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Pambazuka News talks to Sokari Ekine, editor of ‘SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa’. She discusses the role of technology in creating social change and asserts that technology's role is as a tool; it cannot facilitate change on its own: ‘the driving force behind social change is ideas and the search for solutions and easier ways of doing things... Technologies are not developed in isolation to the political, social and economic structures in which we live. They are a reflection of these...’

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Sokari, the study of ‘mobile technology for development’ has become a new fad in the development world. But is ‘SMS Uprising’ different? And why is it an important book?

SOKARI EKINE: Yes, it is different. On the one hand, it discusses the political economy of telecommunications on the continent and the possibilities and constraints around future trends. On the other, it gives real practical examples of mobile phones used for advocacy, campaigning and activism. Yes there is a certain amount of hype around the use of mobile phones for social change, particularly at grassroots level, and there is yet to be any serious research on successes of many projects. Nonetheless, the fact remains that local NGOS, civil society and community groups are increasingly using mobile phones for non-instrumental uses.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Who is ‘SMS Uprising’ aimed at? Is it meant as a handbook for activists? How have you seen it being used already?

SOKARI EKINE: The book is useful as an academic text and basis for future research, as well as an extremely useful introduction or handbook for anyone interested in learning how mobile phones are being used for a range of advocacy projects, activism and service delivery. I don’t know if anyone is using it, but everyone I have spoken to about it has expressed an interest in reading it. I think the most important aspect of the book is that it is an introduction and acts as a building block for further research providing examples, which can be replicated or built upon in the future.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: ‘SMS Uprising’ is edited by you, an African woman activist. In what ways does the content of the book reflect this?

SOKARI EKINE: The emphasis in the book is on practical examples and innovative technologies being used and being developed to facilitate social and political change within the continent by Africans for Africans. So yes, I believe it does. I was interested in examples and projects that would make a difference to people’s lives and challenge existing power relations; those that enable people to have more control over their lives, more input into what information they need and how it is presented. I think the book addresses those issues.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The book has been criticised as not really reflecting an ‘uprising as such’, but instead a rather sobering reminder of the limitations of the technologies. Was it a mistake to have called it ‘SMS Uprising’?

SOKARI EKINE: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think this criticism is a fair one as obviously we could not include the vast range of innovative uses of mobile phones. What we did was give practical examples, as I have said, which can be replicated or further developed. The limitations are not due to the technology or its availability, but the diffusion and lack of knowledge of what is available and how to implement the technology. For example, the Ushahidi platform has been taken up by a number of CSO and NGOs in the country. However, due to a number of possible factors such as poor infrastructure, lack of knowledge on how to use the platform and lack of planning, those projects have remained rather static. What the book does is speak of the growing trend in using mobile phones and associated technologies and the potential for greater diffusion. In other words, the use of mobile phones for social change is on the increase and every week there are new developments, new projects, new ideas.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What for you is the most significant aspect of mobile phones in the context of activism?

SOKARI EKINE: The ease of use – a small piece of technology, but one with the possibility of multiple features: In addition to SMS messages you can have a voice recorder, camera, video, notebook, diary, email and internet access.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: In your introduction to the book you emphasise that ‘technology itself does not lead to social change’. What role, then, does technology play in social change? And, if not technology, what are the driving factors that do lead to social change?

SOKARI EKINE: Throughout the ages people have developed technologies to make their lives easier: To communicate with each other, to enable faster and more efficient production and so on. So the driving force behind social change is ideas and the search for solutions and easier ways of doing things. It’s about having a need or a problem, then an idea and then thinking about how to solve it. This may or may not include a particular technology. Technologies are not developed in isolation to the political, social and economic structures in which we live. They are a reflection of these, which is why you find many technologies we use today have militaristic origins because that is where money for research and development is located.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The book is about mobile activism in Africa specifically. How important is the African context then? Can the projects outlined in the book be replicated globally – both in the South and the North?

SOKARI EKINE: Yes absolutely and that is why the book is so exciting: The idea that the North is replicating projects and using technologies developed in the South.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The book and its case studies look in depth at both the benefits and the limitations of mobile activism and its outcomes. Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich, in ‘Digitally networked technology in Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election’, clearly portray how SMS and blogging were used for inciting and organising hate and violence, as well as for information sharing, documenting and counter-violence measures in post-election Kenya. Do you believe that the space that digital technology has created – through lowering the barriers to participation and group action – will always be a space for what Goldstein and Rotich call ‘a struggle between predatory violence and civil society’? What are the challenges in preventing the use of mobile technology as a tool for predatory violence.

