My experience and the first exposure to peace and violence:
In 2004, the last year of my BA, I decided to study in Colombia for one semester as a member of the University Exchange program. Living and studying in Bogota was a very interesting experience, as travelling and discovering Colombia was enriching and eye opening. No need to say how amazing Colombian people are, with their cultural diversity and their interest in listening to your experiences. I had exposure to some of the difficulties typical of a country characterized by an ongoing conflict and with still considerable pockets of the population living in poverty. After my BA, I was interested in studying poverty from an economic perspective, with the ambition to understand the causes of poverty and to develop economic interventions to alleviate poverty. With this great ambition in mind, I went back to school, where I received my MSc in Public Administration and Economics. After two years of studying, I was looking forward to travelling to wherever the needs were, and so my trip started.
Since 2007, I have been supporting the development of communities suffering from social discrimination and extreme poverty, mainly in Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America. Between 2012 and 2016, I have been working specifically on humanitarian crises. This decision took me to one of the most fascinating and challenging countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C).
The job focused on managing an international NGO, the Association of Volunteers in International Service (AVSI), providing relief to populations escaping war and conflict in the Eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C).
During those four years in D.R.C., I focused on developing new programs and solutions for households escaping war torn areas. Needs assessment showed significant gaps in a variety of sectors: nutrition, access to safe water, hygiene, health, food security, civilian protection etc. The families I met were seeking a safe environment, as a temporary solution toward better living conditions. The places these families thought to be a temporary solution, most of the time turned out to be long-term solutions.
Since the war in 1996, insecurity characterized the country and in particular the eastern region. After twenty years of insecurity, in 2016, D.R.C. was the country with the highest number of new displacements due to insecurity, 922,000, and has a total displacement population of 2,230,000. Most of the time insecurity lasts for several years in these areas. When discussing the wishes of these families, many wished to go to back to their homes, but insecurity stopped them from going back. So, the new homes of these people were: refugee camps, internally displaced camps, and most of the time, displaced families were hosted by local families in host communities. All this was happening in a challenging context, as D.R.C. belongs to a group of countries that constantly score at the bottom of the Human Development Index. This is a typical picture of a complex emergency. Usually, these emergencies are protracted, and governments have little capacity to respond to the crisis because their service delivery is weak and the political environment is facing different challenges.
The Peace Fellowship and its contribution to my education:
When providing relief to displaced populations it is important to understand what drives violence and the broader context. The conflict and political analysis along with risk analysis assure humanitarian assistance increases a person’s security and well-being, while reducing potential harming risks. To increase the chances of this happening, learning about local policy, politics, actors, interests, culture and behaviors can be helpful and was one part of my job.
The Peace Fellowship at the Duke-UNC Peace Center is a unique place to study this. In my Public Health Leadership program at the University of North Carolina, I am studying evaluation techniques that help me to read the context, especially from a health and behavioral perspective. It is interesting for me to learn why people behave violently, what can reduce such behaviors and how to identify the most effective interventions. Peace and conflict courses offered by the fellowship are a great way to learn more about the macro conflict dynamics, the importance of human rights and the impact on everyday life for people.
The Applied Field Experience:
To pursue this field of work, I decided to spend my summer with Creative Associates, a USAID contractor working on Education, Community in Transition, Citizens Security and Preventing & Countering Violent Extremism. The organization works mainly in fragile countries or areas characterized by high levels of violence such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia and so on. I wanted this AFE experience to be an opportunity to understand how governments, such as the U.S.A, design their policies and programs. When working for government contractors, I can analyze the US Agency for International Development and the Department of State policy goals. Usually, these policies describe very complex environments, similar to the one of D.R.C., and set very ambitious goals such as violence reduction, increasing security and democracy, supporting transparent and fair elections and so on. Design programs that address the needs identified by such policies can be fascinating and be challenging at the same time. Having the right lens to understand the problems can be an effective way to start developing evidence based solutions. The Public Health Leadership program is providing me with statistical, research and epidemiological tools that can be highly beneficial to understanding violence and address it from a prevention perspective.
Creative was interested in further developing their Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention and Reduction in fragile contexts. The research I am conducting helps to develop and communicate how an approach that focuses on prevention, people development, support to families and mental health, can effectively reduce violence in areas where violent organizations such as gangs, extremist organizations and armed groups operate.
The work builds on epidemiological tools commonly used in the public health sector to understand what are the characteristics helping a disease to spread and what are the protective factors preventing this from happening. When these tools are used to understand violence, interesting trends emerge. In some cases, violence can be a lifelong cycle where people who experienced violence in their youth are prone to be violent in the future or become targets of violence. The impact of violence on young people can be seen later on during adulthood and the effects of this can hinder people from living a fully accomplished life.
In the case of youth and gangs, violence is a reactionary behavior and appears with a higher frequency when youth spend time in antisocial networks and when parents have little control over their children.
My research looks at how to prevent violence at three levels:
- Identification of those communities suffering from high rates of violence and finding solutions to increase their capacity to respond to violence,
- Identification of youth who are at higher risk compared to their peers, to affiliate with violent organizations, and support the youth and their families to prevent this from happening,
- Provide support to people who previously committed violent acts and who are seeking to reintegrate back into their community.
