Tin-topped, mud-wall shanties strangle the landscape in urban pockets throughout Kenya. Overcrowded with nearly 1,200 people packed in every 2.47 acres these mega-slums lack the most basic amenities. Pit latrines are shared by as many as 75 neighbors at a time; plastic bags containing feces litter roadsides. There are some 200 slums in the country, where a family of five is squeezed into nine square metres of space. Kibera, the second largest slum on the continent, houses between 400,000 – 600,000 residents. Nairobi is still ranked one of the most insecure cities in the world according to the UN International Civil Service Commission.

It is these conditions that gave rise to the one of the worst cholera epidemics in a decade, which swept the nation two years ago. These same conditions have contributed to the country’s ranking one of the highest HIV/ AIDS prevalence rates in the world.   And, it is in these conditions that another epidemic — violence — has been increasing. Militia groups swell their ranks recruiting from these densely populated slums, where devastating poverty has left few options.

Creating options, sharing experiences and building strategy for dealing with organised crime, violence and militia growth in Kenya were the running themes for a week-long programme convened by the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa and the United Nations Development Programme. Kenya has invested considerably in redevelopment plans with hopes to contend economically with the Asian 'economic tigers' by 2030, but as economist Paul Collier has argued that development is often blocked where conflict occurs. Conflict is at least one of the main 'blocks' to development.  In fact, the IMF has coined the term “development in reverse” to describe nations that can’t pull out of a cycle of poverty due to conflict.

Brent Decker, Coordinator of International Programmes at CeaseFire, was one of more than 30 speakers who presented at the programme. Mr. Decker in partnership with the American Islamic Congress was instrumental in adapting the CeaseFire model to Basrah, Iraq in 2008 (a case statement for the intervention appears in the recently published Beyond Suppression). Then as now, one of the most vexing challenges they faced was how to apply a model developed for gang-involved young people in Chicago to inter-tribal and militia violence.

CeaseFire is based on the understanding that interpersonal conflict, regardless of the culture or context, arises out of a grievance. Petty disputes, bad business transactions, geographical boundaries, threats over minor personal affairs often gain momentum encompassing family, friends, tribal members and other affiliations that escalate these clashes into larger scale feuds. If you can identify the initial grievance on the front end — snuff out that spark, so to speak — you can stop violence from escalating to such dramatic and tragic levels.  Dr. Gary Slutkin, CeaseFire Executive Director, expounds on this theory by analyzing recent events in London and in a recent interview with WBEZ Worldview.

On-the-ground in Iraq this translates to sending highly-trained conflict mediation specialists into the community to visit mosques, clerics, tribal leaders and community influencers and recruiting them to the cause. It means coordinating a culturally-specific social marketing campaign with focused messages. It means facilitating a movement that empowers community representatives to take an active role in violence prevention.

“In many ways, Iraq was our proof point for this concept,” Brent explains, “we had seen the model successfully replicated in other cities in the US, but we hadn’t seen it applied to another culture before Basrah.” The success of the programme speaks for itself, since 2008 it has grown to include four additional communities in Iraq, an expansion that has been spurred by community leaders themselves.

“Lessons from that initial adaptation are invaluable to us, we are constantly adjusting what we are doing on-the-ground based off the real world experience of our workers. This has been true throughout the Iraq expansion and would be a benefit to replication in Kenya,” Brent adds.

CeaseFire hopes that it can be a contributing factor to Kenya’s ambitious revitalization plan by helping to reverse the nation’s violence epidemic.