International terrorists and criminals gravitate towards ungoverned spaces. Prior to 9/11, Afghanistan was just such a country, beset by years of internal instability. It is by no means alone. In places such as Somalia, and many countries across the Sahel and Maghreb regions of Africa, the problems of a lack of governance are providing fertile grounds for terrorists and international criminals to operate.
Mali is the latest country to suffer, with an area in its northern region, larger than France, and close to the borders of Libya, Chad and Niger, being in an ungovernable state of affairs. Worryingly, the spread of al-Qaida’s influence has provided it with easier access to the soft underbelly of Europe.
Whereas terrorists previously had to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to carry out training, the distances involved have rapidly decreased. Terrorists are finding it easier to get trained in a much wider range of countries before returning back to Europe.
For Western Europe this poses a serious issue. Governments across Europe have pledged to increase their expenditure of overseas development aid to try to halt the disintegration of countries. The United Kingdom, which is in the lead in this regard, has received a great deal of criticism for appearing to waste money overseas. In austere times it is important for governments to invest tax payers’ money wisely.
A matter of corruption
That perception of wasting money is one that readily finds fertile ground in countries where corruption is endemic. Numerous reports in the media and by government watchdogs point to past failures to account for where overseas investment has actually resulted in improvements. Often, situations temporarily change for the better before falling back. Many liken such areas to bottomless pits into which vast sums of money can be poured with little benefit in the long-term.
The problem is often exacerbated by the challenge of how to gain an insight into what is actually happening on the ground. At the local level, in remote parts of unstable states, the situation can be very confusing. Anything that allows agencies and their funding organisations to build accurate maps of need at these local levels can have a huge effect on providing both short and medium to long-term aid.
One area that has yet to be fully exploited by western governments is the potential gains to be enjoyed by encouraging investment in wireless systems. Overseas development aid has traditionally been channelled through well known, trustworthy and established charities.
History shows that, while they do brilliant work, they do have their limitations. Some areas are so insecure that even the charities can find it hard to operate. But, with training delivered to local people through wireless and mobile phone technologies, that could change.
Contact in war
In Somalia, for example, the mobile phone network is quickly growing, and helps people maintain contact with those that have fled the seemingly endless civil wars. The Somali diaspora across Western Europe uses mobile phone networks to send home remittances through informal cash-transfer networks called the hawala systems. Without it, many people in Somalia would be in a perilous position.
That model can also be applied to responding rapidly to problems on the ground, such as when famine arises after crop failures, or the spread of conflict, or as a direct result of natural or man-made disasters.
Aid can sometimes arrive in areas irrespective of need. Aid agencies, on the defensive in such situations, often bemoan the lack of local knowledge on the ground about the dynamics of the situation. In the recent earthquake in northern Iran, media images were said to have projected a false image of the scale of the problem. Mobile wireless systems that can be quickly deployed into such disaster areas could change that, with investment in wireless and mobile telephony networks possibly providing a very different outcome.
While some companies make claims about the impact of mobile phone technology on the spread of the Arab Spring that are hugely difficult to substantiate, it clearly did have an impact of sorts.
This is not to suggest that where mobile phone technology leads, democracy, in whatever local form it takes, follows. Terrorists and criminals will still use the presence of wireless and mobile phone technologies to intimidate the population. Where mobile phones spread in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgents were quick to introduce suicide videos of young people before they died that could be sent to subscribers.
Their use of both wireless and mobile phone technologies to broadcast their propaganda is clever and belies the idea that these insurgents live in the dark ages. They know how to communicate their ideas to their target audiences using contemporary technologies.
Despite this, however, in Afghanistan the take-up of mobile phone services has been quite extraordinary, and the need to be connected with family members has seen a surge in demand. Mobile phone and wireless networks bring down the barriers caused by physical geography.
When the Taliban threatened to blow up masts and repeater stations, citing their possible use for intelligence collection purposes, the local population intervened and made it clear they wanted to have access to such technologies. Keeping in touch with families and friends is an important facet of Afghan society and this can be helped by mobile phone services.
This can also help reduce the sense of isolation felt by some communities that operate at the geographic margins of countries where relief can inhibit population movement. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the capital city can often appear both physically and ethnically remote.
The launch of 3G services this year in Afghanistan will bring new services to the 17 million subscribers that already use mobile telephony services. The first licence was awarded to the United Arab Emirates telecommunications company Etisalat in March this year.
The rollout of 3G services may also boost internet usage. Currently, there are close to 300,000 Facebook users in Afghanistan, with nearly 40,000 having joined in the past six months, and around 30% of internet users having Facebook pages. With continued investment in the services, increasing speeds and decreasing costs, the future for mobile services in Afghanistan looks promising.
Middle Eastern promise
Smartphone technologies are making huge inroads into Middle Eastern society: the United Arab Emirates is leading the way, with just over 60% of the population now having access to advanced mobile phone systems. In Egypt the figure is 26%, which – remarkably – is not much lower than the current figure for West Germany, which is 29%.
In the Middle East, usage of the internet has grown above the world-wide norm of around 32%. Much of the material being accessed helps people explore their religious beliefs. As a consequence of this, a world of new applications is also being developed to cater for the needs of religiously devout people who wish to use the internet in ways that do not conflict with their values and interpretation of scriptures.
That, however, only scratches the surface of the potential for wireless and mobile phone technologies to have a dramatically positive impact on vulnerable states. In Uganda, wireless and mobile phone technologies are moving out into the local level. Local health service provisions are tapping into the power of wireless and mobile phone technologies to move data and imagery between end users.
Shortages of drugs, and an ability to engage with local people, through both video streaming and simple applications, can make a big difference to the ways that emergencies are handled.
This is one of a number of examples where technologies such as wireless and mobile phone networks can make a real difference at the local level. For states at risk of failing, the provision of wireless and mobile phones networks may not provide the sought-after silver bullet to help stop them becoming ungovernable. But it may help people connect from remote locations into the wider global society. The benefits of that will hopefully become quickly apparent.