Why DDR should be a community-based activity, not a stand-alone activity

Many years ago now, when my younger daughter was attending elementary school in Yellowknife, the principal and vice-principal introduced an innovation – they began, as part of school assemblies, to reward pupils for good behavior. It changed the dynamic of the school – what got attention now was being helpful, pleasant, and constructive, rather than its opposite. The Buddhists would say it is a lesson about the importance of where you choose to focus your energy.

I think about that now, occasionally, when I reflect on demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) activities in countries where there has been conflict. Many international programs focus almost entirely on the former combatants, providing them with support and sometimes cash in exchange for demobilizing and disarming. There is very little attention paid to the community into which the former combatant is being returned; DDR is approached largely as a specialized, often stand alone, program. Other programs are expected to address the community problems.

Often this approach doesn’t work very well, however. Conflict worsens poverty, disrupts education for almost everyone, and destroys what infrastructure may have existed. Thus communities may resent the fact that former combatants, who helped to cause the damage, are getting help when they are not. Where there is a lot of insecurity, former combatants will sometimes use the money received for turning in their arms in order to buy more, because it is dangerous not to be able to defend yourself when your family may be at risk. In insecure areas, DDR buy-back programs thus may worsen insecurity. Sometimes promised support is not forthcoming when ex-combatants return home. And sometimes, without continuing support, ex-combatants find that the money or tools they received don’t help them to build a new life.

I wanted to talk about two examples of approaches that work differently, because they approach DDR as a problem that has disrupted community life and offer solutions that are community-based. One is from southern Sudan; one is from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The conflict in southern Sudan raged for decades. As part of it, young men who looked after their family’s cattle at cattle camps were armed by different actors, forming ‘white armies’ (so named because they covered themselves with ash to protect themselves against flies). They came to learn that they could use their gun to make a living by looting. When peace came, they had no other skills and no education. And because their behavior had alienated their families, they could not get help from relatives.

Finding a ‘win-win-win’ solution

One local NGO that understood the situation well took a different approach to DDR. In their area, the ‘white armies’ controlled the roads, looting from those who travelled. They were doing what they had learned to do during the war. In talking to these young men, the NGO realized that they could not imagine any alternative that would let them earn money. They had never been to school; all they knew was how to fight. It took time, but the NGO helped them find a solution that benefitted them and the communities along the road. Together, they created a trucking company, and when the young men realized that they could make much more money transporting goods than looting, they voluntarily handed over their guns.

This was a community-based solution to DDR, even though it was not formally called that, and it continues to work well. It addressed a number of problems at once – the young men’s lack of education, their need to earn a living, and the insecurity along the roads. It was one of those ‘win-win-win’ solutions, and it didn’t cost very much. In eastern DRC, the focus was similarly on finding a ‘win-win’ solution for communities and former combatants.

Communities resented programs that provided support only to ex-combatants when they also were suffering the effects of the conflict, and so they didn’t welcome them back. And because the combatants still in the bush stay in touch with those who return, the lack of welcome discouraged the rest from returning home. The NGO began to create a livelihood cooperatives program that would provide support for groups of former combatants, in activities such as carpentry, agriculture, and road maintenance that benefitted the whole community. They provided tools and support, not money, and provided it to groups, not individuals. They also worked with the community and the ex-combatants to teach them conflict resolution skills, so that they could solve problems constructively.

As the men worked together to create farms, make furniture and fix up the road, the communities began to change their views of the former fighters. They started to see them as people who could make a constructive contribution to community life. Some of the activities generated money that allowed the cooperative to help some of its members build their own houses, and create their own individual gardens.

This is a solution that recognizes that conflict divided communities and affected everyone, and that the solution must address that division and those effects. Not only is it providing a way for these men (and for women, too, as there are women’s projects that support female ex-combatants and the wives and widows of ex-combatants) to earn a living, it is providing a way for them to resume living as part of a community. And by doing so, it is encouraging those still in the bush to consider returning home. If their comrades have been welcomed, they think, they will be as well.

A final note

Returning home is important, not just for rebuilding rural communities, but for security in large cities as well. A recent analysis of DDR programs in Africa done by South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies notes that when groups of demobilized young men stay in the city, it can increase security risks there. The study, Reintegrating ex-combatants in the Great Lakes Region: lessons learned, is well worth reading for its insights into what works, and what doesn’t, in DDR practice.

(Disclosure: I know about these stories from Southern Sudan and DRC through my evaluation work with Peace Direct, a UK charity that supports locally-led peacebuilding. In eastern DRC, I have met with people from a number of the livelihood cooperatives. I heard about the Southern Sudan story from the NGO director who was directly involved in it.)