For peace on Britain's streets learn from Liberia

A few months ago I found a ten-inch-long bayonet on the ground in my front garden. I saw it when I was taking my daughters to nursery. As I called the police to report it I shuddered that I live in a city of surging knife crime. Almost three hundred people lost their lives to knife crime in the UK last year. And the major parties offer almost nothing in response. The Conservatives call for more police officers and the return of stop and search. But they fail to significantly reverse police cuts. Law enforcement alone is not enough.  London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan, while seeking to pass the blame to the government for the carnage, trumpets a vague “public health” approach that took ten years to succeed in Glasgow. Thousands more people could be murdered by then. Both parties are floundering.

Johnson Borh from Liberia isn’t floundering. He has developed a programme that is so successful at getting young men out of street violence that it is being rolled out in Chicago. Perhaps the UK should follow suit. An entire generation of young men in Liberia lost their childhoods to 14 years of war. Many now plague the streets of the capital Moravia in gangs with drugs and crime.  Johnson, a former child soldier himself, spent years experimenting with every therapy manual he could find and UN or NGO course to get his ex-comrades off the streets. He developed an eight-week group therapy programme targeted at street gangs, called Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia (STYL). Young men learn techniques to cool their anger. They tell positive stories. They learn how to plan and set goals. They are taught to dress more conventionally.  Then they practice everyday tasks like going to the bank or supermarket where they see they that are treated with respect, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Afterwards, a remarkable number set up small businesses and stay out of crime.

Borh caught the eye of Chicago University’s Professor Chris Blattman, who was researching ex-combatants in Liberia and kept on hearing about STYL. Blattman noticed STYL looked similar to cognitive behaviour therapy used by psychologists in the US to treat aggression and criminal problems. So, he spent three years working with 1,000 Liberian men linked to street gangs in a controlled experiment.  He split the men up at random and put some through STYL and used the others as a control group for comparative purposes. After just the eight weeks of the STYL programme, graduates who also received a $200 cash grant to help set up a business, committed 40% less theft. Blattman was so impressed that he’s now conducting a similar experiment with 8,500 youths in Chicago. He says the key to behavioural change is not just the cognitive behaviour therapy, but also aggressively targeting programme participants and those most at risk of committing crime. He does this by working with hospital emergency departments and local community intelligence of gang networks. On its first iteration in Chicago, violent crime arrests dropped by 20%. It works.

Knife crime in Britain is at its highest ever levels. The pathetic political response is yet one more depressing example of a failed system. Instead, on knife crime, politicians could start by talking to Borh and Blattman.

Chris Coghlan is a former Foreign Office counter terrorism officer and Harvard University public policy graduate. In the 2017 general election he stood as an independent in Battersea for moderate MP’s to split into new centre party. @_chris_coghlan

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