Successful peacebuilding and development require constant adaptation, innovation, and creativity. This is especially true in the areas of central Africa in which Invisible Children and our local partners operate. In this region, needs, challenges, and resources are constantly evolving and so are Invisible Children programs like the Early Warning Network.

For the last decade, we have worked alongside leaders from eastern Central African Republic (CAR), northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan to develop new tools that can help them prevent violent conflict and keep their communities safe from armed groups operating in the area. One of the central tools we’ve developed is our Early Warning Network, a system of over 140 high frequency (HF) radios installed across the region which community leaders use to share life-saving information with one another. 

This tool was originally developed by our friend and local partner Father Benoit Kinelegu in 2009 when communities around his home in Dungu, DRC needed a way to share information about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). At the time, most communities in the area did not have access to cell or internet services, so the best way for communities to share information quickly was via low-tech HF radios. Today, many communities throughout CAR, DRC, and South Sudan still lack access to communications infrastructure and so, the HF radio continues to be a vital tool for mitigating armed group violence. 

However, in recent years, our team has been able to expand the reach of the Early Warning Network not only geographically, but also technologically. While most communities in the network still rely on the HF radio to receive reliable, up-to-date security information, our team has begun to facilitate information sharing via Short Message Service (SMS) text and WhatsApp communication in communities with greater access to cell and internet service.

As we continue to expand the reach and effectiveness of the Early Warning Network, our team takes a “right tech” approach. In examining the security conditions of a given region or community and accessibility of different communication systems and networks, we are able to determine what works best in a variety of situations. In most of the communities covered by the Early Warning Network, an HF radio provides a low-tech solution in regions without cell or internet service. But in communities with greater access to communications infrastructure SMS and WhatsApp provide a low cost, low maintenance, and low visibility solution for information sharing. 

Already, the use of SMS and WhatsApp is proving to be an effective tool for helping communities prevent violence. For example, in early 2020, our Early Warming team in northeastern DRC documented a surge in LRA attacks on local communities. After an attack near the border with South Sudan on April 17, 2020, we sent Whatsapp alerts to our local partner in South Sudan, who then notified the local Peace Committee in Sakure, South Sudan, of a potential heighted threat to their community.

The Sakure Peace Committee advised farmers cultivating along the border to adopt risk mitigation strategies identified during Invisible Children-supported community mapping sessions in 2019. Soon after, when an LRA group attacked a market 4 km (about 2.5 miles) from Sakure’s community center, they looted goods but were unable to abduct civilians, as they had all sought shelter elsewhere.

Through participatory mapping, the peace committee identifies their community’s unique needs, vulnerabilities, and assets in order to develop strategies for improving the safety of their community.

Thanks to the SMS and WhatsApp alert system, members of the Sakure community were able to take informed action which helped protect civilians from LRA-related violence. 

Since we launched SMS and WhatsApp alerts in 2018, our Early Warning team has sent nearly 200 alerts via these platforms to leaders in communities like Sakure. As a result, these communities are safer and better equipped to safely respond to potential threats. 

With your support, we can continue not only to expand the geographic reach of our programs, but also continue developing new ways for improving the reach and effectiveness of life-saving tools like the Early Warning Network.

Some programs described in this blog are made possible with the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this post are the sole responsibility of Invisible Children and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.