Violent extremism: four tips for effective programming
The 2017 Global Terrorism Index was launched today . It records a fall in the total number of deaths over the past two years, but documents a spread in the number of places terror attacks have happened. Two thirds of all countries experienced a terrorist attack in 2016, with 77 countries experiencing deaths from terrorism, an increase from 65 in 2015. So-called security wins have largely displaced violent groups across borders rather than generating definitive outcomes.
The numbers tell us one part of the story, but the weight of the narrative lies elsewhere. It lies with the people living with the daily realities of the impact of violent extremism and the global war on terror. It lies with the organisations working directly with these people, organisations who have been engaged in humanitarian, development or peacebuilding work for years and are now involved in, or on the periphery of, efforts to prevent violent extremism. It lies with the governments, donors and institutions working to align domestic and foreign agendas on the one hand to fund programmes to prevent people from joining armed groups and on the other engaged in military strategies to prevent the spread of terrorism.
Multiple agendas, ideas and approaches compete in this debate. At one end of the spectrum a clamour for the silver bullet of what works most rapidly to stem the immediate threat of violence. At the other, the warnings of the contradictions between the impact of the global war on terror contributing to the creation of the very phenomenon it seeks to prevent and the dangerous politicisation of development and humanitarian action, blurring the boundaries between security and aid.
At International Alert, we believe it is more important than ever to take a step back and listen to those living and working in the places most affected. With that in mind, here are some ideas to make violent extremism programming more effective.
Say what you see
It is no surprise that the places with the highest levels of terror, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria according to this year’s report, are also places with persistent conflict, violence and grievances. Violent extremism does not exist in a vacuum but is one outcome of conflict, inequality and injustice. In Tunisia, for example, social and urban inequalities shape identities. The unmet promises of the Arab Spring have left young people severely frustrated. Underemployment, underdevelopment, lack of investment, insecurity, the stigma associated with living in poor neighbourhoods and political marginalisation have created an environment in which an alternative narrative of violent extremism can take hold. Pulling a wide range of social, structural and individual challenges under the broad term of violent extremism programming risks stigmatising individuals and communities, creating further isolation and alienation and undermining the very strategies designed to foster greater trust and build stability. If the challenge that is being tackled in a programme is youth empowerment and political engagement let’s call it that and save the violent extremism agenda for the narrow areas when it is genuinely the focus of the issue that needs to be addressed. Listen and understand before you intervene We need to learn to listen, before we intervene. Listening to the communities living the daily realities of insecurity to understand different forms of violence helps us to move beyond national and international security approaches to a prioritisation of what would make the biggest difference to everyday security. In Mali, focusing efforts around countering violent extremism and counter terrorism have glossed over pre-existing conflicts, divisions between and within communities, between state and citizens, identity and ethnic divisions, and justified aggressive tactics of security forces that have exacerbated the feelings of grievance and exclusion. Violent extremism involves a complex interplay of psychological, social factors, political and ideological factors, as well as cultural and identity issues, as exemplified by our research on Syria. These complexities require us to consider the totality of the individual, their social relationships, the networks and organisations they belong to as well as their relationship with the state and the international environment. Current approaches often miss an understanding of a person’s individual response to their context and how these are influenced by different social factors, spaces of resilience and structural drivers.