The research findings are very encouraging; violence prevention works and it is possible to prevent violence from happening or recurring in all the three levels mentioned above. I would like to share with you four key messages: there is a lot to be discovered about violence, gold standards research design found some interventions effective even in the most challenging environment, innovative and effective solutions can generate important earning for the society, and it is important to share this information with the general public and decision makers.
Context matters, having a model is helpful in understanding the problems and building effective interventions. Public Health relies on hard numbers to find where, when and how much violence is happening and helps to identify the risk factors associated with violence.
Rancone 2014, shows how the justice system can play an important role in reducing violence.
In fact, once in the justice system, people who once were unaffiliated with violent organizations are now more likely to become associated with these organizations. This is more likely to happen when youth share the same facilities with adults, or where people who committed minor crimes share facilities with people who committed violent crimes1.
Another important issue concerns mental health. In the UK, the majority of gang members in the prison system have accessed psychiatric and other mental health services before entering the justice system2.
These two studies gather evidence about gaps in the current justice system in which these results can be beneficial for the justice system to improve facilities and legislature, so the system can provide better support to the people inside.
Some interventions proved to be effective even in the most challenging environments.
Providing psychosocial and economic support to former rebels in west Africa successfully reduced antisocial behaviors within a year since the beginning of activities. In this case, psychosocial and economic support are effective solutions; when offered together, the results of these two activities were positive and were protracted. The evidence from this study can be very beneficial to all the countries going through the reintegration process of former combatants. The reintegration policies have a high default rate, these interventions along with strong political support could provide practical solutions to such a problem3.
Another example comes from an intervention offering summer work programs to youth from at risk neighbors in Chicago. Results from studies about this intervention showed a considerable reduction in violent crime among those youth undergoing the program during the first year after the intervention4.
To support the conclusions of such studies it is important to use rigorous research design, and the collaboration between development actors and academic institutions can be a powerful solution toward this goal.
Despite how expensive some reintegration programs may sound, in reality, these are much less expensive compared to the cost of managing the prison system or other less effective reintegration programs.
In Canada, a new reintegration program was designed to help people reintegrate into their communities by supporting them with ad hoc activities based on their personalities and preferences. The program successfully reintegrated 30 of the 33 youth who initially joined the program. By successfully reintegrating 30 youth, the program saved 5 million dollars from the justice system, this is the one year cost of the justice system.5 The evidence shows that despite the higher initial cost, these programs can also generate enormous benefit from an economic perspective.
Considering that the work of academia in this sector is relatively new, and major discoveries have resulted, it is important to continue supporting research in this sector. Some of the new approaches and techniques have delivered impactful results, and this is just the beginning. Supporting the academic community will assure their work continues. Sharing the results produced by this research can help impact policies and support politicians and others in decision-making positions, to make better decisions.
I hope my work at Creative Associates has contributed towards increasing the efficacy of their efforts toward peace, especially in those areas where insecurity has spread and affects the everyday lives of the population.
Beyond my personal work, the AFE was an interesting opportunity to work with people from other sectors, such as security, the justice system, and economics and so on. Their experiences they shared with me were very enriching. I had the pleasure to work with Susan, a teacher who has dedicated thirty years of her life teaching in the Middle East. Now she is managing a project supporting literacy in Afghanistan, with her practical experience, she is able to communicate what being a teacher means. It was also great to work with 16 members of the summer program, to learn from their work and hear their thoughts on how peace can be enhanced from the economic, justice system and education perspectives.
Washington D.C. was a great place to spend my summer. Thanks to Creative Associates, I had the chance to visit: the United States Institute of Peace, the US State Capitol, the US Agency for International Development, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brooking Institute. The meetings with all of these institutes were enriching. I had the chance to learn more about their work and meet with some of their directors. In particular, I had the pleasure to meet Michael T. Harvey, former director of USAID Nigeria, who led the action supporting civilian population fleeing Boko Haram.
Overall, this experience has been a great source of inspiration to continue my work, and I would recommend it to future Peace Fellows and anybody else interested in the sector.
- Roncone ES, Delisi M, Beaver K, Gangl A, Wold J. DYNAMICS OF PRISON GANG AFFILIATION AND VIOLENCE: THE HEARTLESS FELONS AND THE DOWN THE WAY BOYS—A SOCIAL LEARNING STUDY. 2014. http://media.proquest.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/media/pq/classic/doc/3287234911/fmt/ai/rep/NPDF?cit%3Aauth=Roncone%2C+Erik+S.&cit%3Atitle=%3CTitleAtt+RawLang%3D%22English%22+HTMLContent%3D%22true%22%3EDynamics+of+prison+…&cit%3Apub=ProQuest+Dissertations. Accessed July 5, 2017.
- Blattman C, Jamison JC, Sheridan M, et al. Reducing crime and violence : Experimental evidence from cognitive behavioral therapy in Liberia ∗. 2016. doi:10.3386/w21204.
- Davis JM V, Heller SB, Bonhomme S, et al. Rethinking the Benefits of Youth Employment Programs: The Heterogeneous Effects of Summer Jobs. 2017. http://www.nber.org/papers/w23443. Accessed July 10, 2017.
- Beausoleil V, Renner C, Dunn J, et al. The effect and expense of redemption reintegration services versus usual reintegration care for young African Canadians discharged from incarceration. Heal Soc Care Community. 2017;25(2):590-601. doi:10.1111/hsc.12346.