Rethinking Approaches to Chronic Crises in Africa: American and African Perspectives

March 5th 2020
SAIS John Hopkins School for Advanced International Affairs

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in association with Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum (CPRF), held a conference on “Rethinking Approaches to Chronic Crises in Africa: American and African Perspectives,” at the John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies’ Kenney Auditorium, on March 5, 2020. The conference was organized around two panels featuring leading African scholars and American policy makers, implementers, and development actors.

The conference featured opening remarks by Cyril Obi, Program Director of the African Peacebuilding Network and the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa programs at the Social Science Research Council and Shamil Idriss, CEO of Search for Common Ground.

The first panel discussion on “Understanding the Chronic Crises” was chaired by Mike Jobbins, Associate Vice President, Global Affairs and Partnerships at Search for Common Ground. It featured three presenters — Pamela Chepngetich (Kisii University, Kenya), Christelle Amina Djoulde (University of Ngoundere, Cameroon), and Titilope Folarin Ajayi (University of Ghana, Legon), SSRC’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) program’s grant alumni researching chronic crises in three African countries. 

The first presentation by Pamela Chepngetich on “Conflict and Crises in borderlands of Kenya and Somalia,” focused on refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Dabaab Refugee Camp, at one time the largest of its kind in the world. The presentation also examined persisting policy gaps, self-settlement of some Somali refugees around the camp, tensions around legal residency and citizenship (of non-Kenyan and Kenyan Somali’s), conflicts between refugees and Kenyan host-communities, exclusion of women from decision-making, and arguments for the closure of the Camp.

In her presentation on “Understanding conflict and crisis in Cameroon and the Central African Republic (CAR) Borderlands,” focused on the role of local “women of peace” in indigenous Mbaya communities in East Central Cameroon and Western CAR. She analyzed the efficacy of indigenous peacebuilding in Cameroon and CAR, particularly in preventing conflict between CAR refugees and Cameroonian host communities and spoke to her work advocating for the integration of cultural peacebuilding into official peacebuilding policies in Cameroon.

The third presentation by Titilope Ajayi, on “Conflict and Crisis in the Lake Chad Basin,” focused on how women in IDP camps were being affected by the Boko Haram conflict in North East Nigeria and the neighboring regions. She spoke to the trauma suffered by women in IDP camps, including poverty, lack of access to food, transactional sex and sexual abuse, and the lack of access to referral centers for victims of sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram fighters and the military. The presentation also analyzed issues related to the culture of silence, high levels of violence, inconsistencies and problems of coordination among development and humanitarian agencies. Other challenges identified by the presenter included inadequate funding, lack of economic opportunities for women, capacity deficits, corruption, the diversion of humanitarian aid, poor governance and lack of political will. She also advocated for: a review of peace and security responses, non-military approaches to peace and security, leveraging the influence of mothers in programs for deradicalizing young men and women, paying greater attention to the radicalization of women, particularly those being stigmatized for having children born out of rape by Boko Haram fighters. 

The discussions that followed involved the exchange of views on opportunities for leveraging the role of the military as a positive and developmental force, increasing the meaningful participation of women in peacebuilding, strengthening the role of the local media in promoting reconciliation and peace, and the importance of linking locally-led to national and internationally-supported solutions. Other issues discussed included the need to address the exclusion of women from governance, identifying opportunities to help build local resilience, the role of local women in building peace in other parts of Cameroon, and the implications of the disconnect between the international and local communities in Africa. Of note, was the recognition of the importance of knowledge to more effective policy and humanitarian responses, and the need to better address and bridge the gaps between research, policy and action.

The second panel discussion on “Supporting African-Led Solutions,” was chaired by Elizabeth (Liz) Hume, with David Young, Vanita Datta, and Louis Le Masne as panelists.   

The presentations that followed focused on the evolving global conflict, peace and security landscape, and identified growing challenges in the form of spiraling violence, conflicts and increasing numbers of internally displaced persons in Africa.  They reviewed ongoing efforts in the US to put together a new framework for addressing global fragility. Of note was the discussion of the US government’s framework for achieving greater effectiveness, alignment and coherence in addressing global fragility.  The dimensions of global fragility and the principles underpinning integrated military and civilian stabilization operations were explored. Other issues covered by the presentations included the coordinating role of the State Department, working with partners and local NGOs to build resilience and prevent conflict relapse, and determining key aspects of burden sharing with fragile states. Some of the problems facing such coordination efforts were identified as including, the changing nature of conflict, addressing complex transborder threats and instability through bilateral responses, operating in highly fluid political areas which adversely affect timelines, expectations and the ability to monitor and measure results.

Also, of note, were discussions about the forms of support that could contribute towards promoting broad based economic growth in Africa and end dependence on foreign assistance. The importance of learning from past mistakes, identifying potential opportunities for support and ensuring that no one is left behind in addressing chronic crises were identified as critical to helping build stability in Africa. The presentations also pointed to the importance of partnering with the private sector, learning from contextual knowledge, and the importance of working with partners at the local, national and sub-regional levels. In relation to addressing fragility, they emphasized the need to pro-actively tailor objectives to address problems and explore ways of expanding opportunities to address chronic crises in Africa.  Also, the work of the USAID in relation to Prosper Africa Act, and the Global Shea Alliance was seen as examples of initiatives that had successfully contributed to economic growth in some West African countries. Also, issues around migration, media programming, and public accountability were discussed in relation to expanding opportunities for collaboration aimed at promoting development, stability and peace in Africa.  

 The presentations also focused on partnerships with grassroots organizations in West Africa in the areas of providing support for local communities, training traditional leaders and grassroots organizations, and facilitating consultations at the local level, as well as reconciliation and reintegration programs. The role of international partners working with African institutions in giving local people a voice in development programs was seen as a vital contribution towards fostering locally grounded solutions to chronic crises in the continent.

Lastly, the discussions also focused on the ways the US government and development actors could effectively address chronic crises in Africa, including strategies for an African approach that could contribute towards reducing foreign assistance. They also explored various approaches for engaging the private sector and working with willing international and local partners in ensuring effective coordination of programs and interventions in conflict-affected regions of Africa. In all, the conference provided an excellent platform for scholars, development actors and implementers to have frank exchanges on addressing chronic crises in Africa.