The challenges and opportunities of preventing violent extremism through development

Violence is the main constraint to meeting the Millennium Development Goals, writes Ben Schonveld and Odhran McMahon.

The 2016 United Nations Secretary General’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism underscores international recognition of the development sector’s role in tackling violent extremism.

Fragile and conflict-afflicted countries provide conditions conducive to violent extremism. Conflict-afflicted countries suffer greater levels of violent extremism than more stable environments, and in turn, violent extremism can feed and deepen existing conflict.

Violence, violent extremism and conflict threaten development. The 2011 ‘World Bank Development Report’ concludes that violence in its many forms is the main constraint to meeting the Millennium Development Goals. As a result, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a specific goal relating to violence, justice, and peace.

Development actors are under intense pressure from the international donor community to address violent extremism and work more closely with the security sector. Traditionally, development and security actors have had little interaction on this issue. How, and to what extent, countries should develop a long-term development response against what is perceived to be a pressing security threat is an urgent policy question.


Development responses to violent extremism are increasingly associated with the term Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) to describe how longer term development measures can address governance failings and the socioeconomic grievances that often lie behind extremism at a local level.

Developing and implementing PVE development programming is not straightforward. For example, rebranding governance and development activities under the banner of PVE is not recommended. These programs have intrinsic value in and of themselves, and bannering them under PVE would entail unnecessary risk.

Central to the development-PVE challenge is the familiar issue of the conceptual weakness of violent extremism. Even at the most basic level, all the key concepts are complex, contested and highly politicised. That terrorism, radicalisation and violent extremism are often used as synonyms is indicative of just how deep this problem runs.

Obviously, it is difficult to discuss development solutions to problems and terms that are both poorly defined and often disputed. This conceptual problem filters down to programming. Preventing or countering violent extremism are often used as synonyms, and de facto programming can include just about anything.

“International development experts are under pressure to address violent extremism and work more closely with the security sector”

Another issue facing development practitioners is that the study of violent extremism is often very limited in scope, focusing primarily on immediate security issues. Research into wider root causes remains nascent. While academics and security analysts have studied the radicalisation of violent extremists at great length, less attention has been paid to the impact and reaction of societies to sustained acts of terrorism.

This is oversight is important. The response of states to acts of violence is often an overreaction, and it is this overreaction that the terrorists seek from acts of terrorism in order to divide and polarise societies.  Outcomes have often involved increases in executive power at the expense of the legislature and judiciary, restrictions of civil and political freedoms and gross violations of human rights and impunity perpetrated by increasingly powerful and often politicised security forces.

The reaction or overreaction to acts of terror can create a cycle of radicalisation between governments, society and the media, and terrorists. A deepening cycle of violence and state repression that feeds back into a cycle of deepening violence through a range of violent extremism drivers. Schmid describes this process as “government radicalisation” :

“[I]t is equally important to examine the role of state actors and their potential for radicalisation. The use of torture techniques and extra-judicial renditions in recent years has been a drastic departure from democratic rule of law procedures and international human rights standards. These are indicative of the fact that in a polarised political situation not only non-state actors but also state actors can radicalise”.

Globally and with differing levels of success, this wider concept of radicalisation explains why states have attempted to contain violent extremism with a focus on security and a preference for coercion, coercion that often exceeds and undermines international human rights norms and international humanitarian law.

The crossing of these normative lines tends to, initially at least, enjoy public support given the perception of profound crisis. But equally and tragically, there is good evidence that the widespread violations that occur in response to violent extremism can also act as a driver for violent extremism; and as the UNDP’s report into African violent extremism,  ‘Journey to Extremism in Africa‘ notes, may operate as a tipping point for individuals into violent extremism.


This wider concept of radicalisation provides a compelling explanation of why security remains the dominant focus of attempts to tackle violent extremism and why examining root causes is often dismissed as apologising for terrorism.

The evidence for understanding and addressing root causes is strong. It has found increasing support internationally. In 2016, UNSG’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism concluded that the limited security focus and often abusive efforts to tackle violent extremism have been damaging, “and often made things worse.”

The report, among many others, encourages a wider, more holistic view and response to violent extremism. While still imperfect, PVE with its focus on root causes moves away from the focus and analysis that generates these results, with the caveat that applying a PVE approach implies significant recalibration of approach, programming and indeed funding modalities.

Addressing root causes shifts the paradigm, moving the focus from security to an analysis that examines underlying causes rather than the symptoms. Dowd, in an analysis of Islamist violence in sub-Saharan Africa, underlines that a disproportionate focus on security will be unsuccessful over the long run. As she notes:

“Lasting and sustainable peace is achieved only through practices which address, in an integrated fashion, the wider context of violent domestic politics.”

If violent extremism is seen as a symptom, rather than the cause of violent domestic politics, programming design becomes easier as goals can be clearer and circumvent violent extremism’s intractable conceptual problems. PVE can also draw from the development sectors, a much wider set of programming tools that can demonstrate improved empirical pedigree and results.

Importantly, PVE also allows the international community to deploy development tools to address the transnational nature of the threat. If transnational terror groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS depend on local grievances and instability, development, which can address those local level issues, will ultimately narrow their support base. The result over the medium-term would appear to be the possibility of diminished local support for local groups, and in turn, diminished space for transnational terror.

The long-term key to victory for violent extremists is public support. Here, it is less about what the violent extremists do, and more about what the government is supposed to do or fails to do, and equally what it shouldn’t be doing – particularly abusive treatment of civilian populations – but does in the name of counter-terrorism. As the joint UN-World Bank study ‘Pathways for Peace’ notes, “exclusion from access to power, opportunity, services, and security creates fertile ground for mobilising group grievances to violence, especially in areas with weak state capacity or legitimacy or in the context of human rights abuses.”

It is precisely this failure to understand the political dimension of violent extremism that leads to an overly securitised view of violent extremism and why greater resources, research, and programming in development resources is needed.

This article originally appeared in the Global Terrorism Index 2018.