The Case for Rehabilitation: Peaceful Responses for Interrupting Violent Patterns in El Salvador

By: Jacqueline Shrader

When I first started sharing with my colleagues and community that I would be living in El Salvador working with ex-gang members, their first question was “Will you be safe?” This question was admittedly ironic, since my placement was with Creative Associate International’s Crime and Violence Prevention Project (CVPP). While the question was rooted in concern for my well-being, it reflects the ways in which the discourse around El Salvador is dominated by violence, gangs, and poverty. 

At the Keough School of  Global Affairs, many of our classes demand interrogation of themes like this. In contexts of violence such as those in El Salvador, there has been a tendency to rely on repressive tactics that risk exacerbating the problem. There are an estimated 60,000-70,000 active gang members in El Salvador. If each of those gang members is part of a family who could be affected by repression, then there is tremendous risk for creating more division in the larger society rather than addressing the original conflict. 

The CVPP is one of the first large projects to work on tertiary prevention, which is direct intervention with people looking to leave gangs. Focusing on rehabilitation of people trying to leave the gangs—already very challenging—creates opportunities to lower the number of gang members, decrease violence, and address original factors that lead to people joining gangs. Out of most of the ex-gang members I have spoken with, many reference wanting to feel like their identity is respected and that their well-being sustained. Due to contexts of unresolved conflict, scarce resources, classism and other issues that maintain violence, people who join the gangs seek alternative groups that respect their human dignity.

Ciudad Delgado - El Salvador
CVPP has focused on public space rehabilitation. This was a community painted mural that seeks to brighten the neighborhood and reinforce community building.

For example, there are two dominant gangs in El Salvador, both of which originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. During these years, a surge of Central American immigrants fleeing civil war and conflict landed in LA seeking refuge. LA did not have the infrastructure to support the sudden influx of  people, which resulted in high unemployment and dense urban living situations. Existing gang violence and insufficient municipal infrastructure created an impossible reality, which led to the creation of new gangs for safety and community reasons. With high homicide rates and violence in LA, the US responded with heavy-handed incarceration and deportation policies. This response sent young men back to their birth countries, though many  did not even speak Spanish. The policy implementation could not have foreseen the violence that the US would export back to Central America, which in 20 years would create a new iteration of the immigration crisis. 

For the last 10  years or so, the popular rhetoric assigned to gangs and gang members in Central America has been one based on violence and fear. The violence perpetuated by gangs is harsh and inexcusable, leaving several communities in El Salvador struggling. Through extortion and other forms of violence, the gangs in El Salvador pose threats to the Salvadoran social fabric that increase instability, migration, and lower chances of success. With every new iteration of repressive mano dura, or Iron Fist policy, gangs adopt a more formal infrastructure and presence. 

Gang members may commit violent acts, but the questions need to be asked in order to think about gangs origin and historical trajectory. Why did they end up in a gang in the first place? How did the public institutions, international policies, and social fabric fail people enough that they would join a gang? How do gangs provide a sense of safety or security to involved people that they may not feel otherwise? Applying an anthropological lens reveals more answers that may not excuse behavior, but offer hints for disrupting and transforming violence. 

Chapel painting
This painting hangs in the Chapel at the University of Central America, San Salvador. It depicts the military’s violence during the civil conflict, which eventually led to the murder of 6 Jesuit priests in 1989 by the military.

As a peacebuilder from the USA, I come home every day with new questions, information and experiences to think about. My country not only deported the original gangsters, but also policies that provide quick answers without addressing root causes. Scholar-activist John Paul Lederach’s reflections resound daily: “To speak well and listen carefully is no easy task at times of high emotions and deep conflict. People’s very identity is under threat.” The starting question may still be, “Will you be safe?” But as practitioners, we must reframe the question to “How is this person not safe due to underlying structural and historical causes that threaten the dignity of the person in front of me?” If practitioners do not, we risk replicating historical patterns of violence towards current and future generations, compounding the root causes and contributing to future insecurity. 

Pupusas
Pupusas are a famous Salvadoran food.

