My Partner’s Keeper: Understanding the Risks of Local Programming

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A religious leader condemns acts of violence committed by members of the body faithful.

He produces a blog routinely calling out extremists. Selected for an international visitors’ exchange program, he travels abroad, affirming his opposition to violent extremism.

He returns home, a frequent speaker at donor-sponsored events and guest on the diplomatic social circuit. His accessibility to donors, who are mostly Western, makes him a popular go-to guy for implementing partners in need of a credible religious leader who knows the lay of the land. And he is always happy to oblige. Donors find him credible.

Yet, when his name is mentioned in certain national circles, eyes roll. When you gently probe, you learn he’s “overexposed.” Which makes you wonder how credible he is within his religious community even if you apply a discount factor for any and all of the possible petty dislikes, differences in ethnicity, class, social status, ability to travel abroad, etc. Often, the fact that a religious leader makes himself available renders our search easy.

Rarely do we take the time to really sound out with the very community we seek as a partner how the leader is more widely perceived. Credibility to a donor doesn’t always translate on the home front, especially if the leader is speaking out on issues that his identity community would rather not air so publicly.

A high-profile religious leader likely has an entourage that affords protection or sufficient security support in place. But what about community leaders or staff/members from non-governmental organizations who don’t have entourages or protection details? Asking them to partner on countering violent extremism efforts can create a serious risk for them. They live in the community; their families and friends live in the community, and families and friends can sit astride the divide between more extreme and moderate viewpoints. And, that divide ebbs and flows making the risks greater or less depending on the tide. What can we do to mitigate risks in this context?

First, spend time talking with potential partners about their concerns; ensure that they and you understand the real risks of CVE work in the local context as well as what concrete steps can be taken to mitigate risks. Are we upfront that we may ask partners to take on activities around sensitive issues such as government human rights abuses which give purchase to extremists? Not only would a partner have exposure to possible government displeasure, but they could also face potential danger from extremists who would not want corrective action to weaken their traction – or face competition from a group engaging constructively on this issue.

Second, as far as possible, take those practical steps to mitigate risk, being honest about what is beyond the range of the doable. You can obtain a branding waiver to omit the USG logo on a banner placed inside the venue for a traditional leader dialogue. While you are not likely able to provide funds for security guard service for a partner office, you may be able to fund security cameras and staff training. And, you could work with partners to integrate rigorous conflict sensitive approaches including regular joint conflict scans, environmental monitoring and transparent information sharing so that they and you can identify when that tide shifts and adjust accordingly. Helping partners to develop a security plan that incorporates these elements will better mitigate risk.

Third, spend time learning the comfort zone of local partners. You will pick up the cues about where they dare not tread. And then, don’t go there, as the timing is likely not auspicious.

Fourth, look for indirect methods of tackling issues. Participatory theatre, for example, can provide a safe space for discussing sensitive issues. Be careful though during religious holidays, as these may be times when activities like theatre can be perceived as frivolity even if there is a larger, substantive message.

Fifth, go for broke in being the fall guy. Publicly, be willing to accept blame when it provides cover for your partner(s). Be willing to take the tongue lashing from local authorities; apologize appropriately.

Sixth, as far as possible, keep the optic of the program framed in language that is acceptable in the country. If “radicalization” or “violent extremism” don’t jive with the national perspectives, find other ways to frame the work.

Finally, as far as possible and appropriate, keep the face of the program local. Just because funding comes from the US government or other western country, you are playing catch-up on credibility.

Blog posts on the MSI website represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of MSI.


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