Prevention economies in Kenya: Peace, Power & Pragmatism?
April 11, 2023     |    

Human Rights DefendersConflictKenya
Nora Naji is a PhD candidate at the University of Basel, Scholar in Residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU, and an associated researcher at swisspeace. Her dissertation ‘Commodifying peace: Intimate warfare and prevention economies in Kenya’ builds on the securitization premise and sets out to situate the agenda of “Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism” (P/CVE) in Kenya within a larger discussion of prevention economies. Prevention economies sustain themselves by producing new offshoots that uphold security governance mechanisms in the realm of the “intimate” where ideas of care and self-help inherent to the idea of prevention further consolidate the liberal security state and generate docile citizens. She holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva, Switzerland and a MA in Culture and Politics from Leiden University, the Netherlands. Prior to joining the Gender, War, and Security Research Group, she was a Junior Project Manager at swissnex San Francisco. She also gained professional experience in the Human and Social Sciences Sector at UNESCO in Paris and at the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies. Her research interests include conflict prevention, human rights, humanitarian innovation and design.

The Emergence of the ‘Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism’ Agenda

“Conflict prevention” is an umbrella term for a variety of interventions in the peacebuilding field that aim at addressing factors that could lead to violent conflict. SDG 16 in the UN 2030 agenda makes an important contribution to the realm of conflict prevention with the target goal to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” After years of hard counter-terrorism strategies, preventive measures to address the root causes of radicalization have also gained traction in the Global War on Terror. The United States, supported by the United Nations, have played a central role in this paradigm shift and the introduction of the concept ‘Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism’ (P/CVE), which replaced the dominant notion of ‘Counter-Terrorism’ (CT) in policy spaces in 2015. P/CVE has since become the globally accepted security strategy to address violent extremism, by underscoring a whole-of-society approach, as well as the localization of the fight against terrorism. While P/CVE is very much a security strategy, the agenda is now also closely linked to SDG 16 through the emphasis on strengthening civil society and government institutions, building social cohesion and resilience, addressing local grievances and respecting human rights. At the core of this union between P/CVE as a security strategy and peacebuilding lies the concept of ‘human security’, which is defined by the UNDP as ‘freedom of want’ and ‘freedom of fear’. ‘Human security’ focuses on the individual grievances that may incite violence. Consequently, many security approaches are no longer solely based on military power, but include humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding initiatives. Within this vein, CSOs have thus become integral to the realization of the agenda. As a result, critics argue that P/CVE has securitized and co-opted the civil society space, thereby forging a dangerous liaison between security actors and CSOs.

Securitization of the Civil Society Space in Kenya

In the first years, after its global adoption in 2015, the P/CVE agenda was implemented through National Action Plans (NAPs) with great enthusiasm from the international community. Particularly, the United States supported its allies around the world in the adoption of the agenda through technical assistance and donor funding. Kenya is one of the US’s main strategic allies in the Global War on Terror in Africa and has been at the forefront of adopting the P/CVE agenda in the last 7 years. While donors decreased their funding through COVID-19 and the presidential election in 2022, P/CVE is still one of the main donor priorities in Kenya to this day. Since the introduction of P/CVE in 2016 through a National Action Plan (NAP), many CSOs have geared towards the implementation of P/CVE programs to access funding for their programs. The international donor industry, which is heavily influenced by security interests in the Horn of Africa, has thus very much impacted the civil society space in Kenya. As the Kenyan government considers violent extremism a national security issue, every organization that implements P/CVE must report to the National Center for Counterterrorism (NCTC) under the 2012 Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) since a 2019 amendment. CSOs therefore have to report to the authorities about P/CVE programs, which can include sensitive information about the program participants. As a consequence, local communities have accused CSOs of espionage and surveillance, thereby criticizing the alignment of aid programs with security interventions. While the securitization of the civil society space in Kenya through the integration of security strategies into aid programs in the name of prevention has certainly led to many trust issues between CSOs and local communities, the question of agency and resistance of CSOs is central in understanding P/CVE in Kenya. CSOs are subject to complex negotiations between international security agendas, funding scarcity, and local agency. I will briefly discuss the entanglement of the security-oriented P/CVE agenda in three key areas in the aid architecture: human rights (1), humanitarian and development aid (2), and peacebuilding (3).

