This year’s escalation of violent turmoil in Africa’s Sahel—widened jihadist attacks, military coups or attempts in four nations, and continued high civilian casualties—underscores that years of work to reinforce military and police forces have failed to reduce instability. To undercut extremism and violence, countries must improve governance, and recent analyses underscore the particular need to build people’s confidence that their governments can provide justice and fair resolutions of popular grievances. Such change is an immensely complex task—and one town in Burkina Faso has shaped a plan for local reforms with a process to manage that complexity.

Burkina Faso police protect a provincial governor’s office following protests in 2020. Burkina Faso faces extremist violence and has seen citizens’ protests over problems of governance, as in the town of Manga. (Finnbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)
Burkina Faso police protect a provincial governor’s office following protests in 2020. Burkina Faso faces extremist violence and has seen citizens’ protests over problems of governance, as in the town of Manga. (Finnbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)

The town of Manga symbolizes a root cause of Burkina Faso’s turmoil—a lack of trust by citizens in state institutions, notably the formal justice system. The country’s justice minister once joked that “the average citizen crosses the street when [he] happen[s] to walk by a courthouse.” A 2019 public attitude survey by Afrobarometer—a non-partisan, pan-African research institution—reported 47 percent of Burkinabe expressing little or no trust in the judiciary.

That mistrust erupted in Manga four years ago, when residents stormed the courthouse—smashing windows and threatening the court’s staff—to demand the release of a man they said had been unjustly imprisoned by local officials after he allegedly insulted one of them. Manga’s people felt that such abuses of power showed that the judicial system was neither impartial nor independent, explained Jean-Pierre Rouamba, a USIP staffer working on the problem. “They believe that [the state’s] justice is an instrument of repression in the hands of the strongest.”

Improving Justice: Why Reforms Often Fall Short

Such upheavals, which have occurred in several towns, highlighted the need to improve Burkinabes’ trust in the judiciary. Yet international efforts to help countries reform judicial systems often fall short in their goal of strengthening the social contracts between citizens and governments. Aid programs in the Sahel fail to improve governance partly because they overestimate what can be achieved by a limited intervention such as technical training for civil servants, scholars and recent analyses say.

International aid programs offer technically valid solutions to governance problems in fragile states. Yet they often fail because they are designed on the basis of snapshot analyses that can miss vital parts of the problem—often by neglecting to consult local participants fully. And decades of assistance projects have demonstrated that bringing change is an unpredictable process in which disparate factors interact to cause conflicts and other unintended outcomes.

Systems thinking views a problem of violent upheaval like an iceberg.
Systems thinking views a problem of violent upheaval like an iceberg.

We can better understand and address complex, shifting problems—such as fragile governance or violent conflict in a community—through the relatively young science of systems thinking. This approach helps us see the different ways to repair simple systems (such as a bicycle), complicated systems (say, an airliner) and complex systems such as human behavior. Even highly complicated systems such as airliners respond predictably to repairs that can be mapped, step by step, in technical manuals. Foreign aid programs are often designed this way, with interventions shaped as linear, mechanical processes: identify a problem, choose an action and expect the problem to be solved.

But with complex systems such as human communities, we can predict only parts of their response to our interventions, because these systems are governed by behaviors that (a) we cannot fully see and (b) change unpredictably as we begin our reform efforts. By definition, a complex problem is one whose solution is unknowable at the outset.

Systems Thinking and Manga’s ‘Big Picture’

So when USIP began helping Manga residents respond to their crisis, it offered systems thinking as a way to improve all sides’ understanding of the full picture of the town’s problems and the root causes of citizens’ frustrations. The Institute helped train facilitators and staff of a Burkinabe nongovernment organization—the Center for Human Rights Information and Training in Africa (or CIFDHA, its French-language acronym)—in systems thinking approaches. Then the organizations began a community-wide discussion, unprecedented in Manga, to promote a systemic diagnosis of the town’s problem.

This discussion process sought to effectively bring Manga’s entire system into the room. The project first held discussions separately with disparate groups: judicial staff; security services; local government officials; and community representatives, including tribal elders, religious leaders and others who have long overseen traditional mechanisms for justice. The project then gathered those groups together to assess relationships among them, including their levels of trust. The project aimed to understand these different actors’ relative influence and determine how to responsibly convene the necessary people and constituencies in a pilot effort at establishing reforms.             

