Breaking Down Barriers: City Exchanges as Tools for Building Collaboration

Author: Prof. Veton Latifi
Local Prevention Coordinator, Strong Cities Network

One of the most significant challenges in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) is the sharing of information, resources, expertise and strategies. This challenge takes place at all levels: internationally, nationally and locally, including between law enforcement, civil society, and youth centres. These groups often lack proper channels of communication, shared goals to strive for, established meeting places for informal exchanges of ideas, and foundational levels of trust. Consequently, it is remarkably easy for sectors to veer towards isolationism. Breaking down these barriers is not only imperative for effective local-level P/CVE efforts, but can render many benefits both regionally and internationally.

To encourage this, the Strong Cities Network (SCN) has conducted a series of city exchanges between its members, including Peshawar and Birmingham, Kristiansand and Mombasa, and Montreal and Dakar. In this article, we outline their purpose and describe the latest (and first) city exchange to take place in the Western Balkans.

These bilateral exchanges aim to promote and share practical tools and initiatives on a city-to-city basis, whilst creating spaces which encourage the exchange of ideas and knowledge, and strengthens collaborative efforts. They form a critical function in tackling transnational extremist threats as well as in highlighting international examples of good P/CVE practice which can help inform ongoing efforts. The main goals of city exchanges include:

  • Sharing vital practical tools and initiatives to reduce local risk, prevent violence and build cohesive communities;
  • Developing a mutual understanding of the strategic planning processes in each city, including how local action plans are developed, how risks are assessed and profiled, how partners and resources are allocated, what mitigation/prevention approaches are chosen, and how strategies are monitored and evaluated;
  • Improving mutual understanding of how P/CVE activities are being communicated by municipal actors at the same time as understanding the broader public perceptions of this work;
  • Seeing first-hand how cities are implementing key initiatives on the frontline through local site visits. Visits include local welcome or information centres for refugees and new citizens, specialist centres of excellence on P/CVE and connected issues, youth centres and engagement programmes, community policing teams, or deradicalisation and disengagement specialist teams;
  • Building a long-term partnership between SCN member cities to provide bilateral support to design, share and implement effective P/CVE policies and practices beyond the exchange.

Building on the earlier expansion of its Local Prevention Network (LPN) model into the Western Balkans, the SCN organised the first city exchange in the region, which took  place in Skopje, North Macedonia, from 25-27 November, and included representatives from the Kumanovo, Gostivar and Čair Community Action Teams, as well as representatives from civil society organisations, municipal officials and local practitioners from Elbasan in Albania. In order to encourage fruitful and productive dialogue, the (deputy) mayors of Kumanovo, Elbasan and Cair were present, as was the Deputy National CVE Coordinator of North Macedonia.

Over the course of three days, delegates had the space to speak to a broad audience and debate vital topics, such as the role of local communities in PVE work and the importance of national-local coordination to achieve effective results collectively. To highlight existing efforts, each municipality was given a platform to introduce their city and the various P/CVE initiatives underway or soon to be initiated, as well as the associated challenges and lessons learned from these programmes.

The exchange was also used as a vehicle to highlight themes that hold regional significance, as delegates visited centres and organisations which focus on a broad range of issues, from youth empowerment and engagement, the reintegration of returnees and the role of women in preventing violent extremism. These included Youth Community Centres in Cair and Gostivar, the Agency for Youth and Sports, the NGO Democracy Lab, as well as meetings with ambassadors from the MotherSchools project implemented by and Women Without Borders, and practitioners working with families of returnees from the NGO Horizon Civitas.

The first city exchange will serve as a benchmark for future collaborative work in the Western Balkans. Namely, the Kumanovo’s CAT members were inspired by many of the presented activities during the event and will consider them when finalising their Local CVE Action Plan. The SCN will support the implementation of activities listed in the Local Action Plan in the upcoming year and will share the results with the rest of the participants of the event. Moreover, the representatives from Elbasan expressed more interest in the local structures established in the North Macedonian municipalities to counter violent extremism.

The SCN is committed to the scaling of the model to other members in the region and encourages city officials to closely consider local prevention networks tailored to their needs. Finally, the city representatives from Kumanovo, Cair and Elbasan decided to brainstorm cross-municipal and cross-border joint municipal activities in the upcoming future so they can further strengthen their relationship.

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