Voices of Hope Amid Complexities

By: Ephraim Bassey Emah

To what extent should outside peacebuilders (or newcomers) display optimism for positive social change despite the presence of protracted conflicts in an environment? This is a question that I struggle to answer as I engage my Master of Global Affairs field experience in Myanmar.

Based on my interactions so far, it is clear that as long as local populations, who are the most affected by the conflict, demonstrate optimism, then outside interveners should keep the faith and continue to show solidarity with them. This attitude, I would argue, should be part of the professional ethics and individual responsibility of [outside] peacebuilders, and shape how we engage with conflict-affected populations. The strength that communities need to transform conflict relationships, achieve long-term social change, and thrive is often embedded in their collective display of resilience, positive attitudes, and belief that violent conflicts will de-escalate or disappear.

Overlook of Yangon from RAFT Office.

Myanmar is a beautiful country with a rich culture, substantial mineral deposits, and a friendly people. Despite these endowments, different complex issues continue to drive conflict escalation and frequent clashes between the country’s military, called Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in different parts of the country. Continued conflicts in Shan and Rakhine states are just one of the major conflicts that occur around the country. The continuation of fighting in locations like Rakhine State reveals the complexity of contextual issues and how the outcomes of the conflicts shape relationships among citizens. Ethnonationalism, ethnocentrism, demand for political autonomy and resource control, and the weaponization of religion to incite hate are some of the factors that sustain the conflicts. A continuous polarization of identity and broader national security by different armed actors, including the government, threatens social cohesion and the possibilities of achieving integral human development, a core principle and goal of the Keough School.

Achieving sustainable peace and human flourishing in environments affected by high-intensity conflict is difficult. As I engage in deep reflections about opportunities that exist amid the complexity in Myanmar, interactions with youth help me realize that outside peacebuilders’ emphasis should be on integral human development and integral peace. Pursuing both goals emphasizes the importance of “carrying everyone along.”

However, the optimism of many groups who are working beyond narratives of hate and stereotypes demonstrates significant hope for peace and conflict transformation in the country. This optimism is further amplified by the existence of civil society organizations, like RAFT, whose organizational make-up reflects a dynamic mix of technical capacity, contextual awareness and sensitivity, firm resolve and commitment to collaborative peacebuilding actions, and a desire to build peace across various identities. My immersion in Myanmar, through the guidance of RAFT, enables me to more deeply understand the ethics associated with engaging local contexts, being sensitive to different dynamics that exist, carefully triangulating information, and maintaining the best attitude and poise that is required to manage conflicts.

It is evident that because the sources of conflicts often emerge from local populations, they are better placed to develop locally-owned and locally-driven solutions for transforming their problems. Therefore, as a peacebuilder and participant-observer, it is my responsibility to interact cautiously within this space. Because we do not wish to do harm, peacebuilders should recognize that we are not “saviors,” but “facilitators” of positive social change. We may be experts with technical capacity, but may never be experts of local solutions. Therefore, supporting local populations to identify and leverage available resources and utilize their agency to build peace is one of the greatest gifts that outside peacebuilders or interveners can give in any context.

Program Coordination Meeting with some RAFT colleagues.

The growing level of hope for a peaceful Myanmar among young people stirs their resolve to display group solidarity regardless of their ethnic or religious inclinations. I remember Min Nyan Shwe, a young colleague at RAFT, telling me one time that “even though there is fighting everywhere, we know things will change one day.” This hope expands the space for mobilizing collective action towards reducing discrimination, strengthening the agency of youth to pressure conflict actors to end violence, promoting social cohesion, and transforming narratives that have divided citizens for decades.

My interactions with many young people have also opened my eyes to the paradox of a peacebuilder’s position. Although the positionality of peacebuilders provides power, legitimacy, and increases access to resources, our work will be more effective when we channel our resources toward sustaining the optimism growing among local actors, regardless of the difficulties that they face. It is not “what” peacebuilders offer to transform conflicts that often matters; it is “how” these resources are transmitted that sustains peacebuilding.

A Display of Youth Solidarity.

As peacebuilders enter new environments, we automatically become a part of the context and its issues. Our vocation is one that requires us to identify and create solutions constantly. Solutions are easily recognized through genuine and deep reflection, respect for context, awareness of sensitivities, developing and maintaining the right relationships, and a display of humility to learn through the processes that shape us.

