, the Library of Congress Nairobi Office, which collects and catalogues thousands of documents from Africa is planning to make its acquisitions catalogue and others searchable by e-mail.

What is needed to make these possibilities take off?

Many aid agencies have been hard at work improving their communication capacities to include the new media. Local e- mail service providers have been signing up larger numbers of local NGOs, businesses and professionals. Market forces and judicious donor intervention have so far done a good job of helping the African networks grow. The UN has plans for a global private network for voice, data and video conferencing. International conferences and the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction have stressed the importance of communications in disasters. And now, inevitably, we have donor projects to harness the power of communications in the disaster zone.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been committed over the last year or so towards new Net- based emergency information exchange projects. Some of the initiatives relevant to North East Africa are listed below. Among them are a number of US projects on the "Greater Horn"; services from the UN's Department of Humanitarian Affairs; the G7's GEMINI project and NGO coordinated collections.

o the US has set up the Greater Horn Information Exchange, an archive of mainly US-generated information on the region and USAID is intending to fund a network among governments of the IGADD grouping. o The UN's DHA has two sites on the Internet called the Humanitarian Web and ReliefNet which hold situation reports, background information and financial updates on the status of pledges against UN appeals in emergency operations and the DHA also plans a regional information unit in Nairobi.

o Donors are being marshalled for electronic coordination through a mechanism called Bellanet - after the Bellagio Declaration.

o A huge archive of material on Rwanda is held at another site run by volunteer Daniel Zalik. Background information on food and hunger is also at a site called HungerWeb.

o The G7 countries have a something called Global Emergency Management Information Network Initiative or GEMINI.

o Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA) in the States archive disaster information for a number of UN agencies and NGOs.

o Another ReliefNet in the States offers situation reports and also allows on-line pledging of donations.

o There are many many more sites and initiatives but I will not try to list them exhaustively.

The extraordinary thing about all these programmes is that no-one with an e-mail account in North East Africa can really access them. This is because they are almost all organized around the World Wide Web.

The Web is a easy-to-use interface to the Internet which allows the user to click on a highlighted word in a document which would then take them to further information on that topic. Imagine a footnote that expands into the entire work it is a reference to. For example, in a hypertext version of the paragraph above, mentions of all the different projects could be linked to the resources they describe. I will try to make a hypertext version of this paper when I get time. All the alarming plumbing that underlies the Internet is hidden from the user.

It is, undoubtedly, the most pleasant way to browse the Net. But, there are two main problems. One, most people who have an Internet address, even those in the developed world, don't have the kind of connection that allows them to browse at a comfortable speed inside computers on the other side of the world. To do so requires telecommunication infrastructure that is not available or is prohibitively expensive. Secondly, and more significant in the long run, is that people may not ever have the time or the inclination to spend much time browsing. The future of the Net is perhaps more in "intelligent agents" that go out and do the interacting and browsing and then bring it back home.

Despite the disappointment of the disastrous Web sites, there are a few initiatives that are not wedded to the Web, which promote and develop both the technical networks and the content of low-tech local systems. These allow the pickup of material either on a local call in the region or help the browsing and filtering process of resources abroad to be managed by simple e-mail instructions. Almost all the locally- managed systems in the North East African region are working on this kind of approach.

New programmes from anywhere in the aid community that do not stop, pause and consider appropriate technology - a principle just as important in computers as in water pumps - risk simply becoming entangled in their own Websites.


Information is not everything. If information were power, someone once said, then the world would be ruled by librarians. The old media are going to have a good try at swallowing up the new media. In any case, no-one is going to stop watching CNN or listening to the BBC. The Net can only, for now, complement the existing channels. In the field, too, better organized information alone will not eliminate the seamier and shabbier sides of humanitarian relief operations. And the forces behind humanitarian aid of course run deeper and wider than supply and demand. There is course no guarantee, either, that anyone can read any more than they get on the fax and in the post already.

But as the hackers say: "information wants to be free" - and now there are the tools to set it free. I will leave you with two golden rules for the digital era: "be brief" and above all, "make sure you get read".

Ben Parker PO Box 44482, Nairobi, Kenya Tel: +254 2 582369 Fax: +254 2 521175 e-mail:

Date: Sat, 30 Sep 95 22:59 BST-1 From: (Ben Parker) Subject: HumaNetarianism Message-Id: ---

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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