The Entanglement of P/CVE with the Aid Architecture

In the aftermath of heavy security crackdowns against Muslim communities after the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and counter-terrorism operations along the coast, Kenyan human rights organizations were very vocal about the human rights violations including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings committed by Kenyan security forces and brought international attention onto the situation. As a response, the government listed two leading human rights organizations as terrorist entities which resulted in the freezing of their bank accounts. After a legal battle the court finally ruled the accusation as unjust and commanded the unfreezing of assets. Nevertheless, the incident sent a clear message to human rights organizations nation-wide. It is therefore, perhaps, surprising how many human rights organizations are currently actively implementing P/CVE programs despite of the previously mentioned issues. While the P/CVE agenda commits to a human rights-based approach to preventing violent extremism, the often-times close involvement of security forces in the implementation of P/CVE also endangers the integrity of CSOs. I would argue, however, that P/CVE can and should also be understood as part of a pragmatic response by human rights organizations that engage in a difficult balancing act between shining light onto human rights violations and their own security. The close relationship with the government and security forces in the implementation of P/CVE seems to allow human rights organizations to expose certain incidents without feeling immediate repercussions. Additionally, at the coast, CSOs established a consortium to protect each other from similar accusations. Human rights organizations and other CSOs also contest the 2019 amendment of POTA that obliges all organizations that implement P/CVE to report information to the NCTC. They are thus forced to find a pragmatic path between dialogue with the security forces and protection of their own work.

Humanitarian and development programs are frequently also part of P/CVE responses in Kenya. Especially in the North-Eastern region of Kenya, humanitarian and development interventions converge with security strategies to tackle violent extremism. The climate crisis has led to the worst droughts and food emergency situation in forty years. The redirection of funding channels to European countries through the Ukraine war and global wheat price crisis also partly contribute to the lack of funding to address humanitarian needs in the region. Additionally, foreign actors often prioritize other countries as they consider Kenya as a middle-income country. Since P/CVE continues to be a funding priority for many donors in the North-Eastern region of Kenya, many local CSOs apply for P/CVE funding to allocate resources and later redirect them to humanitarian assistance programs. Local CSOs, in asserting their agency, therefore also take advantage of the P/CVE industry to access funding that they would otherwise not receive in a situation of humanitarian emergency.

Finally, peacebuilding CSOs in particular have shifted their focus to the implementation of P/CVE as a consequence of the huge donor funding supply for these programs, oftentimes using the labels of “P/CVE” and “peacebuilding” interchangeably. While both P/CVE and peacebuilding are very broadly defined terms, the label P/CVE raises a lot of suspicion in local communities and creates security risks for local aid workers who implement these programs. Nevertheless, P/CVE is also an instrument for local communities to keep security forces at arm’s length. Many P/CVE programs contain community policing as an integral element which redirects security governance to the local community. It appears that local communities are able to contain direct police engagement in the community, which decreases incidents of police brutality against youth. While many local peacebuilders explain how violent extremism actually is not a main concern in their communities, P/CVE seems to be an important tool to not only gain funding but again paradoxically help secure the community against government crackdowns.

Ultimately, local CSOs in Kenya demonstrate great pragmatism in the implementation of P/CVE by balancing security concerns and local needs within an increasingly competitive donor market. At the beginning, P/CVE might have been a top-down approach to tackle local insecurities that are of concern for international actors and global stability. While international security interests continue to hijack the ‘triple nexus’, local CSOs have used P/CVE to allocate and redirect resources to their own needs, secure their mission in the face of a shrinking civil society space, and protect themselves from direct security interventions.


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