The attempted coup in the tiny African country of Burundi, after weeks of unrest that has killed more than 20 people, provided immediate examples of quandaries for peacebuilding during a discussion at USIP this week: how U.S. diplomacy can emphasize prevention to counter threats, and how best to support young people to deter dangerous forms of extremism.

National Liberation Front rebels in the village of Ruyaga, Burundi in June 2008. After 15 years of off-again-on-again civil war, the last of Burundi's rebel groups has finally come to the negotiating table. A cease-fire signed in late May is still holding, and for the first time all the decision makers -- including top rebel leaders who until recently had been demonized as terrorists and commanded troops from exile -- are in the same place, here in the capital, Bujumbura.
Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Vanessa Vick

“Engage with that bully across the room, and find common ground and a way to move forward.”

At a daylong annual joint conference of USIP and the Alliance for Peacebuilding, Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall invoked the unfolding events in Burundi in outlining the State Department's efforts to prepare more effectively for instability and violence in fragile countries. Melanie Greenberg, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, noted that 1.5 billion people in the world live in "fragile states, where a lack of effective government structures and restricted space for civil society contribute to cycles of violence."

Burundi, a country of 10.4 million people that lies east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and south of Rwanda, has been in turmoil since last month over President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term in what opponents say is a violation of the constitution. This week, Major General Godefroid Niyombare declared a coup while Nkurunziza was out of the country, though the presidency said the attempt had failed. Even before the New York Times reported gunfire and explosions today in the capital Bujumbura, hundreds of people had been protesting and 50,000 reportedly have fled to neighboring countries, including Rwanda.

The U.S. government's high-level, interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, established by President Barack Obama in 2012, became alert to potential problems in Burundi two years ago based on intelligence reports, Sewall said. The board and agencies involved identified gaps in the U.S.'s understanding of the situation and in programs to address issues there. They then allocated $7 million to improve coordination among departments, deploy civilian conflict experts to augment the U.S. embassy staff on the ground.

The result is "not that we were able to prevent atrocities forever, but that we positioned the U.S. government, our ambassador in Burundi and the concerned international community in a much better place to respond to what are now the risks of mass atrocities and violence," said Sewall, who is undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights. "It laid the groundwork for a much deeper understanding and faster understanding within the [U.S.] government of what is going on now as we prepare to potentially respond to these increasingly worrying signs in Burundi today."

The State Department also has a prevention analysis unit now, within Sewall's division, and is devising training and reference materials such as case studies to bolster the capability to anticipate and prepare for threats over the horizon.

"We have to provide both the tools for people to make the prevention case," said Sewall, who previously taught at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and directed its Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. "And we have to provide the reinforcement psychologically for people to feel that it is important and indeed expected that they will raise the prevention case."

Prevention for Cost-Effectiveness

The same State Department unit, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization, also is examining how investments in rule of law, gender equality and political participation can contribute to preventing violence. With resources desperately short, it's all the more important to focus more and more on prevention for its cost-effectiveness, she said.

"We all know that prevention is the wisest investment of resources, and yet it's often very difficult to actually work our systems and our choices to prioritize prevention efforts," Sewall said. "Preventing threats is just not an automatic reflex for government."

It also typically isn't reflected in budget processes. "We respond to ongoing crisis. That is what catapults a complex checks-and-balances system to actually move," Sewall said. "And prevention is something that, because it works over the longer term, and because it often works in avoiding the foul -- in the non-barking dog -- it's harder to show the concrete results that so many are focused on, whether they're in the donor community or whether they sit in Congress."

One issue often raised as a barrier to conflict resolution is prohibitions against engaging with individuals or groups blacklisted for terrorism or other charges. Sewall acknowledged the difficulties, and USIP President Nancy Lindborg said the question arises again and again. The institute puts a particular premium on getting individuals and groups together who might not otherwise talk about the disputes that divide them, she said.

"We need to find more nuanced ways, more carve-outs, more ways of making that help without also being a hindrance," Lindborg said. More generally, she advised the audience to "engage with that bully across the room, and find common ground and a way to move forward," and added that, "If you move to violence, you probably aren't going to solve whatever the problem was."

