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Better health as cure for insecurity in North Eastern Kenya

NAIROBI: For the community of Mandera, a remote northern frontier town in Kenya, long resigned to years of neglect, the pomp associated with hosting ambassadors for the first time was reason enough for optimism.

The ambassadors of Turkey, Sweden, the European Union, Denmark and Finland and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) executive director were in Mandera in November 2015 to launch a Community Life Centre and join the First Lady of Kenya for the Beyond Zero campaign.

The Community Life Centre, a partnership between UNFPA and Phillips, would bring quality primary healthcare within the reach of about 25,000 women and children. The counties in northern Kenya are responsible for half of the country’s maternal mortality burden.

The enthusiastic reception for the dignitaries was not just because they were first-time visitors, but because residents saw the visit as a harbinger of better fortunes for the region, long regarded as a forgotten frontier.
The focus on getting the health status of the region to match the rest of the country has incubated discourse on what other collateral benefits provision of health services can have, including neutering the drivers of violent extremism.

The concept of “health as a bridge for peace” may be resonating in this county, which has seen the scourge of internecine conflicts and cross-border attacks.
“The nexus between effective health services and security is now becoming clearer.

“An adequate and equitable healthcare system gives an essential form of security and we are quite optimistic that this project is the beginning of a new narrative for communities here,” says Mandera Governor Ali Roba.

According to World Health Organisation, it works even better when all actors get involved in post-war reconstruction. What happens is that health workers, a key pillar in delivering health programmes in conflict and post-conflict situations, contribute to peace-building initiatives. For example, opposite sides can collaborate to carry out immunisation campaigns in the midst of wars and local conflicts helping to not only bridge the gap but trigger discussions like ‘Why Fight?’

It also has the power to trigger empathy among the adversaries because seeing a sick, malnourished child suffering for a cause  they know nothing about will certainly melt even the most battle-hardened of men. Geographical remoteness, poverty and years of neglect present only a dead end for the region’s youth, with whatever ambition they may start out with promptly turning into frustration, thus presenting bountiful space for violent groups to fuel their own agendas.

A Harvard Kennedy School study found that when 15 to 24-year-olds made up more than 35 per cent of the adult population - as is common in developing countries - the risk of conflict was 150 percent higher compared to rich countries with an older age profile.

In Mandera and other northern counties, UNFPA is leading a Reproductive Maternal Newborn and Child Health (RMNCH) project, together with the World Bank, UNICEF, WHO and the Kenya Red Cross. A consortium of private sector firms, which seek to save the lives of mothers and young children, have also joined in.

“Empowering women and girls for their rights, to stay in school, to choose when to marry and when to give birth, to opportunities for gainful employment, are the most expedient means to get there,” says Ms Ruth Kagia, a Senior Adviser to the President of Kenya.

There is an opportunity to transform the region’s ‘youth bulge’ into a ‘youth boom’. In the words of United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, empowering the youth will ensure that they represent “promise, not peril”.

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