It is clear from any newspaper or news website that wars don’t just happen anywhere. It seems that the scenes of unimaginable suffering often occur in countries where, if the news spotlight wasn’t attracted by the violence, some pretty everyday suffering would be going on anyway. To be highly simplistic, wars generally happen in places which are poor. You might find a cynic somewhere that will tell you that this proves that poor people are intrinsically more violent or that violent people tend to be poorer; but any rational soul will conclude that scarce resources can often lead to unrest and even war. This isn’t just about competition for the slender pickings of an unforgiving environment – lack of prosperity or unevenly distributed wealth leaves populations with little ownership and hence no personal investment in maintaining a peaceful society.
On Tuesday, I attended International Alert’s event ‘Peace through Prosperity’ at the Royal Society in London. This provided an interestingly balanced perspective chaired by Alert’s Dan Smith with a panel comprising experts from industry and journalism as well as the INGO sector. Of course, given the topic in hand, there was little in the way of combative debate, but a range of experience was drawn upon and provided diverse perspectives on the subject. Particularly pertinent to me was the discussion of infrastructure development – and its potential impact on regions’ abilities to prosper. Naturally, experience is largely focussed on water provision and road building, but equally relevant in the 21st century, if we are to focus beyond subsistence towards prosperity, are electrical power and internet connectivity. The author of the report which prompted the event, Phil Vernon, rightly highlighted the case of Rwanda, in which a recently war-torn (and still not entirely peaceful) country, has focussed on developing an IT industry as a means of modernisation and nation-building. Internet connectivity, now such an intrinsic part of western economies, brings significant benefits to otherwise isolated regions. It can allow local businesses to become global in their outlook, students to gain a world-class education or researchers to access data from cutting-edge experiments only milliseconds after it is uploaded. The long-term economic and peace-building effects of such advances will be extremely interesting to monitor. Africa certainly has the opportunity to develop such infrastructures –there are now sea cables on both east and west coasts of the continent, connecting to major internet hubs in Europe. National infrastructure may be harder to fund and deploy, particularly for land-locked states. However, in the research and education space, the Ubuntunet Alliance is entering the second phase of the AfricaConnect project, where predominantly eastern and southern African NRENs (National Research and Education Networks) –including Rwanda of course – work together to facilitate international network access. In a continent which has seen a disproportionate lack of prosperity, it must be hoped that such developments bring not only information, but peace.