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26 January 2010

For Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s octogenarian president and a committed pan-Africanist, simply offering aid to Haiti’s earthquake victims was not enough. Any Haitian that wanted to “return to their roots”, he said, would be “repatriated” to Senegal for free and given a plot of land.

Wade’s pledge is more of a publicity stunt than a plan, but other African leaders have made more realistic promises. So far a dozen governments across the continent have pledged aid to Haiti, from cash-strapped Liberia, which has offered a gift of $50,000 to the newly oil-rich Ghana, which has pledged $3m.

The generosity of governments has been matched by its citizens. The Africa for Haiti campaign, launched by Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, in Johannesburg on Friday, will seek to raise money from ordinary Africans over the next six months. Churches, civil society groups and businesses have already pledged support for the initiative that is also backed by some of the continent’s leading media figures such as Mail and Guardian owner, Trevor Ncube. “We need to show the world that yes, we might not be as rich as some of us, but we do have the heart,” says Ncube.

While the pledges of aid have showcased Africa’s heart it is a group of computer programmers and technological innovators who have played a far more important role thanks to a website called Ushahidi.

Established in Kenya following the post-election violence, Ushahidi, which means “witness” in Swahili, tracks incidents during a crisis. In Haiti, Ushahidi has set up a four-digit SMS number (4636) that people can use to call for help. The information is collated on an interactive map ( and is also sent out to the relevant aid agency working in Haiti. “We’re basically the emergency 911 system for Haiti,” says Erik Hersman, one of Ushahidi’s Nairobi-based founders.

“If a bunch of kids are trapped in rubble and send an SMS that comes through to our system, gets translated within a minute and then sent out to our partners on the ground,” said Hersman. Those partners include the Red Cross, the US Coast Guard and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

Since Ushahidi’s original incarnation in Kenya two years ago the platform has been developed further and used to map crises from Congo to Gaza. Humanity United, the human rights organisation established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, provided a grant of $200,000 and the platform has now been used to track everything from medical supplies in Zambia to swine flu.

A project like Ushahidi could not have been set up in the same way in Europe or the US, Hersman says. The website needs to work in places with poor internet connection and occasional power outages. “If it works in Africa it will work everywhere,” he says.

Ushahidi is the sort of project that helps to chip away at the stubborn stereotypes that still swirl around western coverage of Africa. The image of Africa as a place of disasters is still hard to shake, though. For the first few days after the earthquake struck the Washington Post’s website filed its Haiti stories on the Africa page.


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