Burundians Blaze a Community Policing Trail

How villagers and National Police in an east central African country came to see and treat each other as fellow citizens.

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In Burundi, a conflict-ridden country in east central Africa, the citizen-led Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP) partnered with the Burundi National Police to build a new vision for safer communities and to equip citizens to realize it nationwide. 

IPLW co-founder Marie Ström had already helped implement a leadership training program in several villages. The program was pioneered by Idasa, a leading democracy think-tank and civic organizing agency in apartheid

and post-apartheid South Africa. Idasa’s approach had been rooted in facilitated, direct conversation between mistrustful and often antagonistic parties. Shared stories opened paths to shared visions and commitments. Now, members of the Burundian government’s newly-formed community police structures – “police de proximité” – were invited along with civilian community members to participate in BLTP workshops embodying public work principles. 

At the outset of the program, suspicions ran high on both sides. But participants soon began to recognize each other’s shared interest in promoting safety in their villages, and the different skills and resources they could each bring to the task. The slogan for the training program was, “Safety is everybody’s business.”  Participants explored different dimensions of safety, arriving at an understanding that problems of insecurity could not be solved by government policy or by police structures alone. All citizens had a crucial role to play, and police themselves were citizens first. 

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In short, the concepts and methods of public work inspired police and civilian participants to join together as citizens to create the kind of community they wanted to live in. Overcoming decades of ethnic and political tension, they began to respect each other across lines of difference that had previously divided them.  They learned how to practice a different kind of politics, accepting the plurality of their society and paying attention to each other’s interests and lived experiences.  As one police officer commented, “I used to see community members as problems, but I can see myself working with them now.” Work with others, not on or for them: that’s public work.