Peacebuilding is a conscious journey toward identifying opportunities for inclusive and sustainable solutions, despite the existence of structural and institutional complexities. Solutions are not always created. Sometimes, they are already available at our fingertips. We only need to reflect, visualize them, and overcome the fears and constraints that the environment may create towards implementing them.

My learning journey in Nepal and India: housing, hospitality, and community building

by: Maria Belen Zanzuchi

On any other May 25—Argentina’s May Revolution celebration—you would find me at my parents’ house, sitting by the fireplace and eating traditional Argentine food. But this year was different. Landing in Kathmandu, Nepal for the first time, I took one step outside the plane and was already sweating. I lowered the window in my taxi, hoping for fresh air and a view on the way to my new apartment, but car tailpipes smoked like a chimney and clouds of dust obscured the mountains. Many people wore face masks, and several buildings were still under reconstruction after the monstrous 2015 earthquake. In a city with no traffic lights but plenty of cows and motorbikes, my mind was jostled by frequent sudden stops and punctuated by the sound of vehicle horns.

View of Kathmandu
View of Kathmandu from Bhaktapur Square, where many temples are still under reconstruction after the 2015 Earthquake.
Street in Kathmandu
Street in Kathmandu.

Warm, chaotic and notoriously polluted was my first impression of Kathmandu, but nothing could dampen the excitement of beginning my Integration Lab summer research. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), my teammate Brian and I were to visit communities in Nepal and India to better understand how we might encourage disaster-affected populations to adopt hazard-resilient housing reconstruction practices. CRS aims to promote human development by responding to major crises. The organization seeks to expand culturally appropriate housing that meets international standards and enables future upgrades to permanent shelter. 

 

Learning from chaos

As the days went by, I started to enjoy the chaos. Every day I set foot outside, my body and mind filled with energy. I was delighted by the colors, the smell of incense in the streets, the mixture of religions, the countless temples and, mainly, the people. Despite their meager resources, every house welcomed us with a smile and offered tea and food. Our attempts to speak local words brought curious smiles as well.  

Gorkha, Nepal household survey
During a household survey in a rural community in Gorkha, Nepal.

 

Nepal household tea
During a household survey in Nepal. The owner offered us some tea after it.

Though every day I’d learned something different, there was one thing that stood out: the dynamic inside the communities. Every time we visited a house, at least one neighbor was already there having tea or talking to the house owner. A simple household survey would sometimes turn into a focus group with neighbors joining to help answer the questions. Many of these people also work together under a labor exchange (parma) system cultivating crops. Yet, astonishingly, they don’t usually help each other to build safer houses. At least in Nepal, some communities used to work together to (re)build traditional houses before the earthquake, but haven’t done so since.

Filling gaps and thinking forward

I started to ask why such close communities no longer exchange labor for house reconstruction. Some said they were struggling to repair their own houses and were not able to care for neighbors’ houses, but others said that once a household obtains a government grant to build a safer (usually brick) house, the community won’t help. Community members assume that someone with a grant doesn’t need the community’s help. 

How is it that the grant scheme prevents people from helping each other to build safer houses if they used to work together for traditional ones? This was a living example of the unintended consequences of development work we discussed in one of our Master of Global Affairs classes at the Keough School. 

 

Devastated community after Cyclone Fani
A community devastated after Cyclone Fani in Odisha, India.

Revising the grant program to address this issue would require larger players to exert influence, but development workers can help fill this gap by promoting community resilience.  Community resilience not only helps families save time and money (the few communities that did work exchange for house reconstruction saved up to 50 percent of labor costs), it also can help them heal and move forward after a traumatic event. Promoting community resilience might not be an easy task, but it’s one that’s worth trying, especially in an environment where community members are already close to each other. How do we do this? I don’t have the answer.

One last important lesson I learned from the field is that people are happy to share their views and experiences. All we need to do is listen carefully. Before we try to change their behavior, we need to listen to understand what motivates them, what they fear, whom they trust, and what they stand for. Their fears, needs, and incentives are usually rooted in something real and shaped by the larger environment. Policies don’t take place in a bubble, and behaviors are not changed by simply suggesting “universal” best practices. The development world needs to listen to and work with communities to face the challenges ahead.

