By Forest Whitaker, an advocate of the SDGs and CEO-founder of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative.
Knowledge and information have become transformative dimensions of our existence and are the main drivers of the implementation of all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) . From government to small villages, knowledge and information guide what people do and how they do it. The 2030 Agenda recognizes the need to develop knowledge societies where everyone has the opportunity to learn and engage with others, which clearly highlights the need for access to technology and technology. Information and communication (ICT). That's my reading of SDO 9, which calls on states to "build a resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation."
Yet, in many places, people and communities can not access computers or the Internet. In the developed world, for example, over 80% of individuals use the Internet; in the developing world, less than 35% do so. The remaining 65% are often poor and remote communities or groups deprived of their rights. These may be fragile communities struggling every day to recover from years of conflict. All of these communities need access and I believe this is especially true for communities affected by conflict or post-conflict.
The vision that I apply through my Foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), is that connectivity can help vulnerable communities on their path to peace and resilience. Peace is best practiced by individuals embedded in prosperous communities, and communities flourish when their members interact with each other and communicate with those who are outside. This implies that today, in the era of social media, peace and connectivity condition one another. Connectivity means that people and communities have the skills, the ability and the willingness to interact and engage in respectful dialogues, that they can access the resources to do so. and that they have the technology to bridge the physical and cultural distances.
A key aspect of the programs I lead through WPDI is the creation of Community Learning Centers (CLCs) in vulnerable communities of Southern Sudan and Uganda. At CLCs, youth and community members can access computers and connect to the Internet, as well as take courses in ICT, literacy, business, conflict resolution and library services. Since 2015, WPDI has established nine CLCs in South Sudan and two in Uganda, with an average of 150 users per center. I expect these numbers to increase as we open more centers and community members hear their peers talk about CLCs and what they can do for them. For me, success is when a center becomes a community center, a place on the map of people and where they know that they can conquer the world.
That's why ICTs are at the heart of my projects, beyond the CLCs themselves, which are just one aspect of our primary goal: empowering youth to foster sustainable peace and sustainable development in vulnerable communities. We form youth groups from conflict-affected communities and violence in conflict resolution, entrepreneurship and ICT so that they can become peacebuilders and mediators and develop projects educational and economic; we also equip them with technology so that they can get closer to each other, form friendships and connections, and brainstorm their responses to crises in real time. CLCs are part of this architecture where technology and learning are completely intertwined.
I see that it is obvious that the SDO 9 – or even the entire Agenda 2030 – can not be achieved without massive ICT investments in local populations, especially in the communities isolated and vulnerable. It is also clear to me that we can not do anything sustainable if we disconnect the technology of learning, and this particularly concerns the SDG 4 on quality education for all. Multiple problems are at stake here. First, people must learn to use technology and information in ways that are appropriate to their needs and aspirations. The relevance of ICT lies not only in access or even in the basic skills of command: ICTs are really relevant if they help us innovate in our daily lives. Technological innovation succeeds when it supports social innovation.
The other aspect of education that I consider important is the need to promote the civic uses of ICT. If we abuse the Internet and social media, they can become echo rooms for fake news, hoaxes, and hate speech. In other words, our efforts can not focus solely on access and technological issues. Quality education is of course a matter of performance, but it also concerns the students' ability to understand their world and to respect other peoples and cultures. Technology can help us become better people if education teaches that communication should be a way of authentic dialogue. We should always keep in mind that the role of education is to prepare citizens.
Forest Whitaker is also UNESCO's Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation.