What Works in Countering Violent Extremism

Chad / Darfurian refugees from Sudan / Djabal camp  (17 766 refugees, 4681 families), 4 kilometers west from Goz Beida UNHCR sub-office located 217 km south from Abeche, located 900 kilometer east from N'Djamena the chadian capital. The camp, created on 4/6/2004, is located 80 km from the sudanese border. Sunset on one of the playground of Djabal refugees' camp. Teenagers play football, the main sport activities. 60 % of the camp's population is under 18 years old, with 40% of old people. / UNHCR / F. Noy / December 2011

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.

2015: What A Year We’ve Had!


At SSG Advisors, we believe in the work we do to deliver innovative development solutions that improve people’s lives, and we also believe in communities this creates, within our company and beyond. Looking back at our achievements in 2015, we’ve had a number of accomplishments we’re proud of, so we thought we would share with you our own reflections on the past year, both in terms of our work, and our people:

We Grew

  • Over the past year, our company has grown significantly. We welcomed on board more than a dozen new members of staff, in Burlington, Washington and overseas. We’re also moving into a bigger, brighter space in DC, to match our big bright office in Burlington.
  • Throughout the year, we launched eight new projects across the world, including in Haiti, East Timor, Somalia, and Liberia – all new markets for us. We also moved into new areas of technical expertise, for example with two new projects in fish catch traceability innovation and integrated water management.

We helped clients launch and scale many new partnerships

Mara Partnership

The Mara Serengeti Hoteliers and the partners after Signing the Resource Efficiency Partnership.

  • Together with Microsoft, USAID, the Government of the Philippines, and Tetra Tech, we won the 2015 P3 Impact Award for our TV Whitespace Partnership.
  • We launched a partnership in the Mara Serengeti that will allow hoteliers to save water, and operate in a more environmentally friendly manner.
  • We also ran three Rapid Partnership Appraisals, in Ghana, Timor Leste and the Mara-Serengeti region (in both Kenya and Tanzania.) In the process, we interviewed over a hundred businesses and other stakeholders and refined our discussions down to specific partnership ideas, which are now being explored.
  • With the US Global Development Lab’s Center for Transformational Partnerships (CTP), USAID’s Office of Private Capital and Microenterprise (PCM), and USAID/Nepal, we conducted a private sector engagement assessment that identified opportunities to collaborate and partner with the private sector to help Nepal ‘build back better’ after the 2015 earthquake in the agriculture, tourism, and construction sectors.
  • With CTP and USAID/Malawi, we identified opportunities to partner with the private sector to achieve food security, economic development, and climate change resilient outcomes to support ongoing program strategy development and programming.

We worked to counter violent extremismIMG_2629

  • This year, we facilitated several workshops on development approaches to countering violent extremism (CVE) in Africa and the Middle East. Using an innovative participatory methodology, SSG guided U.S. government staff, development practitioners, youth leaders, and other stakeholders through training on CVE strategies and action planning to implement CVE programming in their communities and projects. SSG also guided participants through workshop sessions dedicated to exploring new thought areas, such as the role of women in violent extremism.
  • Considering the tragic attacks that have taken place throughout the world over the past year, we recognize the need for greater discussion from a wide range of stakeholders on new efforts and innovative strategies to counter violent extremism. With this in mind, SSG facilitates the USAID-funded CVE Forum, which provides a platform for practitioners to collaborate, share lessons learned, and discuss CVE strategies. The Forum also posts project insights, highlights new research, and provides a weekly rundown of thought, news, and ideas related to CVE.

We supported sustainable investments

  • We developed a billion-dollar pipeline of agribusiness investment opportunities in two markets in West Africa.
  • We facilitated the launch of the PFAN-Asia platform, which will mobilize investment for small-scale renewable energy projects across SE Asia.

We provided deep insights


  • We conducted an evaluation of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) project this year and in doing so developed an online monitoring platform that will enable the State Department to glean real time programmatic insights.
  • With CTP, we co-authored a ground-breaking paper on the role that local private sector partners play in development partnerships around the world.
  • We conducted an evaluation of early grade reading programs in the Dominican Republic.
  • We prepared a Case Study of a major USAID partnership with Coca-Cola.
  • With the CTP, we wrote four How-To Guides that USAID Missions around the world are now using to integrate private sector engagement and partnerships into into their strategies, planning, and programming.

And on top of it all, our staff members welcomed three new babies, graduated from business school, started Master’s degrees and were accepted to top tier business schools.

We’re grateful for the year we had, for the hard work of our staff, and for the hundreds of experiences, interactions, and opportunities to learn that 2015 brought us. We know there is more to come in 2016!

Countering Violent Extremism: How the Latin American Experience in Violence Prevention Can Inform the Development Response to Violent Extremism in the Middle East and Beyond

By Ned Littlefield and Natalie Shemwell

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington, DC, February 2015 (Courtesy Joshua Roberts/Reuters).

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington, DC, February 2015 (Courtesy Joshua Roberts/Reuters).

At a recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama framed the challenge facing the global community: ‘When people — especially young people — feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption — that feeds instability and disorder, and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment.”

The President’s focus has helped bring the issue of violent extremism (VE) to the fore, and it also highlights the complex, systemic, multi-faceted root causes of the allure of extremism. Although it is growing, the body of evidence regarding what works and what does not in countering violent extremism (CVE) programming in developing countries remains limited. Here, it may be possible to draw some insights from other contexts. In particular, the experience of Latin America in addressing the scourge of gang violence and particularly gang recruitment may offer some parallels to the challenges facing governments, donors, and civil society groups in the Middle East and beyond as they grapple with the role development assistance can play in CVE.

