For years, sociologist and anthropologist Naomi van Stapele has been researching the role of local gangs in cities such as Kenyan capital Nairobi, where most people grow up in marginalised, violent neighbourhoods.

In such areas, gangs offer both social capital and access to work. These gangs provide neighbourhood safety as well, although they themselves cause an unsafe environment too. “But we have to put their behaviour in context, because the police are usually the first to use violence,” the professor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) said. “One in five of the young people I worked with was shot by police officers. That is an incredibly high percentage.”

Futhermore, aid organisations often don’t understand local gangs, says Van Stapele. “The gangs are often criminalised. It seems to make sense, but if you look at the broader context, the gangs have other functions that actually need to be encouraged.” The aid organisations usually don’t understand what’s going on in these neighbourhoods. That’s why they should  work with local gangs. “If you don’t look at the neighbourhoods in an anthropological way, your aid program will fail anyway.”

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