what works: search for common ground
Today I'm starting what I hope will become an occasional series about community-based initiatives in Africa and elsewhere that are successful in raising the level of development, building civil society, or contributing to something else positive in places that are otherwise fairly miserable. (Although given the whole "it's my first year as an assistant professor" thing, all bets are off as to just how occasional "occasional" will be.) These efforts might or might not be supported by international NGO's, donors, or other organizations, but they need to be community-driven and community-focused (eg, most of the work should be done by locals).
In an effort to be slightly less pessimistic than is the norm around here, the series will be entitled "What Works." If you have suggestions about programs that would be good for this series, send me an email here.
For the first installment of this series, I'd like to talk about Search for Common Ground's work in the eastern DR Congo.* As an international peace building organization that carries out its efforts through local partnerships, SFCG's stated aim is, "to find culturally appropriate means to strengthen societies' capacity to deal with conflicts constructively: to understand the differences and act on the commonalities."
SFCG has a long history in the DRC and they do a lot in the east, including running a brilliant series of programs designed to help locals understand their rights and to find ways to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. They run radio and television programs, engage participants in street theater, and promote voter registration**
One of the things that impresses me the most about SFCG is their commitment to letting local civil society leaders lead. I've been to SFCG's offices in Bukavu and don't recall there being a single expat staff member there. It was clear that the Congolese were in charge, that they were empowered to make decisions and implement programs they believed would work. The local leadership is truly part of the community, and as such, they can formulate responses to difficult issues in a culturally-relevant, sustainable manner.
Take, for example, SFCG's response to the understandably tense relationship between soldiers and the civilians they often terrorize. SFCG has come up with a novel approach to build understanding between the two sides: engage soldiers and civilians together in participatory theater. Can you imagine a crazier idea? And yet, at least according to SFCG's internal surveys, the efforts work. Of the 27% of Goma civilians who have participated in one of the theater troupe's 53 performances, 78% said they had learned to manage daily conflicts in a non-violent manner.
Then there's the remarkable Mobile Cinema initiative, aimed at starting a real conversation about rape among victims, civilians, and the military. If you don't have time to watch this whole clip, scroll ahead to 5:20 or so and watch a group of soldiers confront their role in the rape crisis:
You'll note that the discussion there was led not by a Western expert on women's empowerment, but rather by a Congolese soldier.
It's this kind of grassroots, on-the-ground activity that can really change things for people in the eastern Congo. No, local peace building initiatives won't solve all the country's problems. But while we wait for the political, security, and economic solutions necessary to establish a lasting. comprehensive peace in the region, Search for Common Ground is doing a great job of rebuilding the threads of mutual respect and common decency that hold a society together while implementing culturally-relevant programs that seem to change behavior for the long term. Those efforts will go a long way towards restoring a much-neglected piece of the Congo's peace dilemma puzzle.
Photo: Search for Common Ground
*Full disclosure: a friend's parents founded SFCG, and that friend happened to be the one to rescue me from a very unfortunate detention situation at the Ruzizi border crossing a few years back, so I am totally predisposed to admire their work.
**A key task, given that local elections will theoretically happen sometime soon, maybe, although probably not until 2010. We don't really know. They were supposed to happen in 2006. Then 2008. Like I said. Maybe.
Labels: what works