Welcomed into the community
Women welcoming Brian and me when entering their community in Odisha, India.

 

Top four things to know about collaborations in the NGO world

by: Max Ngoc Nguyen

In February Greg Van Kirk, founder of Community Empowerment Solutions (CES) and an Ashoka Fellow, approached our Keough School i-Lab team and proposed an intriguing research question: NGOs tend to work in silos, thus miss out on potential collective outcomes as a result. Could our team work with CES in designing a platform that would encourage NGOs to collaborate with other organizations in order to maximize social impact? As we have begun to dive deeper into this project, we have learned fascinating things from the 54 organizations we have interviewed.

1. Organizations collaborate better than we expected

Before heading to our fieldwork in Guatemala and Ecuador, where CES has a strong presence, we spent two months in the classroom conducting research on why most NGOs do not collaborate with one another. We spoke to experts, examined academic literature, and perused articles on SSIR. We came up with a plethora of reasons: nonprofits compete for the same funding, NGO employees are too busy, organizations are not interested. Basically, we started with the assumption that there is little collaboration in the NGO sector.

MGA student Max Ngoc Nguyen stands with his i-Lab partner, Dominic Scarcelli and the founder of Ecofiltro, Philip Wilson, in rural Guatemala.
We interviewed the founder of Ecofiltro, Philip Wilson, ND ’89. Ecofiltro aspires to provide clean drinking water to rural Guatemala.

During the course of our interviews, we learned that organizations are collaborating more actively than our research suggested, at least in Guatemala and Ecuador. In fact, 83% of the interviewed NGOs exhibit dynamic patterns of either working with or looking to work with others. One executive director from an education NGO in Antigua, Guatemala, summed up this sentiment best:

We’re always looking for partnership. In fact, I believe that creating and promoting partnerships with a lot of NGOs that have affinity [with us] is the only way we’re going to make an impact.”

2. Organizations that look beyond their field of specialty tend to seek more alliances

We have noticed an interesting correlation: NGOs that express the desire to offer services beyond their areas of expertise are more likely to reach out to others. As an example, in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, we came across a social enterprise that specializes in exporting artisan products to the United States. They also want to improve the health conditions of their employees, but they do not have skills in that field. Thus, according to the Development Manager, they partnered up with others:

“We have a health-based initiative, such as sexual health family planning. But we’re not a health-based organization. So we collaborate with organizations with specialty in health-based education. They can provide us with tools, resources, or modules for education. In return, we provide access to communities.”

MGA student Dominic Scarcelli waiting to catch a boat on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
My teammate, Dominic Scarcelli, is waiting to catch a boat on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

3. The greatest challenge to collaboration is different priorities

The aforementioned challenges that we researched in class are indeed echoed by some NGOs, but 35% of the interviewees believe the biggest obstacle to collaboration is conflicting priorities. In Cuenca, Ecuador, a nonprofit focused on technical training for farmers told us that they would only work with groups that offer complimentary services to theirs. If you want to make clean water, build schools, or construct a soccer field, for example, they are just not that into you.

4. Capacity-building workshops are key to creating partnerships

An overwhelming 77% of organizations have claimed that they initiate collaboration because they have a friend who works for another NGO, met a potential partner at a fair, or even bumped into someone at a bar. From these observations, we have concluded that in order for alliance-building to flourish, we need to make these coincidental meetings happen more frequently and systematically.

MGA student Max Ngoc Nguyen playing soccor with community members in a plaza in Ecuador.
In our spare time, we played soccer with community members in Ñamarín, Ecuador.

We have discovered that one of the best ways to do so is through organizing training workshops on various topics. Staffers and leaders from different NGOs come to these events to acquire knowledge in fundraising, navigating social media, and managing foreign volunteers. Whatever the theme is, participants get to know one another, exchange contacts, and build personal connections. Afterwards, they start to collaborate with one another.

In conclusion, NGOs are indeed working together more often than we anticipated. But these partnerships take place organically. We believe the platform we are designing for CES will help these collaborations occur on a systematic scale. Most important of all, it will incorporate the personal connections necessary to spark enduring alliances among NGOs.