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

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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.

Learning from the Field: The Role of the Private Sector in Enhancing Citizen Security in Latin America

By Ned Littlefield

It is tempting to think that public-private partnerships (PPPs) are most applicable to economically productive domains where the private sector can create value through collaboration with public entities to address social needs, such as workforce development, health, and agriculture. The case for shared value is often harder to make in sectors such as citizen security, which is traditionally thought of as a core responsibility of the public sector. However, in Latin America, a region where many countries have among the highest crime rates in the world, the complex security environment has direct impacts on the private sector. As such, companies, governments, and civil society in countries such as the Dominican Republic are forging innovative partnerships to enhance citizen security.

Private Sector Engagement in the Dominican Republic’s New Prison Model


In many countries in Central America and throughout the region, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, and immature management systems often make prisons incubators for crime, both within and outside of penitentiary walls. Prison personnel exercise limited control over prisons themselves, with many prisoners continuing to engage in criminal activity through cell phones and other contraband that have been smuggled past bribed guards. Inmates in such prisons can continue to direct criminal activities, such as assassinations carried out on the streets, from within the prisons walls. Other prisoners have limited employability and few job prospects once released, so they can easily fall back into lives of crime.

To address the above mentioned challenges, the Dominican Republic has instituted the New Model of Prison Management, which is oriented around making prisons cleaner, offering more educational and professional enrichment opportunities for inmates, and professionalizing prison management for the newly created academy for penitentiary studies. Reportedly, “ten years after [opening] its first prison,” this model, which the Dominican government is implementing prison-by-prison across the country, is “gaining recognition from other countries in the region trying to reduce prison populations and cut recidivism rates.

Private sector actors determined in the early 2000s that, considering the constraints that extortion was placing on small and medium-sized businesses, justice sector reform was essential, and that prisons were a high-need focus of their efforts. This activism on the part of the private sector played a key role in establishing the New Model for Prison Management.

For example, the Dominican private sector has contributed significantly to the Institute of Professional Technical Training (or the Instituto de Formación Técnico Profesional in Spanish), which has expanded its professional development coverage into the prison system in order to prepare inmates to secure employment upon release and contribute to the Dominican economy. This partnership between the private sector and the penal system creates value for Dominican companies. By providing prison inmates with the skills they need to find employment and stay out of criminal activities once they are released, it eventually makes streets and businesses safer, while also potentially providing a skilled workforce for the companies to pull from – transforming a social problem into a potential business solution.

While the DR New Model is one compelling example of public-private collaboration in citizen security, there are other partnership models across the region emerging in Central America, Mexico, and Colombia. For companies, these partnerships help address the security concerns of their workforce and customer base. For governments and civil society, these partnerships provide resources and capabilities needed to address the needs of citizens. As Latin America continues to tackle the challenge of endemic crime, the importance of citizen security PPPs will only grow.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Karshan.