This article was originally published on the Huffington Post. To view the original article, please follow this link.
By Elise Barry
Twenty years ago, no one had ever heard of CVE. Now, CVE (or countering violent extremism if you haven’t quite caught up on the acronym) has evolved into a field of study, a strategy, a U.S. government and international priority, and a larger debate over what is effective in preventing the terrorist attacks that inundate the news these days. This is not to say that either the tactics used by violent extremist groups or efforts to prevent violent extremism are new phenomena – they are age-old. However, in the last decade, there has been a significant push by governments, multilateral organizations, and NGOs to focus efforts under the umbrella of CVE to respond to the increase of terrorism worldwide. Unlike the hardline military, security, and intelligence approach of counterterrorism, programs under the CVE umbrella seek to empower communities and build resilience to violent extremism (though many programs in the past have misunderstood or blurred this distinction).
In contrast to the sharp increase in interest being focused on this new field of CVE, there are few studies or examples that have been able to concretely pinpoint what works and what doesn’t in preventing individuals from joining violent extremist groups. Leaving aside the fact that quantifying ‘success’ in CVE is extremely difficult, the lack of hard data or success stories has created a larger debate over what works in CVE or whether it even does work. This has left many scratching their heads or worse – talking a lot, while saying little of substance.
This debate has gotten one thing right in that there are no easy answers or panaceas in CVE. However, with the benefit of hindsight on the last decade of CVE programming and from my own experience supporting development agencies, NGOs, development professionals, youth, and other stakeholders to understand the role they can play in CVE across Africa, I see a few rules of thumb that are critical for CVE to be effective:
One size does not fit all
In a world where you can customize your latte in 100 different combinations, we need to begin thinking this way in terms of CVE programming. The backgrounds of individuals who join violent extremist groups and their reasons for doing so are incredibly diverse and often very individual. Not only does it matter what country you live in, what your gender is, and your socioeconomic status, but your individual life experiences leading up to this point also play a key role in the reasons you may or may not be more likely to join or support a violent extremist group. Because of this, the unfortunate fact is that one size does not fit all and a program that might impact one individual is not going to make one bit of difference for their neighbor. For example, let’s think about a youth parliament program in Mandera, Kenya, a city on the border of Somalia that has been the scene of frequent al-Shabaab attacks. For some youth, this program could provide them with a voice and a platform to create change in their community, which may have been the impetus for supporting al-Shabaab otherwise. For others though, they may not be the least bit interested in joining a youth parliament. Perhaps they faced significant discrimination and would benefit more from psychosocial support or yet another type of program. Rather than broad projects that attempt to address all of the grievances in a community, let alone a country, CVE programs need to be as granular as possible. As a result, we need a lot of them.
Learn and act locally, with a global awareness
When we talk about addressing the drivers of violent extremism, it often requires real social change. For example, if we look at what makes violent extremist groups attractive, predominately to youth, it often comes down to the fact that many groups are offering those individuals a voice, a recognized role in a society, and an opportunity to overturn systems – whether that system is based on age or entrenched elites – that is holding them back. To address this will require that the status quo of social structures be challenged and revised. Such social change is nearly impossible to predict or plan from the outside. Moreover, it would be naïve to assume that anyone, outside of the community enacting that change, knows what is best or would work for them. Creating a space for individuals to discuss their grievances and be a part of devising the programs will not only result in better solutions, but will also give individuals a measure of control over their problems.
This does not mean we should promote CVE programs in a vacuum. Country-wide, regional, and even global trends do play into violent extremism and how it manifests around the world. This is true when looking at the overlap that often exists between organized crime and violent extremism. For example, while the grievances that cause an individual to join Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are likely very localized, responses need to at least be aware of the regional criminal networks and instability that keeps AQIM in business in the first place. So, programs should be targeted, locally-driven, and localized, while keeping an eye on broader trends and patterns.
Be realistic and focused, but not discouraged
It is easy to become overwhelmed when looking at the complexity of the issues that need to be addressed to mitigate the root causes of violent extremism or the length of time it will take to see progress. CVE programs needs to go hand in hand with economic development, security sector reform, democracy and governance strengthening, and a whole host of other development objectives. Moreover, many of the drivers of violent extremism are generational problems that may very well take generations to resolve. This is not what many want to hear, but it is the truth. Even with a diverse range of programs in every at-risk community, there will not be a quick fix to terrorism. We need to accept this now, so that we can focus on what can be achieved.
Seen from another perspective, the complexity of the issues is also cause for optimism, as we realize that we can address individual parts of the problem. It is both reassuring and encouraging that one small youth parliament program in Mandera, Kenya can make a difference. No, this is not even remotely close to ‘solving’ the problem of violent extremism in the world, in Kenya, or even merely in Mandera. However, it will make a difference, and, with enough smart, locally-driven, focused, and creatively diverse programs working in collaboration with the development projects already underway all over the world, we will see progress.