Last week, in partnership with the Alliance for Peace Building and the GHR Foundation, the Supporting Leaders team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change was proud to host an Insights Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. The Forum convened policymakers and practitioners to discuss how to leverage the influence of religious actors in tackling violent extremism across sub-Saharan Africa.
For the past five years, the Supporting Leaders programme has worked with community and religious leaders to help counter extremism in local communities with a focus on Nigeria and Kenya. Our work is informed by our Global Extremism Monitor (GEM). The latest version of the GEM – Violent Islamist Extremism in 2018 – will show that both countries are suffering from Islamist insurgencies. In Nigeria, factions of Boko Haram have killed over 5,544 people between 2017 and 2018, while al-Shabaab continued offensives in Kenya’s north-eastern regions bordering Somalia, in areas largely inhabiting ethnic Somali and Muslim populations. Through our Supporting Leaders programme we have heard first-hand how communities and families are ripped apart by extremism and violence, as well as countless moving stories of change and hope. We have seen the power that religious leaders have to effect positive change at the grassroots level.
It has also become clear, however, that policymakers lack the evidence to understand how governments, civil society and faith-based actors can work effectively together to counter the ideological basis of extremist narratives and build communities’ resilience and cohesion to prevent violent extremism. To start to address this gap, we organised an event to bring together practitioners, funders, policymakers and beneficiaries with the aim of sharing and leveraging our collective experience. As an old and much used African proverb has it ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.
The Insights Forum’s guiding question was, “how can we better evidence the impact of working with religious actors to build peaceful and stable societies to practitioners and policymakers?” To answer this question, delegates were invited to share their practical experience relating to five key themes: religion and extremism; intra- and inter-religious action; community engagement; gender; and youth. With the aim of surfacing more evidence of the impact of working with religious leaders, delegates were also invited to consider common challenges and solutions for conducting effective monitoring, evaluation and learning to generate more data on what works.
Through our Supporting Leaders programme we have seen the power that religious leaders have to effect positive change at the grassroots level.
The event convened 173 experts from over 100 national and international organisations from 31 countries of which over 75% were in the Global South. Partners and participants from our Supporting Leaders programme in Kenya and Nigeria played an active role in the event, sharing their valuable insights from their work in delivering grassroots PVE programming in their local communities.
Over two days, six lively panel discussions and twelve breakout sessions gave speakers and attendees an opportunity to share their work and discuss the successes and challenges they face. Delegates reflected that the forum provided a unique space for local and international actors to learn from each other and to build new relationships.
We were particularly pleased to welcome Ambassador Pekka Metso (Ambassador at Large for Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Processes, Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Helsinki) as the keynote speaker. He emphasised the importance of gender and youth inclusion to ensure successful programming to prevent extremism – a theme championed by other participants throughout the event.
The forum concluded with a final panel session which drew on the wealth of knowledge in the room to consider recommendations for donors, practitioners and policymakers. The Institute will publish a paper in 2020 which shares these insights and policy recommendations but the emerging trends are that:
- Religious and traditional leaders play an important role in preventing and countering violent extremism. As key stakeholders, they need to be consulted and engaged openly when designing and implementing national and local programmes.
- In designing national strategies to prevent and counter violent extremism, governments should listen to and be informed by the local community’s priorities and solutions.
- To ensure programmes are effective and safe for participants, international organisations and donors need to be comfortable with remaining in the background. Association with government and western organisations can be harmful to those working on the ground.
- National and sub-national strategies must recognise the importance of both intra-religious and inter-religious work in building resilience to extremist narratives. Building trust within religious groups is critical pre-work before bringing groups together for inter-religious action.
- Ultimately, work to prevent and counter extremism will only be successful if it includes all members of the community, including women, youth and religious leaders. As an old African proverb has it ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.
For the sake of the victims of violent extremism, we look forward to continuing to contribute towards this important policy debate, and we acknowledge those community religious leaders who are willing to put their heads above the parapet and speak out against the ideological basis of extremist narratives.
The Supporting Leaders team would like to thank the Alliance for Peacebuilding for partnering with us and GHR Foundation for their kind support in making this important event happen, as well as all the delegates who provided such rich insights - Chris Rider, Anne Brady, Laura Fildes, Anum Farhan.