There are a number of specific political, economic, and social factors, as well as particular group dynamics and socio-psychological processes that are likely to generate or increase individual and community vulnerability to VE. Social marginalization, the search for meaning and identity, and lack of viable alternatives can be manipulated into recruitment tactics on vulnerable youth by both gangs and violent extremist organizations. Similarly, many of the factors enhancing resiliency to violent extremism appear similar to those that strengthen community resiliency to crime and gang violence. These factors include a shared collective identity or purpose, strengthened social ties, inclusive education and economic systems, and a sense of efficacy by youth.

While CVE programs are relatively new, development agencies have a considerable body of evidence regarding what works and what does not in violence prevention in Latin America. For example, an impact evaluation presented by Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) in October 2014 demonstrates that a community-based approach to crime and violence prevention in Central America, which “integrates education and workforce development, economic growth and employment, public health, and governance interventions”, has produced “a significant reduction in the expected level of crime victimization and violence,” as well as a reduction in gang-related problems in treatment communities.[1] According to SSG Senior Associate Kristen Sample, “Governments and donors have more than two decades of experience in violence prevention programs in Central America and Colombia. These programs demonstrate the importance of coordinated action on the part of critical stakeholders – local governments, international donors, and US agencies – to help achieve a collective impact.”

The knowledge and experience gained in Latin America is highly relevant to those involved in CVE work. “There are only a handful of CVE programs around the world, so the body of knowledge within the development community is extremely limited. Therefore, it is critical that those of us working on programs to prevent and counter violent extremism build on the best practices and lessons learned from the Latin America experience,” says Jen Heeg, SSG Senior Associate and an expert on violent extremism in the Middle East.

A growing body of evidence suggests that ideology is just one of many tactics employed by violent extremist organizations in their recruitment – similar to Latin American gang recruitment, youth may be driven to join VE groups out of a sense of marginalization, injustice, and desire to belong. These similarities deserve further attention in the analysis, programming, and evaluation phases of CVE work.

The phenomenon of violent extremism is not static – it is constantly evolving. As governments, donors and civil society groups in the Middle East and elsewhere increasingly focus on developing CVE programs to meet this evolving ever-changing challenge, it is essential that practitioners draw upon the wealth of knowledge and experience garnered in Latin America.


[1] Impact Evaluation of USAID’s Community-Based Crime and Violence Prevention Approach in Central America: Regional Report for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, 2014, Latin American Public Opinion Project

Fostering Local Solutions to Address Violent Extremism in the Maghreb and Middle East

SSG Advisors is pleased to announce that we are part of the winning consortium of the recently awarded USAID/Middle East Local Solutions to Address Transition and Security Challenges in the Middle East and North Africa: Engaging Local Institutions to address conflict and violent extremism.   SSG Advisors is partnering with FHI360 on this 2½ year task order and will be responsible for providing analytical, capacity building and knowledge management support.


According to SSG’s Tom Buck, “Many of the causes of violent extremism are development challenges – inequality, repression, corruption and poor governance that enable radicalization.  Effective development that empowers communities and creates social and economic opportunity can play a key role in mitigating these drivers of violent extremism.  SSG Advisors is extremely proud to be supporting the efforts of communities, NGOs and governments in the Maghreb to develop local solutions to these challenges.”



SSG’s Innovative Approach to Youth Engagement Enables Social and Economic Empowerment

One of the most vexing challenges facing the developing world remains what has commonly been termed the ‘youth bulge.’ While half of the world’s population is currently under the age of 30, 90% of these youth live in developing economies in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. This burgeoning population presents enormous challenges as countries struggle to provide their young citizens with ample employment, education opportunities, social inclusion, and effective healthcare. Frustration at the lack of opportunity and political voice has already boiled over among youth throughout the Middle East, leading to sweeping and revolutionary change from Tunisia to Egypt as part of the Arab Spring.

Together with USAID and several key implementing partners, SSG has worked for a number of years at the leading edge of youth development in Africa and Asia. We’ve worked directly with youth organizations to empower them through solutions that provide youth with the skills, assets, and opportunities to shape their own future as healthy, educated, and productive citizens. In numerous challenging contexts, SSG has empowered youth to take control of their own destinies through a range of skills and partnership-development activities.

Yes Youth Can! capacity building


SSG Advisors served as a key implementing partner in Kenya for the Yes Youth Can Western youth empowerment project, training numerous youth organizations in private sector partnership development, which in turn led to over 100 youth-managed partnerships focusing on issues from agricultural commercialization and business training to conservation, ecotourism, and waste management. Under the USAID/Pakistan Conflict Victims Support Program (CVSP), SSG mobilized numerous partnerships across a broad range of industries, including pharmaceutical, telemedicine, manufacturing, microfinance, media, agribusiness, and finance, directly benefiting more than 1,600 at-risk youth in the northern war-torn regions. Partnerships focused on vocational training, building trust between young citizens and their government, and encouraging youth to take an active role in their own lives. SSG has also worked with the USAID/Africa Bureau to mainstream youth and community development strategies to reduce the potential for violent extremism and recruitment of youth to extremist organizations. In the Philippines, SSG developed a partnership with Microsoft to use TV White Space—unused TV broadcast channels—to establish wireless Internet connectivity in remote fishing areas. Through the partnership, local schools and municipal centers are serving as e-knowledge hubs and registration centers for local youth and their communities.

As the rapidly evolving Arab Spring has shown, countries and markets cannot develop successfully without providing youth with clear avenues for economic and social empowerment. Without focused efforts to provide youth with pathways for economic and social improvement, emerging markets and democracies will remain squarely in the shadow of the youth bulge. SSG understands the central importance of this paradigm and continually strives towards youth empowerment across its program portfolio.