Lessons Learned in Preventing Violent Extremism

A fundamental initial step in effective programming for preventing violent extremism is to understand what is driving it.

During the year since the publication of the last Global Terrorism Index, the ‘preventing violent extremism’ (PVE) agenda has progressed in fits and starts. Positively, the idea that prevention is an important component in the counter-terrorism toolbox is now widely acknowledged. This further aligns PVE with the agenda of the United Nations (UN) where the new Secretary General has emphasised prevention across the entire UN system, building on the relevance of PVE for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as most explicitly expressed in SDG 16. Negatively, political support for PVE has waned among certain key donors and there have been legitimate concerns expressed that PVE may become an excuse to restrict civil society, hamper freedom of expression and suppress human rights. There is still also some skepticism among development donors and actors about the relevance of PVE.

Perhaps the best way to maintain the momentum of the PVE agenda is to demonstrate results. This short essay reviews the results of PVE interventions supported by GCERF and lessons learned; after all the credibility of PVE also depends on an objective assessment of what works and what does not. GCERF is a multistakeholder global fund, supporting local initiatives to build resilience against violent extremism in Bangladesh, Kenya, Kosovo, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria and Tunisia.

A fundamental initial step in effective programming for preventing violent extremism is to understand what is driving it. There is a general consensus that the factors are individual, contextual and locally specific. Over the last year GCERF has commissioned more than 8,500 baseline surveys of people in at-risk communities in Bangladesh, Mali and Nigeria. In all three countries, more than 90 per cent of individuals surveyed were aware of the threat of violent extremism and more than 50 per cent had already experienced it personally. Its impact was reported to include death, displacement, sexual violence, loss of livelihoods, family breakdown, trauma and mental stress.

The drivers of violent extremism identified across these communities can be broadly categorised as structural conditions, individual incentives and enabling factors. In Bangladesh, over 80 per cent of respondents cited poverty, unemployment and a lack of opportunity as the main reason for violent extremism; the same factors recurred in Mali and Nigeria (although reported in smaller percentages). Respondents in each country also highlighted material enticements by violent extremist groups; 24 per cent of college and madrassa students in Bangladesh said they had been offered money and social services, and 15 per cent said they had been inspired by extremist groups’ criticism of the government. In Mali enabling factors were reported to include weak regulation of religious institutions, weak public administration, inefficient judicial systems and a loss of family values and solidarity.

Most communities surveyed were already responding to these drivers and GCERF has boosted these community-led responses.
Broadly, these PVE interventions fall into three categories:

  1. Raising awareness of violent extremism;
  2. Promoting community engagement;
  3. Providing positive alternatives.

In Bangladesh, GCERF grants are engaging over 150,000 students in awareness raising initiatives including youth debate competitions, youth radio listener clubs and critical thinking workshops. In Mali, GCERF grants are supporting training for 27,000 madrassa students and 180 madrassa professors on the drivers, manifestations and means of preventing violent extremism. In Nigeria, women’s groups have been established with the support of GCERF grants to develop and disseminate counternarratives to extremist messages.
Community engagement is being fostered in Bangladesh by providing access to extracurricular activities such as sports tournaments to 37,000 adolescent youth and through the facilitation of courtyard meetings for over 100,000 women. In Mali training in active citizenship is being provided to 14,000 women and in Nigeria more than 33,000 young people are participating in community theatre and art projects to help build their confidence and communication skills.

This is an edited extracted from an essay that appeared in the Global Terrorism Index 2017.