On the front lines of preventing violent extremism: an interview with Gaëlle Le Pottier

11 September 2017 – Nairobi

It’s 16 years to the day after the attacks on the twin towers and I’m sat in a chilly Nairobi café eating a limp croissant with Gaëlle Le Pottier and trying to work out what it really takes to provide leadership in the face of one of today’s pre-eminent complex problems – violent extremism.

Gaëlle does not look like someone on the front lines of the fight against extremism. There is no flak jacket (though I’m willing to bet that she owns one), no thousand-yard stare, and above all no championing of familiar and simple solutions. Just as importantly, she leads

Gaëlle has spent twenty or more years working in conflict affected environments. Her work has taken her across the humanitarian, development and education sectors, all the time seeking to understand and be part of the change that will create less violent communities. Today she leads one of the largest programmes to counter violent extremism in East Africa – an initiative that supports communities to build their own resilience to the threat, ultimately fostering more stable and prosperous communities. No small challenge then.

So, on the anniversary of 9/11 we sat down with our crumpled pastries to explore why someone would choose to commit their working life to such an intractable issue and what it takes to provide relentlessly hopeful leadership in the face of this ‘ultimate complex problem’.

Hamish: Tell me about the nature of violent extremism from your perspective?

Gaëlle: Fundamentally, this is about people who are seeking to have a voice in a system they feel doesn’t allow them to have that voice. As sad as it is, violent extremism may be the only path they see available to them.

One of the primary aims of our programme is to understand what causes individuals to become ‘at risk’ of becoming violent extremists, and to work, through our local partners, with those people – because to stop violent events happening, we have to understand why it happens, why some individuals make the choice to turn to violence.

Through our work we see how people can become vulnerable to the lure of extremism – often because they are disconnected, disengaged from their community and from the wider ‘system’ in which they live. There is something fundamental that is not working for them.

Hamish: From your experience, what do you think lies at the heart of the problem?

Gaëlle: There really is no simple answer to this – however much we might like there to be one.  You have to remember that Africa’s population is exploding.  Young people’s aspirations and expectations are growing and yet the job market simply cannot keep pace. Yet we should never underestimate how connected they are to the wider world, a world far beyond the boundaries of their own communities.

In many areas in East Africa, these young people are part of communities who have been marginalised for generations; communities that are not being well served by their own governments.

So now you have a growing, connected but disenfranchised young population who not only don’t have jobs, but who are lacking even the hope that they might find one. It’s way too late when you are 17 and you haven’t been to school, you can’t open a bank account, your family has no land or assets, and you struggle to relate to your parents or elders…

In that context, you’re doomed before you even start. How can you not feel hopeless or even angry?

In many cases, young people, even violent extremists, may be responding to the wider grievances of their communities, even when they take those grievances out on their own communities.

Hamish: What has driven you to work on the issue of violent extremism?

Gaëlle: I talked my way into Mogadishu [the war ravaged capital of Somalia] when I was a naïve, eager 21-year old intern. It was early 1992, and I had befriended the only expat working on the ground for the United Nations at the time. The country fascinated me, but it was pretty dangerous. Actually [she pauses for a moment] it was very dangerous…

And what I saw made me leave the humanitarian sector. I saw the dead and the dying. And I saw a humanitarian system, that despite the best of intentions that was making things worse; was actually enriching warlords and prolonging the conflict – and I also saw zero interest by the outside world in either the conflict or in how to tackle it. Nobody cared.

And on a personal level I saw how unhealthy it all was. I didn’t want to work so hard and yet wake up in the morning wondering ‘Are we doing more harm than good? Am I doing the right thing?’. So I left. I went back to my privileged life back in the US, totally depleted, totally exhausted. I didn’t want to have anything more to do with ‘development’.

Hamish: So what happened next?

Gaëlle: I became a teacher of history, and moved to Lebanon. It was 1994, Beirut was recovering from 16 years of brutal civil war, and I spent my time working with teenagers trying to help them make sense of their world. I was excited to help young people try to find a place (as I was) in a society that had been torn apart, try to come to terms with their own identity, try to figure out a future. Let me put this in context; these were kids whose own families and communities had been at war just a few years before.

Since I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East – including Iraq and Yemen – as well as East Africa, and now that I think about it, I wonder if these experiences were the seeds of where I am now, and what drives me.

Hamish: Somalia, South Sudan, DRC… You’ve worked right in the heart of some intense conflicts; change, in any setting, is often a very opaque process. How do you see change happening in these highly complex environments?

Gaëlle: I don’t think you can be part of any positive change by being angry or confrontational; the moment you engage this way, you simply become part of the problem. And I know at times I’ve felt like this. I’ve felt angry and had to step away from things I cared about – because I knew I wasn’t helping.

To play a part of change you have to remember that everyone is a human being – no matter how much you might disagree with them – once you lose sight of that, you are making things worse. But it’s hard – people have so much to be angry about. And for me; I know that when I become too emotional about the problem, I become part of the problem. So how does change happen? Well it happens by people working together, reaching out, seeking to understand – even though they may not agree. Ultimately, at the heart of my work is my belief that you can’t change others without first changing yourself.

Hamish: Complex problems by definition are often intractable, fundamentally unsolvable. What keeps you hopeful?

Gaëlle: Last week one of our partners wrote me a note which said ‘Thank you for pushing us’. I was delighted. It means not focussing on whether we have solved the problem, but whether or not we are still trying, finding new ways, staying focussed on impact rather than activities, pushing ourselves to do more, to do better. So what truly excites me is when our team and partners get excited about how they have grown, been empowered, supported, ultimately to make a real difference.

Hamish: It’s clear from what you say that you don’t believe you (or anyone) can change things on your own – so how do you personally work through others to help make change happen?

Gaëlle: I think the thing that I’m best at is helping others become better at what they already do well. So, I see my role as keeping people connected to what is really important. It’s so easy in a big project to lose sight of what lies at the heart of it, so I try to help people know when they are making a difference

Hamish: Its often easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of complex problems. What advice do you have for others?

Gaëlle: Never forget why you are doing what you are doing. Don’t let the emails, the meetings, the demands of the every-day disconnect you. Never forget who you are serving. Remind yourself every day.

Hamish: And finally, after all you’ve experienced in your life, what keeps you going?

Gaëlle: Waking up in the morning knowing that I may be doing more good than harm, or at least that we are above all trying to serve those who may not have a voice, and maybe sometimes inspiring others to do the same.

A final reflection

Gaëlle: We must remember that there is no magic wand…

For most people, violent extremism is a scary, intractable problem that makes us nervous when we fly, or when we go shopping, or when it appears on the news. But the rest of the time we try not to think about it. For others, such as those in a number of communities in East Africa, it is a daily reality that threatens their community and especially their young people. And for a small group of committed and passionate local activists, both within government and beyond, it is their work to try and stop it, to change the systems, behaviours and conditions from which violent extremism emerges.

So in a context where the resistance these change-makers and influencers face is not just angry but also violent, where short-term ‘fixes’ can often make the problem worse… it’s our role to do everything we can to help them succeed. We must never forget that they are the ones in the front lines.

Image: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic