“Here we have drug problems, we have terrorism, but we want young people to change their minds — and to change people’s lives.”
This is what an enthusiastic young student told me on a recent visit to Ettadhamen, a deprived suburb of Tunis.
Six years after the revolution that led to a change in Tunisia’s leadership, the country is gradually building a more democratic society. Nonetheless, many social and economic challenges remain. Neighbourhoods like Ettadhamen are marked by poverty and high youth unemployment, and often stigmatised as hotbeds of radicalism.
For young people without jobs and facing discrimination at every turn, taking drugs or joining a radical group such as ISIS seem to offer both status and a way out.
The power to choose a different path can sometimes come from digital tools. In Ettadhamen and in other places affected by violence, young people signing up to the fledging phenomenon of ‘peace tech’ are beginning to take change into their own hands.
Digital mapping in Tunisia
The latest Global Peace Index (2016) confirms that violence and extremism are on the rise around the world, underlining a need to find creative ways to build more peaceful societies.
Technology is part of the response, with the use of digital tools helping to empower people in places affected by conflict, address drivers of violence and help build durable peace.
That is the idea behind an initiative that uses Open Street Map, a collaborative digital mapping tool used in Tunisia by the NGO I lead, International Alert.
A group of students and graduates from Ettadhamen were trained to use the platform to map out places and street names in their neighbourhood, adding details previously only available in more affluent parts of Tunis. They also identified areas in need of basic services. And they are now working with the local council to shape how half of the public investment budget is spent. After consulting the community they requested for roads and street lights to be repaired, for rubbish collection points to be introduced and for more play areas for children.
“At the start the local authorities didn’t believe in us, they thought we were just taking pictures with our phones,” said one young man. “But now they have seen our achievements [contributing to knowledge and planning for the area], they consider us with respect.”
It is no secret that most people who engage in crime or violent extremism today come from marginalised neighbourhoods – whether in North Africa or Europe. By offering social status and the belief they can create positive change, this mapping project not only offers young people new skills, but gives them alternatives.
Not just technology
This is not just about technology. While it’s true that information and communication technologies (ICTs) are powerful tools that are becoming more accessible globally, the involvement of young people is key. Project after project shows they are becoming pioneers of peace tech in their communities and countries.
The Ushahidi crowdsourcing software in Kenya is arguably the most widely known example. It began with young activists using cell phone calls and text messaging to monitor political conflict in the wake of the 2008 post-election crisis, and is now used in different parts of the globe for humanitarian relief, election monitoring and other purposes.
There are others. In Jordan, a youth-led project called Tech Social, run by International Alert and the organisation Tech Tribes, brings together young Jordanians, and Syrians displaced by the war to identify low-cost technological solutions to some of the issues both their communities face. In the process, it also fosters mutual understanding and friendships between young refugees and locals, helping to enhance social cohesion. In conflict-affected communities around the world, peace-themed hackathons (#peacehacks) are leveraging technology to tackle issues such as hate speech or violent extremism.
Youth at the helm
These examples show that to be most effective, peace tech initiatives must be driven by young people themselves and be embedded in their local realities.
In the Tunisia project, the idea to use Open Street Map came from the young people. It was important to be guided by their particular sense of place: Without jobs, their surroundings bonded them together — and yet that same neighbourhood marked them out. Young men told us how at job interviews, they were too embarrassed to admit to coming from Ettadhamen.
The challenge was to help turn this sense of place into a source of pride and strength. They chose Open Street Map as their platform, and this embodied the overall purpose of the project: to help transform a deprived neighbourhood and empower the people who lived there.
Having done the mapping, the young people also held face-to-face discussions on issues such as the need for services, but also relations between young people and the police. As one participant said: “As a young man of Ettadhamen you have this negative relationship of mistrust between the youth and the police — in fact that is the main cause of people joining ISIS.”
Everyone acknowledges the pressing need to address the future of young people to build more equal, peaceful and prosperous societies. We must also recognise that ‘young people’ are not a homogenous group, but have multiple differing needs.
The UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2250 on ‘youth, peace and security’ in 2015 marks a historic change in acknowledging that young people can also lead when it comes to innovative peacebuilding, since they are usually the first to embrace new tools and technologies. Peace tech builds on these strengths.
As one of the young men taking part in the Open Street Map project said, smiling disarmingly: “Of course we are not the answer for Tunisia. But we are part of the answer.”
Harriet Lamb is the CEO of International Alert. She can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @HarrietLamb_