Preventing violence: maybe communities know better

A boy contemplates the guns handed in during an amnesty for gang members in Panama City. How do communities respond to violence? InSight Crime , CC BY-NC

A child in Rivera Hernandez is 85 times more likely to be murdered than a child in Australia. Rivera Hernandez is a community in Honduras. It is just an example of the many communities around the world where crime, domestic violence and child maltreatment are killing millions.

International organisations like the World Bank and the World Health Organisation invest millions of dollars in violence prevention. All these organisations have good intentions. They also have big plans for quantifying the problem and for expensive and sophisticated solutions.

In the early 1980s, Manfred Max-Neef described his journey falling out of love with economics. He said in one of his books that “economics had an obsession with abstract measurement and quantifiers”. He lamented that it had:

… a tendency to oversimplify, as reflected by efforts to assume technical objectivity at the expense of losing a sense of history and a feeling for social complexity.

Needs are created and articulated in fancy terms. Real people in communities are not part of this process.

Meeting the real experts

For the last six years I have immersed myself in the field of violence prevention. I met renowned experts from international organisations and universities. I participated in beautiful and costly seminars and conferences, which were opportunities for face-to-face discussions with investors and scholars.

I was also lucky enough to spend a lot of my time talking with families and children in San Joaquin, a “dangerous” community in Panama City. Gangs in San Joaquin are among the cruellest in the region.

This documentary focuses on the life and resilience of the women in the high-risk Panamanian neighbourhood of San Joaquin.

Even though most members in this community have not finished secondary school, our conversations immediately captured my attention. They talked like the real experts. They were full of energy and motivation for designing simple solutions, if only they were given the opportunity.

Some mothers, for example, said they needed to have their children with them while they were working. One of them provided for her family by selling mangoes outside the school. She said:

People say I am a bad mother because I have my child by my side while I work. He is good. He sits quietly and does his homework. If I leave him by himself at home, he will go to the park and meet older men who are a very bad influence for him.

Can we help mothers from this community get organised to design an after-school program?

Children in Honduras are 85 times more likely to be murdered than children in Australia, according to the World Health Organisation. Mission Honduras/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Community-based participatory research (CBPR), action research and bottom-up approaches – as known in the academic jargon – are not new. They are very popular in many fields. However, the way CBPR is practised still faces ethical challenges.

In most examples of CBPR, solutions are still driven by “outsiders”. They are the initiators of ideas and they use their own methods for building “inside capacity” – as if capacity didn’t already exist. Some might argue this is a form of microscopic recolonisation in which powerful experts make decisions that will ultimately affect communities.

Tensions between outsiders and insiders are common, which is reflected in low engagement and solutions with limited sustainability.

Would it be easier to prevent violence if we catalysed change from inside communities? Only if we talk in communities’ own language and learn to establish horizontal rather than top-down dialogues will this be possible. It is crucial that we remove “technicisms” that don’t allow true collaboration between outsiders and insiders.

Community projects are proven but all too rare

Projects truly driven by communities are rare. Could this be the reason, after all these decades of research and public investment, that we haven’t had much success in preventing community violence?

One successful example is the Hmong Women Project, conducted in the late 1990s in a large Midwestern city of the US. The overall aim was to explore the impacts of gender, race and class on the experience of domestic violence of women of colour in the US.

After encounters with different communities in this city, researchers discovered that the Hmong were the only sizeable group in the target area at risk for domestic violence. This was due to their history of displacement after the Vietnam War. Yet no services were available to them.

The Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino features members of the US Midwest’s Hmong community.

As they approached the community and consulted members, researchers recognised that domestic violence could trigger memories of traumatic experiences in the Vietnam conflict. They became aware that the discussion of domestic violence was considered threatening to women and that their “outsider” status added significantly to this threat.

As a consequence, the specific issues targeted by the project were negotiated with communities. Objectives quickly changed from “domestic violence support” to designing support for street safety and emotional well-being.

This process catalysed community action. A group of Hmong women designed a support workshop for other members of the community. The workshop used Photovoice to help participants whose first language was not English. This helped them to easily document their daily lives through photography.

A year later, several Hmong women expressed an interest in establishing a non-profit organisation to respond to the multiple needs of women in the community. This example was reported 12 years ago. In the paper, the authors do not say what happened to this “insider idea”.

The Hmong people of Minnesota have rebuilt a community that was struggling after being displaced by the Vietnam War. flickr/Ramsey County Minnesota, CC BY-SA

Apply inside knowledge to local problems

I don’t know exactly where the project took place, but I suspect it was Detroit because of the authors’ academic affiliation. Does anybody in closer touch with this community know the evolution of women organisations in Detroit in the last 12 years? A quick online search of Hmong women in the Midwest also shows great achievements by one community in Minnesota.

I like to believe that these achievements were driven by similar efforts to increase community empowerment.

In order to have impact, solutions do not necessarily need to be evaluated with sophisticated quantitative designs or disseminated in the academic world in fancy conferences. Each community is unique. Solutions should not be diffused globally and imposed in other, different communities just for the sake of having a “worldwide expert” in the field.

Solutions that are driven by communities are collaborative and horizontal, and use sound methodologies that are accessible to those inside. Researchers are just instruments for feeding back results to communities. This process needs to happen in communities’ own language so that it leads naturally to inside action.

The real experts are therefore communities themselves. Shall we listen and invest in them?