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A community-based approach to increasing the peace in Nairobi’s informal settlements

Violence and conflict have always threatened vulnerable communities, but in a world defined by globalization, urbanization, and other developments fuelling the rapid movement of people across the globe, the capacity for violence today has the potential to destabilize countries and lead to regional and even global crises. Perhaps no region better exemplifies this than the Horn of Africa, where conflict, poverty, and radicalization have all intersected, contributing to increased risk of violent extremism. The nexus for most of these trends are the informal settlements in cities like Nairobi that already bear the greatest burden of societal ills, and are at risk of political and ethnic manipulation.

To be sure, violence is not a new phenomenon in informal settlements. Residents endure high unemployment, cramped living space and isolation from mainstream society. Ethnic and religious differences are exacerbated by lack of access to basic services. Politicians regularly manipulate residents of the settlements, especially youth, to influence the outcome of elections by committing acts of violence. The Kenyan national elections of 2007 pushed tensions over the brink, shattering the country’s peace, killing thousands, displacing hundreds of thousands, and further intensifying ethnic conflict. Even after the initial violence ended, many youth found themselves continuing lives of crime from which there was no escape.

It was in this environment that USAID partnered with Global Communities on Kenya Tuna Uwezo (“We have the power” in Kiswahili), or KTU, to prevent future violence. When it started in 2012, the program focused mainly on inter-ethnic violence between Kenyans, but after seeing its success, the program expanded to help counter violent extremism in informal settlements.

The KTU approach

KTU is different from standard peace-building practices as it integrates conflict mitigation and civic education approaches.   Civic education is key to addressing the rights of groups that have been disenfranchised and ignored, empowering them with constitutional knowledge, human rights knowledge, and information on how to engage with their government to address the grievances that are driving them into conflict and radicalization.   Many are aggrieved because they are ignored by their government and feel excluded, marginalized and frustrated.  For example, the vetting process for ID issuance seems to take longer people of certain communities and/or regions of the country compared to others which makes them feel noncitizens.  But helping them understand their rights and responsibilities and facilitating dialogues/platforms in which aggrieved communities (especially youth) meet in a safe space with government enables communities to work together effectively, and to appreciate their diversity and address Issues that have divided them.

Most CVE approaches address CVE from a security perspective and sees communities as the problem, exacerbating mistrust, suspicious and marginalization.  KTU takes a community-based conflict management approach that affirms that there is a security problem but that those who are part of the problem are also part of the solution and are able to come up with their own approaches to achieve the same goal.   In one dialogue with youth who were perpetrators of violence declared “we are people, we are the problem, we are the solution.”  Moments like these demonstrate that people want to identify with the solution but often are not given the opportunity to.  You need to give people the space, confidence and the ability to lead the effort. They are the experts.

The approach used by KTU is based on the realization that grievances, real or perceived, cause conflicts.  These grievances can be economic, social, tribal, ideological, personal, political, historical etc. The intervention has to be customized to the particular source of the grievance—it is not a “one size fits all” approach – and it must be developed and implemented with the input of the aggrieved community. Staff do not assume that they have all the solutions and are the experts but rather, they are collaborators on the solution.  This approach enables the program to be flexible and bring in approaches and organizations outside of the standard peacebuilding practice.

Striking the balance between root causes and pathways to extremism

The Eastleigh neighbourhood in Nairobi faces many of the same socio-economic challenges that plague other urban settlements.  Home to a significant immigrant and Muslim population of which most are of Somali background, Eastleigh also has had a long history of marginalization and police harassment particularly after terrorist attacks.

This negative profiling and often heavy-handed tactics by security officers, coupled with marginalization particularly among youth and the military actions in Somalia and elsewhere, are seen to have contributed to growing radicalization and extremism in Eastleigh.

Whilst the reasons why specific individuals join extremist groups and engage on actions related to violent extremism differ, experts agree that no single intervention can be effective in addressing violent extremism, and that interventions need to be contextualized and designed to apply to local specificities and need to have a real impact.

Global Communities through KTU addresses this cyclical violence by strengthening social networks of community members and civil society groups to provide safe spaces to discuss grievances aligned to the factors that ‘push and pull’ individuals into violent extremism, ensure acceptance of peace-building initiatives and provide alternatives to violent extremism. Communities lead the charge as they know best their own liabilities, assets and dynamics.   KTU staff understand that while lack of viable livelihoods is an important driver, it is not enough to simply give someone a job. Violence in Kenya’s is often born out of poverty and a lack of opportunity, but it also comes from previous conflicts, resentments, perceived or real discrimination, political manipulation, emulation of peers, and other factors. KTU helps provide people with economic opportunities, but first it seeks to change mind-sets so that the change provided by such an opportunity is sustainable.

At the centre of the program is a focus on youth, since they exhibit high rates of unemployment and criminal activity. KTU gives youth both an outlet to air their grievances and methods to help resolve them. Many youth are often both victims and perpetrators simultaneously, resorting to crime or violence due to social pressure and threats. Mind-sets can only be altered when motivations are first understood.  Especially in communities fraught with ethnic and religious tension, identity becomes a battleground, leading many youth to seek out the acceptance of groups, regardless of whether their activities are legal or not. Similar to the impact of job placement, while economic concerns can drive criminal activity, it can also be a desire to gain leadership, respect, and belonging. These same motivations can be made into a force for positive change and peace-building.

