Opinion: An argument for inclusive stabilization

A camp for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Photo by: The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC BY-SA

When everyone is struggling to recover from violent conflict, singling out one community for assistance among many ethnic and religious identities can actually make matters worse. Yet, to heal the inter-community rifts that set the stage for conflict, targeted outreach to groups that have been historically marginalized is a key element of stabilization.

When a conflict is greatly influenced by perceptions of grievance among different religious and ethnic social groups, working with underrepresented minority groups becomes critical to bolstering resilience and social cohesion.

Consider the conflict in northern Myanmar where Rohingya Muslims are subjected to violence and systemic discrimination. Or northern Iraq, where religious minorities were singled out for particularly brutal treatment by the Islamic State. Religious and ethnic minority-based discrimination extends from Colombia to South Sudan. In areas such as these, development projects can hardly consider transitioning the states from fragile to stable without first addressing the needs and inequities of persecuted communities.

“Chemonics — and all of the development community — must be sensitive and intentional in how we work with local partners and beneficiaries, and insist that both minority and majority social groups play an active role in programs, from design to implementation.”

— Catherine Kannam, senior vice president for’ Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan regions, Chemonics

Moreover, we know that no one has just one identity. Belonging to multiple underrepresented identities rooted in ethnicity, religion, and gender, for instance, compounds disadvantage and discrimination. For that reason, development implementers and local stakeholders must heed those underrepresented voices and account for historical inequities to strengthen social cohesion effectively.

The very nature of stabilization assistance necessitates striking a balance between targeted assistance to marginalized groups and the overarching goal of strengthening and building the resilience of the whole community. In turn, it’s essential to follow a set of interlinked best practices to meet implementation challenges and ensure effective, inclusive, and lasting stabilization.

1. Get immersed in the local context to learn, and leverage existing actors and conditions to create change

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To ensure any activity will work and to know how to best structure a project, implementers must tailor approaches to the unique local context. That often means identifying and analyzing the institutions, stakeholders, and key leaders necessary to facilitate social cohesion. It is critical to invest in partners who demonstrate capacity and interest in bridging divides. 

Chemonics identifies and vets those who have already shown a willingness and ability to work with diverse actors to stabilize and rebuild their communities. Take our work in Côte d’Ivoire, for example. The country is diverse religiously and ethnically, with roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Christians and a significant animist minority. The country’s violent post-electoral crises of 2010 and 2011 threatened to reoccur during its 2015 presidential election, and we therefore worked with religious representatives from across the spectrum to disseminate messages of peace and tolerance.

The project worked with local organizations to provide training and interfaith idea exchanges during the presidential campaign and post-electoral period, as well as crafting billboards featuring locally influential religious leaders standing united with leaders of other faiths. In this case, “doing our homework” truly mattered.

The campaign could have fallen flat if the project team had not analyzed the local sociopolitical landscape to understand key influencers, identify those willing to collaborate, and leverage existing attitudes, organizations, and efforts to craft messages that were resonant and culturally sensitive.

2. Benefit the entire community through inclusive implementation

Working with individual groups — whether majority or minority — can invite scrutiny from other groups and might propagate the misconception that assistance is benefiting one group over another, deepening rather than repairing the social divides. To counter actual or perceived favoritism and further marginalization of one group in fragile or post-conflict areas, it is imperative to choose activities that benefit all residents of a given area.

For example, the Islamic State's occupation of cities in Iraq devastated infrastructure and public spaces. One strategic activity for our work in Iraq is to increase accessibility to a popular and symbolic public space through the rehabilitation of a stadium. The assistance will accelerate social and economic recovery in the area by creating opportunities for recreation, and facilitate connection among residents, working to restore stability and a sense of common identity among the city’s diverse citizens.

3. Focus on the minority to strengthen the majority

While stabilization activities should benefit the entire community in the long-run, at times, implementers must address the pressing needs of marginalized minority populations to improve relations and social cohesion to benefit the whole community.

In Ukraine, the Roma community lacked understanding of their rights and the justice services offered to them. We worked in collaboration with a local organization to train Roma representatives to understand the procedures for, and importance of, child-birth registration; the resources available for people, particularly women, experiencing domestic abuse; and approaches to defending their rights and applying for legal and sociological assistance, if needed. The inclusion of the Roma minority in these larger efforts was of fundamental importance to ensure a stronger, more cohesive, and effective justice system in Ukraine.

4. Leverage donor regulations and procedures to ensure inclusive support and procurement that builds capacity and bridges communities

Of course, to initiate reforms and rebuilding efforts, implementers must distribute resources strategically, transparently, and in compliance with funders' rules and regulations. U.S.-supported stabilization efforts are rigidly dictated — for good reason — by legal restrictions outlined in the U.S. Constitution. In particular, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from taking actions that unduly favor one religion over another. For Chemonics — and all USAID implementers — these legal parameters affect our stabilization work at every stage of implementation.

This means, for instance, that we can support religious leaders and groups but only in activities that will clearly benefit the larger community, without regard for religious affiliation. But resource distribution and vendor selection processes are more than mere bureaucracy and legalese; they can and should foster inclusion and community cohesion.

For our projects, we consciously extend assistance to groups from diverse communities, incentivizing representation and collaborations between those communities. Activity design — including the allocation of resources — is strategic and aimed at ensuring all members of the community benefit, not just a few.

For example, in Colombia, Afro-Colombian and indigenous women leaders came together to examine the national government’s peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to ensure the inclusion of safeguards to Afro-Colombian and indigenous women’s rights. This, in turn, informed the finalized accords and provided stronger rights for all Colombians.

Employing resources to intentionally gather these underrepresented voices to inform and counter historically predominant perspectives helped to ensure a more stable peace for the government. Development implementers must build social cohesion by ensuring fair and inclusive procurement, hiring processes, and service delivery, and encouraging collaboration by involving stakeholders from across the broader community.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for stabilization

When effective, a strategy will vary greatly from context to context. But universally, we know that a project’s success depends on addressing the needs of all groups involved, not only to help heal the wounds of conflict but also to prevent future conflicts. Chemonics — and all of the development community — must be sensitive and intentional in how we work with local partners and beneficiaries, and insist that both minority and majority social groups play an active role in programs, from design to implementation.

This approach is essential to lasting, inclusive stabilization. Through our work across the world, we know that peaceful societies with a strong culture of human rights protect and empower ethnic and religious minorities, and ultimately amplify rather than stifle the voices of those most underrepresented in society.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Catherine Kannam

    Catherine Kannam is currently the senior vice president for Chemonics’ Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan region. A local economic development and municipal governance specialist, Kannam joined Chemonics in 2010 as a manager. Her portfolio has included managing the Tunisia Tax and Customs Pilot, an activity under the Asia and Middle East Economic Growth Best Practices project; the Jordan Cities Implementing Transparent, Innovative, and Effective Solutions project; and the Lebanon Water Infrastructure Support and Enhancement project.