COVID-19 has shown the need for swift data-led responses and good intersectoral relationships. In South Africa, civil society and faith organisations, government, researchers and the private sector had to work together as the pandemic evolved. When that didn’t happen, the consequences were dire for communities left without food and care services.
This kind of collaboration takes time and care. Relationships need to be built and institutional barriers overcome. It requires an investment of time. Where do we start?
In 2015 researchers, non-governmental organisations and government officials considered how to use the vast knowledge that exists in different sectors to reduce violence in South Africa. One question was why high levels of violence against women and children persisted despite an array of interventions. These include primary prevention programmes, research, government policies and systems, and funding support.
An important answer was the dearth of opportunities for those working on the problem to share and learn together. To address this shortcoming, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) joined with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to initiate the Violence Prevention Forum (VPF) to offer a platform for intersectoral dialogue.
The forum enables collaboration to ensure that effective programmes to prevent violence are available and sustained in communities where they’re needed. The VPF is an example of how bridges can be built to find common ground to address a complex and enduring social problem.
Over the past six years, 10 government departments, 16 research institutes, 14 non-governmental organisations, and two development partners have met twice a year to explore solutions to violence in South Africa. They’ve done this using a results-focused and value-driven process.
Hierarchies of knowledge have been lowered by having participants sit in a circle without laptops and technology to distract them. Different types of evidence are shared in informal conversation, and all inputs are respected.
As a result, professionals from different sectors have been able to build trusting relationships. These relationships have become a vehicle for information sharing between and within sectors in ways that weren’t possible before the forum existed. For example, forum participants co-authored four policy briefs and a report on how various sectors could achieve the goals of the INSPIRE framework to prevent violence against children.
The South African Parenting Programme Implementers Network was formed when participating organisations saw the benefits of working together, learning from one another and raising funds as a collective. In short, the VPF has built a mutually supportive community that promotes violence prevention.
A recent evaluation of the forum found that the emphasis on building relationships and encouraging dialogue between sectors has been effective and has influenced approaches to prevent violence in South Africa.
For instance, VPF participants were involved in the Interim Steering Committee that drafted government’s 2019 National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Strategic Plan. Their participation is associated with the inclusion in the plan of a focus on children and violence prevention. Forum participants also informed a provincial safety policy that lays the groundwork for using evidence to prevent violence.
The forum contributed to the National Treasury’s decision to increase the Department of Social Development budget in 2018. This relied on five elements working together. First, legitimate, capable and strategic leaders that could raise funds, give direction to facilitators and connect the forum to national policy developments.
Second, the forum is guided by eight values developed by participants. The consistent application of these values has created a safe space to hold difficult conversations. Third, the VPF is steered by a multisectoral group working closely with conveners.
Fourth, forum meetings are facilitated by experienced, skilled experts drawing on a range of methods including the Alternatives to Violence Project and deep democracy. And fifth, communication and administrative support enabled the forum to develop quality outputs with clear messages.
Bringing together individuals from different sectors and ranks to work towards a goal requires capable, intuitive and empathetic leadership. Authoritarian leadership can alienate participants, while indecisiveness can make a group dysfunctional. Leadership must be democratised. The forum achieved this by having a multisectoral steering committee.
When dealing with a complex social problem like violence, stakeholders’ perspectives on the issue and how to address it will differ. An interrogative dialogue process where nothing is taken for granted or considered obvious was used. It helped forum participants unearth different perspectives on violence in a safe space.
Historical trauma inflicted by violent systems, such as apartheid, has a long-term effect that shapes relationships between individuals and organisations in South Africa. Integrating mindfulness and empathy-building exercises in group processes helped individuals become aware of barriers to productive relationships and overcome filters created by trauma.
Any effective group process requires good facilitation. This means it is context-relevant, and that group dynamics are understood and managed so that each individual has a role. Researchers don’t always have these skills, so independent facilitators without vested interests in the outcome are essential.
Interpersonal and collective violence won’t disappear just because we are speaking to each other. However, South Africa stands a much better chance of addressing the structural factors that drive violence if we work together, understand each other’s roles and use the knowledge generated by all sectors.
Matodzi Amisi, Research Associate and Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria
This article was first published in Africa Up Close, a blog of the African Program at the Wilson Center.
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Picture: Amelia Broodryk/ISS