The group in Manga used a technique from systems thinking that imagines how a problem resembles an iceberg, displaying only a small part of itself visibly. Just as an iceberg’s great mass floats unseen below an ocean’s waters, Manga’s 2017 violence is a small, visible part of the town’s bigger, complex system. Project participants in Manga worked for months to diagnose their problem, finding complexities that included these:

  • Many Manga residents simply do not understand the judicial system. They are confused about the roles of various judicial personnel, and even about how to access the system or what many laws are. The system, designed under French colonial rule, remains culturally foreign—not least because it uses French, a language spoken by only 10 to 15 percent of Burkina Faso’s citizens. Most people in Manga speak Mooré.
  • The formal judiciary is too poorly financed to meet the country’s needs. (Per capita, Burkina Faso’s judiciary had 43 times less to spend in 2019 than France.) Also, as many in Manga attested, it is corrupt, subject to payoffs by the wealthy or pressure by people with influence who obtain judgments in their favor.
  • People fear the judiciary, finding it unpredictable, inaccessible, and expensive. To use it, they must rely on lawyers and often must travel long distances to a court. Most people are unaware of a government legal aid fund meant to help them.

Public confusion about the formal judicial system is so great that many people avoid it and seek justice via traditional methods of mediation or arbitration from community elders, traditional leaders such as village chiefs, armed “self-defense” groups (i.e., the Koglweogo or Dozo), or religious figures. As throughout the Sahel, such customary justice systems operate in local languages, render relatively quick decisions and are well understood by the population.

A ‘More Nuanced’ Local Plan

Manga’s participants used another systems thinking tool, sketching a complex diagram of their problem to help envision how its many parts affect each other. By mapping out those links the group better understood root causes and “was able to identify solutions more likely to solve these problems,” said Inoussa Kafando, who manages the Manga project for CIFDHA. For example, at the project’s start, participants’ main complaint was frustration over the length of judicial proceedings. A hastily designed “solution” might have been simply to seek funding to hire more court staff. Only after mapping the full problem was the group able to pinpoint underlying cultural disconnects and citizens’ lack of knowledge that were part of the wider problem. This mapping process also let the group select the “high-leverage” points where specific changes could improve the performance of the whole system. This led, Kafando said, to a more “nuanced and effective action plan” for 11 distinct initiatives that will overhaul the relationship between the state justice system and Manga’s citizenry.

Manga participants meet in May 2021 to finalize their community’s plan for judicial and other reforms. (Sandrine Nama)
Manga participants meet in May 2021 to finalize their community’s plan for judicial and other reforms. (Sandrine Nama)

While many of the 11 changes are reforms to Manga’s judiciary, the initiatives also will reach deep into the community. A civic education project will explain the justice system to residents. Another effort will help ordinary citizens to report and halt official corruption. Already, a vital achievement is the working group guiding the overall plan, a body unprecedented in its gathering of disparate local constituencies that had not previously communicated. This group will ensure another step that is perhaps unprecedented in Burkina Faso—a broad, community-wide role in evaluating and adjusting the implementation of the reforms as they proceed. In August, Manga’s participants in the project presented the plan to national authorities, who declared their interest in supporting the plan’s implementation.

The Manga project is providing lessons for the use of systems approaches in peacebuilding. One such lesson is that these approaches heighten the need for multidisciplinary teams—including systems thinking experts, peacebuilders, and community members. This must include thoughtful communication and an examination of practices to ensure that they empower local participants to apply their experience and expertise. Second, implementing adaptive programs can increase needs for funding, time, and flexible monitoring and evaluation plans. Finally, multi-stakeholder analyses and systems mapping processes, done with careful attention to intergroup dynamics, can produce significant early dividends. They can increase collective understanding and improve relations to further advance longer-term goals.

Jasmine Dehghan is a recent USIP program officer. Sandrine Nama is a USIP country officer in Burkina Faso. Dave Zelinka, a U.S.-based systems thinking expert who worked with USIP on the project in Manga, contributed to this article.

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