Kite-runners and internet cables

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Ben Bruges to UN Dispatch. Ben Bruges is an Afghanistan-based video production and social media trainer and public affairs expert. 

When I explain that I train Afghans in the use of social media (among other communication skills) I often get bewildered reactions. To many, in and outside Afghanistan, social media seems somehow trivial and perhaps a luxury; above the reach of most of the population. Do they really need access to cat-memes and food selfies? Are there not more urgent things I should be doing?

In Afghanistan 60% of the population is young, and right now more people are literate than at any other given time in Afghan history. Many Afghans know about smart phones, the internet, social media and the wider world and they are curious and hungry to gain access. Afghans are connected to each other and to the outer world in a way no previous generation has been. To my mind that is a positive development and cause for optimism and hope for the future. Given quite how restricted Afghan women’s lives can be, the appeal of social media is understandable. For those who can access it, Facebook provides young Afghan women a safe way to “go out” into the world – to hear and be heard, to chat, to keep in touch, to look around – in a way they simply cannot in the more conventional sense. Their parents may lack the computer literacy to police them, some use false names and many are careful not to upload photos.

This should be put into context. Only one in three houses has electricity. A tenth of the population has access to the internet, mostly in the cities. Literacy rates remain very low. But the smart phone stage is coming, leapfrogging the desktop and fixed line phones. And, much as in Kenya, even the dumb phone is more highly developed than in the West, with the banking system M-Paisa, training programs and even an SMS version of social media. Since May this year, Afghanistan has its own satellite so it can become less reliant on neighbors for a communications backbone. This ought to result into both increased access and lower costs – though there is always space for endemic corruption to undermine these effects.

There are some things you cannot keep suppressed forever. Once they are out of the box it’s difficult to see how they can be put back in. Kite-flying, girls’ education and the internet were all things the Taliban banned when they were in power. Now the children are back on the hillsides flying their kites; girls, even in Taliban-controlled areas are in school; and the Taliban are themselves heavy users of social media to promote their message and make exaggerated claims inside and outside Afghanistan in Dari, Pashto and English.

Social media highlighted the devastation and impact of Haiti’s earthquake (2009) in a way that had not been possible before and turned it into a global cause. During Iran’s “green revolution” (2009-10) the state had control of the one internet connection and could block sites, throttle data speeds and close connections entirely; but yet the young tech-savy population found ways to use Twitter to keep the world and each other informed of developments and used proxies and foreign-based servers to counter the government’s attempts to block them. Egypt (2011) showed that while social media can spark off a revolution, but that relying on social media is problematic as pre-digital rural populations asserted themselves through the Muslim Brotherhood.

Social media aren’t the answer for anything – but they do provide the platform, the channel of communication for that answer. This is an important way the discussions, the connections, the informing, the opinions, the organizing are going to happen. It is a truism that future leaders are going to come from among the literate, young, urban generation. But it’s more than that. The whole generation has tasted elections and they like it. They realize they can be more informed through the internet. They relish expressing their opinions and they are eager to learn about others. They are tentatively talking about the difficult issues of recent past history – for example inter-ethnic violence. They face up to Taliban atrocity and express their anger. They know a lot of the support for the Taliban lies with Pakistan and they are not scared of saying so. Their values are openness, democracy, sharing, anti-corruption and tentative moves towards more gender equality. Social media gives them the space to rehearse, to develop the confidence to stand up to the endemic corruption of their warlord political class and to the barbarism of the Taliban.

These are big claims, but like the internet itself, the connections between the educated young, the media, politicians and the outside world can be routed around obstacles. Through this rerouting, a new openness, information flows and greater transparency will be developed and set new norms. In among the selfies, the music, the food-photos, the flirting, the chat; new dialogues are opening up, providing tools for Afghans to develop their own society.