The October 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan did more than mark the beginning of the “War on Terror.” It also paved way for the introduction of the first mobile phone networks into the country, networks that today find themselves pawns in the fight between the Taliban, the government and security forces.
Within months of the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, the first Afghan mobile networks began to appear. Today, Afghanistan has four privately-owned networks and, according to a recent report by the BBC, mobile phones are the only way most Afghans are able to communicate, especially in remote areas. The importance of mobile technology hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Taliban either, who have recently been destroying towers in an attempt to stop security forces using the technology to coordinate night-time attacks against them. That particular game of cat-and-mouse continues.
The dangers facing many in Afghanistan are often in the headlines. Recently news broke of three aid workers and their driver being killed near Kabul. Decades of invasion, war and fighting have run the country ragged. There are fewer more dangerous places on earth to work. As recently as July 2008, the Crime and Safety Report described the security situation as volatile and unpredictable, and warned of the limited ability of Afghan authorities to ensure the security of citizens and visitors who face threats of kidnap and assassination.
In such a challenging and hostile environment, nonprofit organizations expend considerable time and effort limiting their exposure to risk. With improved communication often at the heart of any security strategy, many have turned to the growing influence and availability of mobile phone networks in the areas where they operate, and to tools that give them the ability to communicate quickly, widely, efficiently and effectively.
Facing a continued and growing security threat, in January 2007 a major international humanitarian organization (that shall remain anonymous for its own protection) began using FrontlineSMS for field communication in their Afghan operations. FrontlineSMS is free software that allows for two-way group text messaging (SMS) using a laptop computer and an attached mobile phone. This makes it particularly useful in situations where messages need to be communicated quickly and in a coordinated fashion. Following the recent attacks, as a representative of the Afghan nongovernment organization reported, the tool was “essential” to getting the word out quickly: “E-mail was down, voice was spotty but SMS still worked. We also had two female staff at a school near the incident and were able to tell them to stay put till things quieted down. All my staff made it home safe today.”
The Windows version of FrontlineSMS is in daily use in their main operations room, while the newer Mac version is kept as a backup by a senior security officer. The software is primarily used to quickly pass time-sensitive security information to staff in the field.
“Drivers receive updates on traffic congestion, road blocks, police operations, VIP movements, local minor security incidents and anything else that might be useful as they travel,” the group’s representative said. “Senior staff receive SMS messages regarding larger security incidents that may require them to modify program activities for the short term. Incidents that influence activities in other areas are sent to the sub-office group. Finally we have an ‘All Staff’ category for those situations where we need to notify or account for everyone as quickly as possible.”
The increasing use of mobile technology by humanitarian organizations reflects a growing recognition of the significance of communications in the wider effort to promote security and democracy in the country. As far back as 2003 the “Rebuild, Reconnect, Reunite” initiative highlighted the important role of telecommunications in the preparation and running of national elections, not to mention the wider efforts of Afghan security and police forces in their battle to re-establish rule of law in the regions.
Problems of coverage and reliability remain — something that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering the attacks on mobile infrastructure — but mobile phones are beginning to establish themselves, and communication across the country is, on the whole, improving. In the past few years alone the number of Afghans with access to a phone has quintupled.
As more phones begin to get into more hands, nonprofit activity will increase. However, the wider use of mobile technology in health, education and other economic empowerment initiatives will only flourish once the fundamental problem of security is addressed. After all, NGOs need workers, and workers need to be kept safe.
Mobile phones won’t solve the security problem alone, but they clearly have a significant role to play.
Ken Banks devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the last 15 years working on projects in Africa. Recently, his research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, a field communication system designed to empower grassroots nonprofit organizations. Ken graduated from Sussex University with honors in Social Anthropology with Development Studies and currently divides his time between Cambridge (UK) and Stanford University in California on a MacArthur Foundation-funded Fellowship. Further details of Ken’s wider work are available on his website at www.kiwanja.net.