SOKARI EKINE: As I said earlier technologies themselves are not innately good or bad. We have to look at the reasons for developing particular technologies and how we use them. In Rwanda the radio was used as a tool for ‘predatory violence’ to hunt and kill. In Nazi Germany the printing press was also used to spread hate. The challenge for CSO and activists is so be aware of these negative and hateful applications of digital technology and to use the same technologies to counter the ‘predatory violence’ or messages of hate. What the technology does is support the advocacy process by making it more organisationally and financially efficient and by extending the reach of the beneficiaries to rural areas, women, low-income people, people in informal settlements.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Berna Ngolobe’s chapter, ‘Women in Uganda: mobile activism for networking and campaigns’, talks of the ‘digital divide’ to describe the gender dimension of ICT. What does Ngolobe mean by ‘digital divide’?

SOKARI EKINE: With regard to mobile phones, I believe she is referring to some of the barriers to usage experienced by women: Low literacy prevents women from sending and receiving SMS; economic status and security affects women’s ability to purchase handsets and airtime and may mean having to depend on a male relative or husband for both. In terms of ICTs in general, women’s usage of ICTs is three times less than that of men. It is this that WOUGNET is trying to address in its work in Uganda. For example, in the area of ‘e-agriculture’ WOUGNET has implemented a number of projects, which enhance the livelihoods of women through providing relevant and timely agricultural information to women farmers. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that mobile phones have enabled many women in rural areas, such as farmers, to have more control over their lives through access to timely agricultural related information. Mobile phones are also being used to help women in their literacy and although there are limitations, one should not discount the fact that mobile phones are breaking down some barriers.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Ngolobe highlights the need for ‘sensitisation of men to respect women’s rights and for women to know their rights’ if the barriers to women’s use of ICT are to be overcome. But do you see mobile technology itself as having an important role to play in achieving this sensitisation and awareness?

SOKARI EKINE: Yes, and WOUGNET have taken a number of initiatives to achieve this – such as the ‘16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women’ campaign – through the use of SMS to support online discussions, as well as through community radio where listeners can call or send SMS questions and responses. The point is that mobile phones are available and so are technologies to support campaigns such as sensitisation towards women’s rights. Obviously, if NGOs and CSOs are not using them in this way then we need to find out why and to provide the necessary training and, or financial support. This is where further activist based research is needed.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What have been responses to this book on the African continent?

SOKARI EKINE: It is difficult to tell. There has been a great deal of publicity from bloggers, twitters and facebook, but beyond that I don’t know.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: And Western responses? You have given talks promoting the book in both the US and the UK. Was the reception to the book similar in these countries? Did your UK and US audiences properly understand the relevance of the book?

SOKARI EKINE: The reception in the US was incredible and surprising. I feel there is far more interest in the US around African affairs generally and also grassroots activism. I have only had one presentation in the UK – at Cambridge University – and the response was disappointing. I don’t think the audience – largely academics – really understood the relevance and importance of the book.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: You say that ‘SMS Uprising’ is offered as the ‘beginning’. What path do you hope it will carve?

SOKARI EKINE: I hope activists and academics will build on ‘SMS Uprising’ and particularly examine the sustainability and success of mobiles being used for advocacy and activism. There are hundreds of ‘projects’, but we need to know how successful they are, how much change is really taking place and if that change is breaking down traditional hierarchies or creating new ones. We need to know more about the kinds of projects, campaigns and mobilisation that are taking place. We also need to know the kinds of responses from governments, whether the increasing compulsory registration of subscribers is having an impact on take up and also how repressive governments I have to say though I do hope that whatever research is undertaken is not by outsiders, but those either actively working on the continent or Africans who have a direct interest in the technology. I also hope that the research is participatory and activist based, rather than just an academic exercise, which really does not benefit those working on the ground.


* Sokari Ekine blogs at Black Looks. More by Sokari.
* ‘SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa’ is available on the Pambazuka Press website for £12.95.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.