SMS Used to Monitor Burundi Election Violence

By Mara J. Roberts

The series of elections in Burundi ended in July with president Nkurunziza, being reelected to a second term.  New Dominion Philanthropy Metrics implemented a pilot surveillance system to examine the ability of SMS texting to be utilized in monitoring the election-related violence.   Nine different districts were randomly selected throughout the country to gauge the number of violent acts reported due to the elections.  Our hypothesis was that SMS texting would be an ideal surveillance tool because it is readily available even in remote areas of Burundi.  If successful, this system could be replicated in other African nations. 

Two primary school teachers of different tribes were select in each district.  Many of these schools function as community centers where information is exchanged and where networking occurs.   Each person was sent questions through SMS asking about any election-related violence they saw, experienced or heard about indirectly either  preceding or during the presidential election.

Two people who originally elected to be a part of  the conflict surveillance later decided not to participate due to concerns for their personal safety.  Of the remaining sixteen, 44% said that they personally experienced or saw violence due to the election.  Additionally, 50% heard of, on average, two election related acts of violence occurring within their districts.  Between the two questions, election related violence was reported in eight of the nine districts that were included in the surveillance. 

A post-election survey was sent to participants of the surveillance asking them their thoughts on the election.  Most interestingly, 88% indicated that they did not believe the outcomes of the various elections.  But yet 94% reported that they were satisfied with the presidential election. 

 Overall, the results of the pilot surveillance indicated a low level of violence related to the election, which was validated through various media reports coming out of the country.  The use of SMS texting in the surveillance worked well, though not perfectly.  Since most rural areas are without electricity, cell phones were not kept on all the time.  Because of this, there was a lag of several days from when the messages were sent and when they were delivered.  Additionally, we noted that cell phones are utilized in a very selective way due to the cost incurred.  This is especially true in the context of Burundi where 93% of the population lives on under $2 per day.  Knowing this, we incentivized individuals 7.5 USD to participate and cover any costs that were incurred.  Providing such incentives may not be desirable or even possible in all contexts.

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