NDN – Mobile Technology and Land Dispute Resolution in Afghanistan

Submitted by Samhir Vasdev

We’re all familiar with “mHealth,” “mCommerce,” and “mGovernment,” but what about “mLand Management”? While the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, it’s exactly what Ruha Devanesan, the Executive Director of the Internet Bar Association, intends to introduce to Afghan communities in the near future. IBO’s latest program, the Internet Silk Road Initiative, seeks to “use technology to bring the the rule of law to developing countries in fields where legal intervention is necessary.” Specifically, it empowers citizens to use their mobile phones to report land disputes and monitor the progress of arbitration panels.

Speaking last week with a panel of experts hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Devanesan proposed the Silk Road initiative as a means to tackle the “complex land situation” in Afghanistan which is riddled with unsettled property disputes. Land ownership is as important in Afghan society as it is a source of conflict, exacerbated by the recent return of thousands of refugees who find their property occupied by others during their absence. This is compounded in light of the fact that 80% of Afghans rely on the land’s resources as their primary source of living, and the recent discovery of a trillion dollars of lithium and other resources in Afghanistan only magnifies the issue. Most importantly, explains Devanesan, landowners “face inaccessibility to the judicial system,” which itself is plagued with disorganization and a lack of proper administration, and many Afghans are too afraid of the threat of interference by the Taliban or warlords to bring their disputes to the proper authorities.

The Internet Silk Road provides a “bounded crowdsourcing” resolution to this pervasive issue. Led by Devanesan, the initiative trains Afghans to visit land disputants and send information about the conflicts via SMS to a central command center, which will forward them on for arbitration. The disputants then receive news on the final decision directly on their mobile phones. These dispute-reporters, who work in the field and are “trained in dispute resolution, land ownership, and Shari’ah law,” record GPS coordinates, take photos of boundaries, and note information about the properties, sending them to the Silk Road’s main hub for processing. Every dispute, including these photos and relevant information, is kept in a digital repository available with free and open access.

The primary goal of this initiative is not to solve these disputes, many of which are rooted deep over the course of generations. But the service it provides should facilitate the conflict resolution process by increasing transparency in the judicial process and making more data available both to arbiters and to the public. Whether or not the adjudication process takes advantage of the information depends largely on the quality of the database the Internet Silk Road seeks to amass. The quality, of course, depends on the citizens’ willingness and ability to embrace mobile technology in order to tackle their social and economic problems.