It is by engaging with these members of the community and harnessing their energy for peace-building instead of violence that KTU is able to have an impact. The same motivation to lead as part of a gang has many times been parlayed into leadership roles in peace groups, and the same persuasion skills that can convince a young person to commit crime are used instead to convince a youth to abandon drugs, violence, and other crimes that plague the informal settlements. This path is then cemented by appropriate training, opportunity and compensation.

Participants form subgroups – of Change Agents and Cohesion Champions – who serve as liaisons in their communities, bringing stakeholders together. Then they educate other youth about the dangers of violent extremism, radicalism and other criminal activity. KTU coordinates with community leaders to identify and communicate with viable contacts, including young people, to develop alternatives to violent extremism in the slums. The program gives the youth the chance to realize and display their talents, and to engage in meaningful communication engagement that will lead to training and/or employment. These youth then have legitimacy when they speak to those engaged in crime and help convert them into Change Agents, thereby increasing the program’s sustainability and reach.

Today, Eastleigh and other communities are more peaceful as a result of KTU’s community-based conflict management approach. KTU has been proactive in helping youth who are often harassed by police and common criminals too.

To counter radicalization and reduce conflict in the settlements, KTU offers counselling and courses in entrepreneurship, leadership, and conflict resolution. Its outreach focuses on training youth on the dangers of gang violence and violent extremism and where it inevitably leads – usually prison or death. It has also made great strides in improving relations between youth and law enforcement officials, mainly by getting the two groups together and having them know and collaborate with each other to fight crime in the slums.

Additionally, KTU helps strengthen the role of women. In Eastleigh and some other predominantly Muslim communities, women are not allowed to speak publicly, even in their own settlements. But excluding women from these conversations has been a missed opportunity:  women often head their families and generally spend more time with their children since they are their primary caregivers, and they spend much of their time in the settlement. For these reasons, they are often the holders of key information related to the men and boys in their lives. KTU has worked closely with families in the community to persuade them of the helpful role of women in reducing conflict and making the communities safer, as well as spurring economic opportunities for youth in Eastleigh and other settlements in Nairobi.

By providing a safe platform, dozens of women, are now free to speak openly and honestly about the problems in their community, and offer their ideas to solve them. KTU also holds forums to bring people of different backgrounds together, and give them the chance to air their grievances. The vast networks of support including women and many others has helped advance efforts to engage young people and help them lead productive lives, regardless of their past, and the networks have given women who previously have been silent or ignored a voice to help make peace in the settlements. These networks have helped connect previously marginalized individuals and helped build their confidence and their capacity, thus increasing their involvement in community matters.

Kebale Bonyaya, of Somali origin, joined KTU to help make peace in her community. Before KTU, she was afraid to walk through Mathare (a neighbouring community) because people accused her of being affiliated with Al Shabaab. “You have no idea how painful that is. Now they don’t call me that because they know the good work I’m doing for them too,” she says. “Now I have a platform to be seen by the community as a positive agent for change rather than as a terrorist.” And in the aftermath of the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, many young people from the informal settlements who normally do not engage in efforts outside their community volunteered to give blood to the victims. Kebale attributes this to the important role assigned to Change Agents and Cohesion Champions, the seriousness with which they take those roles, and the influence they have over others who used to commit crimes.

Kebale’s story is not unique. Other participants in KTU have reported that prior to the program they were unemployed, part of criminal gangs, and often approached to become suicide bombers. Providing some guidance for their lives helped these individuals forge a new path that did not rely on violence. Some participants have organized a variety of awareness raising events, promoting cross-cultural communication and emphasizing the humanity of Somalis living in Kenya. Perhaps most importantly, the strengthened social networks are able to intervene in crises and help prevent tragedies before they occur.  In one case, Change Agents were able to intercede in the wake of attacks on houses of worship, stopping the cycle of violence before it could begin.

KTU’s success shows the power of CVE programs to have a positive impact. However, these transformations would not be possible if Global Communities attempted its work without the benefit of key relationships in the community. By working with local partner organizations, civil society groups, and experienced Kenyan peace-builders, KTU has formed and sustained solid relationships – in the informal settlements, in the government sector, with law enforcement and other important areas of influence – that help foster the communication and collaboration required to curb violent extremism. It is through this multi-stakeholder, partnership approach that the community-driven peace-building efforts are supported by a network of organizations and relationships. It is this approach, strengthening communities that helps alleviate the underlying drivers of violence, ultimately leading to cohesion and peace.

Lessons learned

Among the lessons learned from KTU is that understanding of CVE is still low; therefore, much work must be done to convey accurate information in a way that moves communities to positive, collective action. KTU is an effective way to address violent extremism through a community-based, peace-building framework that focuses on human rights, economic needs, and religious and political factors. Effective interventions show the best promise when informed by evidence-based research and accompanied by a strong advocacy component.

Selline Korir is the Director of Kenya Tuna Uwezo. She may be reached at skorir@globalcommunities.org.

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