Each year, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs organizes short-term visits to the United States for current and emerging foreign leaders through their International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Nearly 5,000 leaders from around the world participate in the program annually, experiencing the US and cultivating relationships with their American counterparts.
In March, SIS professors Patrick Hakizimana and Barbara Wien facilitated an IVLP exchange which took place virtually. Nineteen African community leaders who focus on countering violent extremism in their countries took part in the virtual visit and were introduced to US programs that counter violent extremism. The leaders represented communities in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Niger, Benin, Morocco, Kenya, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Uganda.
Sharing Different Practices for Countering Violent Extremism
One of the leaders, Khadidiatou Sidibe, is a program manager at Partners West Africa Senegal, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to enhancing citizens’ participation and improving security governance in Senegal and other countries in West Africa. In Senegal, much of the work surrounding countering violent extremism is preventative, and through the exchange, Sidibe learned different practices that could be used toward such prevention.
“Throughout this program, there were several practices that would be applicable in Senegal that could be efficient for preventing violent extremism,” says Sidibe. “Among these practices, there’s the involvement of community leaders, young people, women, religious leaders, Muslims, Christians—also the creation of a synergy of actions between the stakeholders.”
She also highlights practices like building religious tolerance among very young children, building capacity for defense and security forces to fight violent extremism, raising awareness about the issue, and creating a culture of empathy.
Professor Hakizimana experienced conflict firsthand as a native of Rwanda who was displaced within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to the Rwandan genocide and DRC civil war of the mid and late 1990s. He also emphasizes that a culture of empathy is critical when it comes to addressing violent extremism.
“One question that I asked the leaders to think about is ‘Who is left out?’ Many of those who would become extremists do so because they’re searching for social solidarity, a sense of belonging,” says Hakizimana. “We see young Africans being radicalized because they don’t feel like they belong or their opinions don’t matter. It’s helpful to think about how those young people can feel more included.”
Experiencing the US Virtually
During the four-week visit, the leaders virtually met with Americans involved in various US programs that counter violent extremism at the federal, state, and local levels. Discussions revolved around how different sectors of American society collaborate to resist violent extremism as well as what community-based approaches to this issue look like in the US.
“These programs enabled us to look at and enrich our own strategies toward fighting violent extremism. Even though the experience was virtual, it really helped re-inspire us in this ambitious fight to counter extremist violence in our countries,” says Sidibe.
During the IVLP, participants also gained more knowledge about US culture through a presentation on federalism and virtual visits to Washington, DC, and other places in the US: “We also virtually visited Americans in Wisconsin and Los Angeles, who shared their culinary habits with us as well as what their everyday lives were like,” says Sidibe. “These activities gave this program an original touch, and we even got to know our interpreters, who we don’t usually interact with.”
Building Relationships and Collaboration
As co-facilitators, Hakizimana and Wien aimed to help the leaders reflect on what they learned over the course of the virtual visit. They hoped that the program would encourage the participating leaders to collaborate with one another when working toward countering violent extremism in the future.
“Some positive outcomes of this program are: if there is cooperation among the leaders, if there are relationships built, and a sharing of best practices,” says Hakizimana. “If the leaders come out of this continuing to draw on this spirit of collaboration, in learning from each other—that would be a success.”
Networking was one of the most valuable aspects of the program in Sidibe’s view: “This prestigious program has enabled us to get to know other colleagues who are in this fight with us. Meeting colleagues who really take this to heart, who are the young leaders fighting violent extremism among all these nationalities—that was a really nourishing experience. Sharing our various experiences, the contacts that we made in the informal contexts of the visit as well as the WhatsApp group that was created—all of these are truly vectors that made this program a success.”
Sidibe believes that what the leaders learned from the IVLP will have long-lasting, durable effects on their work and in their countries moving forward.