One element of improving the U.S. government's attention to prevention is to continue to work more at the grass-roots, community level in addition to the standard diplomatic interaction with other governments, Sewall said.

"The role of non-governmental actors will only continue to grow," she said.

Yet, Greenberg cautioned that some experts in peacebuilding worry about an over-emphasis on enlisting community-level partners at the risk of "letting government off the hook," as in cases of rampant corruption that often leads to unrest, as it did in the Arab Spring.

Norms for Governance

Lindborg said it's important to work on establishing clearer norms of behavior and expectations for good governance.

"Much of the violence that we're seeing is fueled by … the grievances that stem from corruption, from inequality, from basically fragility at the state level," Lindborg said.

Sewall also urged that the peacebuilding field not shun the anti-terrorism agenda, saying that, while military and other security measures are needed, the root causes of extremist violence demand a balanced approach that should include peacebuilding to strengthen communities.

Mercy Corps has studied the root causes of violence among youth, drawing on interviews conducted in Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia. Ann Vaughan, director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps, said that, similarly to other age groups, the origins most often relate not to poverty but to a sense of injustice, discrimination, corruption and disenfranchisement.

"Rarely is the decision to take up arms an economic one," Vaughan said. She cited a former Taliban fighter who was interviewed for the study who said, "'I did not join the Taliban because I was poor. I joined because I was angry.'"

A 2013 USIP study in Nigeria entitled "Why Do Youth Join Boko Haram" found that factors making young people susceptible to radicalization by that militant group include poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and weak family structures.

The role that the globally burgeoning youth population can play in preventing and countering that violence, including the kind committed out of religious or ideological extremism, was the topic of a separate session at the USIP-Alliance conference.

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Victor Ochen from Uganda said young people too often are used by their own governments to support particular candidates, or "angry, poor young men" are enlisted to fight for them. Yet the views of youth are often dismissed, and they are almost never brought to the table for crucial policy discussions of social, economic and other concerns.

Citing the case of Burundi, Ochen noted the risks when young people challenge a government abusing its power.

"You see what's going on in Burundi right now, when young people step up to tell their president, 'Enough! We want to stick to our constitution. It's our document of freedom,'" said Ochen, executive director of the 10-year-old African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET) in Uganda. "We need to step up … The best investment, the best insurance for peace and stability is to invest in young people," he told the audience.

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that conducts service, development and peace programs worldwide, announced in February that it had nominated AYINET and Ochen for the Peace Prize. AFSC called Ochen "a steadfast advocate of nonviolence." Aged 33 when he was nominated, Ochen grew up in a camp for people forced from their homes because of the war between Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army. He also lost his brother to the conflict and said he often lived on one meal a day.

"In a situation where someone is made to live this kind of life, it's very difficult to see the best in that person," he said.

But just as some youth may become expert assassins at 16, "there are also expert peacebuilders at age 16," said one member of the audience, World Vision Director of Peacebuilding Matthew Scott.

Yet youth too often are shut out of policy discussions that directly relate to them. Scott said "their consistent complaint is that they are not taken seriously." He cited the examples of a United Nations Security Council discussion of young people and the promotion of peace that included no youth voices. When World Vision suggested a 17-year-old woman who had been involved in Colombia's reparations process for a World Bank forum on fragility, the response was "'No minors, thank you very much,'" Scott said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) two years ago adopted a policy of considering youth a cross-cutting issue for all of the agency's work, according to Stacia George, the deputy director of the agency's Office of Transition Initiatives.

Like Sewall earlier in the day, Ochen urged participants to be attuned to the root causes of youth violence.

"It's OK to condemn al-Shabab recruitment of young people to terrorism," he said. "But it's a lot better to address the issues that compel young people to agree to be recruited."

Manal Omar, USIP's acting vice president for Middle East and Africa programs, reiterated the need for more preventative efforts.

"It's important that we all take the challenge, which is: Let's address the root causes," she said. "Get head of the conflict curve, so that we're not too late."

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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