by John Jordan
Could the same strategies that public health officials used to prevent outbreaks of diseases like the Ebola virus and HIV also contain spread of violence? This is a growing question for practitioners focused on conflict and violence, especially those who specialize in gang violence. The key to this “public health” approach is identifying the traits or behaviors that increase the possibility of becoming a participant in violence (risk factors) or act as a buffer from participating in violence (protective factors). By identifying and addressing these factors, public health practitioners can reduce the possibility of an “outbreak” of violence before conflicts escalate. Utilizing these public health strategies serves as the foundation for an approach that is growing in popularity around the world, including in major cities in the US, UK, and across Latin America.
To investigate this approach, I spent the summer working with the Niger Delta Partnership Initiative (NDPI), a Chevron-funded initiative in Nigeria that seeks to promote sustainable economic development and peace-building in the Niger Delta region of the country. Chevron’s long-term commitment to the development of the Niger Delta offers NDPI a unique role within the development ecosystem. Rather than duplicating the efforts of other development organizations in the region, NDPI is able to focus its efforts on strengthening the development ecosystem itself by fostering partnerships amongst local actors and building the capacity of local initiatives. As part of this approach, NDPI has developed a robust peace-building program to address the myriad of political, communal, economic, and interpersonal conflicts that undercut economic growth in the region.
During my ten weeks with NDPI, I collaborated with the peace-building program’s technical team to see if we could identify similar risk & protective factors in the communities and youths affected by violence from “cults”, the Nigerian version of street gangs. In the field, we crisscrossed the Delta to visit with community leaders, government officials, journalists, peace activists from the local “Partners for Peace” network, and many youths from different backgrounds. While we didn’t conduct a rigorous quantitative analysis like those used by the CDC or WHO to evaluate the impact of risk factors (studies which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement), we were able to capture glimpses of the risk & protective factors influencing young people in the Delta. What we found is that youths participating in these cults have a lot in common with the young people joining gangs in the US and Central America including a “danger window” of unsupervised time after school gets out, and the desire for status & recognition that cults leverage to drive recruitment. Community organization was also highlighted as a significant factor in countering cult violence, with some communities successfully engaging with the cults to curb violence within their territory while in other communities the cults exercised unfettered control over the community and its residents. Using techniques from the public health approach will be particularly relevant to NDPI’s work in the city of Calabar, where the peace-building team has been engaging with city officials to balance the operations of local security forces with the concerns raised by social welfare agencies trying to prevent violence from street children known as “Skolombo Boys”. While the results of my summer spent with the NDPI peace-building program fall short of offering a “cure” for violence, our experience utilizing the public health approach together has equipped the peace-building team with an additional tool for their toolbox as they continue building the capacity of local organizations to promote peace in the Niger Delta.