Narratives can be defined as a personal construct which enables us to make sense of our world around us. Photo : UNDP

by Nchidzi Smarts and Fauziya Abdi Ali

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ — Nelson Mandela

Why does this statement by Nelson Mandela resonate so much? One response would be because of the power of a narrative when used in the right context.

In Africa today, we witness great progress with six countries in the top ten of the fastest growing economies in the world, according to the World bank.

But one of the biggest threat posed to growth in many African countries is the threat of violent extremism.

As our Journey to extremism report highlights, vulnerability to violent extremism is shaped by persistent underdevelopment with factors such as injustice and inequality amongst others providing a conducive space.

Violent extremism has always involved a battle of ideas, reflecting a desire for immediate political transformation. This battle is often said to be about ‘capturing the narrative’.

Narratives can be defined as a personal construct which enables us to make sense of our world around us.

For Africa, the tradition of storytelling - also called “orature” - has been used to pass oral history from generation to generation. The oral art of passing messages through songs, poems, proverbs and chants has enabled African people to teach morals, educate, illustrate, enlighten, inform, persuade, stimulate and inspire generations. But the narratives vary from village to village and from country to country , though this is rarely known or acknowledged.

Anchoring counter-extremism efforts at the community level has been lauded as the best approach towards preventing and responding to radicalization because of the highly localized nature of recruitment. Yet most approaches are trying to affect narratives which are little understood with strategies and messages based upon faulty assumptions, and are, in most cases, not based on the realities of communities.

Using local voices,  UNDP put together a toolkit, with the help of Albany associates and support from the Government of Japan, geared towards assisting civil society organizations especially local organizations to develop narratives to build using their own local realities.

This toolkit, “tackling extremist narratives”, is in fact a mobile application available on Google and Apple platforms for free. Once downloaded, the application does not need a Wi-Fi or a mobile signal to function, making it especially useful in remotes areas without access to Internet.

The toolkit focuses on the strategic and communications elements, providing mechanisms to construct, measure and revamp stories, events, experiences, stimuli and learning experiences to disrupt the cognitive scenery of individuals who are vulnerable to violent ideology.

To carry out a narrative campaign that elicits the desired behavioural change, it’s vital to base the campaigns strategy and subsequent planning on rigorous analytical evaluation of the audience you wish to target/work with. This app provides those who wish to carry out successful counter-extremism campaigns with the correct processes and analytical models.

As UNDP works towards better understanding, preventing and responding to drivers of radicalization, voices of communities must be heard and enhanced, to target peers and other stakeholders and build resilience from extremist narratives. This toolkit helps build on the fact that, only when a message is relevant, resonates with the audience and answers their concerns, will the people be willing to listen!

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