In April this year, the government launched the National Hygiene Program – popularly known as Kazi Mtaani – a noble initiative to enhance the national response to COVID-19 while cushioning vulnerable Kenyans from the harsh economic impact of the pandemic.
The first phase targeted 31,000 economically disenfranchised Kenyans living mostly in informal settlements, by offering livelihood opportunities through various community projects.
Apart from providing much-needed economic relief to vulnerable Kenyans whose livelihoods were decimated by the pandemic, Kazi Mtaani is also an effective platform for engaging citizens, and especially the youth, in fighting the virus since the program primarily involves cleaning and improving community spaces.
The second phase of Kazi Mtaani launched in July is targeting 270,000 Kenyans, with the government allocating Ksh 10 billion to be used in expanding the program across the country. It is estimated that over 3 million Kenyans have lost their jobs since the onset of COVID-19.
Youth unemployment and radicalization
The youth are set to benefit the most as they form the majority of the economically vulnerable population. Apart from providing youth with livelihood opportunities, Kazi Mtaani is also key in addressing the vicious cycle of unemployment, poverty and idleness that bedevil our young people.
Globally, poverty and high youth employment have been cited as factors driving radicalization and violent extremism among youth. In countries where violent extremism has been on the rise, ideological radicalization of the youth is rooted in deep-seated economic and social grievances.
Of course, violent extremism is not exclusively driven by a single factor but multiple influences. Even boredom has been cited as contributing to the radicalization of youth who are targeted using extremist social media propaganda and also lured into violence by local gangs.
Deprived of jobs and idle, our youth are soft targets for extremists. There is therefore an opportunity to integrate Kazi Mtaani into the national Prevention and Countering of Violent Extremism (PCVE) strategy.
Fortunately, Kazi Mtaani is structured in such a way that it can be easily integrated into local PCVE mechanisms at the county level. Notably, the implementation of the second phase of Kazi Mtaani is being coordinated by the County Implementation Committee led by the County Commissioners.
This provides an important linkage with other PCVE mechanisms including the County Engagement Forums (CEFs) which are tasked with conducting PCVE activities at the local community level.
Integrating Kazi Mtaani into CEF activities will provide an effective platform for direct engagement of the youth in the national PCVE agenda. It will also instill youth ownership and involvement in the process.
More importantly, fostering youth dialogue is crucial in not only addressing their social and economic grievances but also encouraging them to shun violence while increasing vigilance against extremist elements seeking to capitalize on their grievances to recruit them into terror networks.
In other words, Kazi Mtaani constitutes a direct youth engagement mechanism whose economic, social and security outcomes will be felt for years to come, if well executed. Hence the need to urgently address concerns over discrimination and some youth being excluded from the program to avert undesirable social outcomes.
Kazi Mtaani also needs to involve local actors like Community Social Organizations (CSOs) and the various security agencies involved in tackling radicalization and extremism at the grassroots. In addition, one or two youth in the ‘mtaa’ can be trained at CEF level to be a PCVE champion.
Such an approach will also save the country resources that would have been used to hold workshops and provide an easily scalable platform for youth outreach and engagement post-COVID.
This will also encourage youth to be active participants in CEF activities. When they are able to see the direct link between improving their economic fortunes and preventing violent extremism, we will as a country have made an important stride in the war on terrorism.
CEF with Kazi Mtaani as a catalyst could also serve as a base for building local youth networks and coalitions against violent extremism. The community service element is one way of instilling civic duty and responsibility, which in turn encourages youth to play an active role in community policing.
Responding to violent extremism
Also, Kazi Mtaani could be used to provide basic PCVE training to youth, for example, ways of identifying and responding to radicalization and violent extremists. The program is a great opportunity to train thousands of households benefiting from the program on the prevention of violent extremism.
Needless to say, this approach will enhance community resilience – a key milestone in the war against terrorism. Engaging youth directly will also prevent the emergence of criminal gangs that thrive by preying on jobless and disillusioned youth.
This is indeed an opportune time to put youth at the forefront of ensuring our communities are safe from the coronavirus and violent extremists.
Mr. Mwachinga is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Partner at Viva Africa Consulting LLP.