Violent extremism: four tips for effective programming

The 2017 Global Terrorism Index was launched today. It records a fall in the total number of deaths over the past two years, but documents a spread in the number of places terror attacks have happened.

Global Terrorism Index 2017 map

Two thirds of all countries experienced a terrorist attack in 2016, with 77 countries experiencing deaths from terrorism, an increase from 65 in 2015. So-called security wins have largely displaced violent groups across borders rather than generating definitive outcomes.

The numbers tell us one part of the story, but the weight of the narrative lies elsewhere. It lies with the people living with the daily realities of the impact of violent extremism and the global war on terror. It lies with the organisations working directly with these people, organisations who have been engaged in humanitarian, development or peacebuilding work for years and are now involved in, or on the periphery of, efforts to prevent violent extremism. It lies with the governments, donors and institutions working to align domestic and foreign agendas on the one hand to fund programmes to prevent people from joining armed groups and on the other engaged in military strategies to prevent the spread of terrorism.

Multiple agendas, ideas and approaches compete in this debate. At one end of the spectrum a clamour for the silver bullet of what works most rapidly to stem the immediate threat of violence. At the other, the warnings of the contradictions between the impact of the global war on terror contributing to the creation of the very phenomenon it seeks to prevent and the dangerous politicisation of development and humanitarian action, blurring the boundaries between security and aid.

At International Alert, we believe it is more important than ever to take a step back and listen to those living and working in the places most affected. With that in mind, here are some ideas to make violent extremism programming more effective.

Say what you see

It is no surprise that the places with the highest levels of terror – Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria, according to this year’s report – are also places with persistent conflict, violence and grievances. Violent extremism does not exist in a vacuum, but is one outcome of conflict, inequality and injustice.

In Tunisia, for example, social and urban inequalities shape identities. The unmet promises of the Arab Spring have left young people severely frustrated. Underemployment, underdevelopment, lack of investment, insecurity, the stigma associated with living in poor neighbourhoods and political marginalisation have created an environment in which an alternative narrative of violent extremism can take hold.

Pulling a wide range of social, structural and individual challenges under the broad term of violent extremism programming risks stigmatising individuals and communities, creating further isolation and alienation and undermining the very strategies designed to foster greater trust and build stability.

If the challenge that is being tackled in a programme is youth empowerment and political engagement, let’s call it that and save the violent extremism agenda for the narrow areas when it is genuinely the focus of the issue that needs to be addressed.

Listen and understand before you intervene

We need to learn to listen, before we intervene. Listening to the communities living the daily realities of insecurity to understand different forms of violence helps us to move beyond national and international security approaches to a prioritisation of what would make the biggest difference to everyday security.

In Mali, focusing efforts around countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism have glossed over pre-existing conflicts, divisions between and within communities, between state and citizens, identity and ethnic divisions, and justified aggressive tactics of security forces that have exacerbated the feelings of grievance and exclusion.

Violent extremism involves a complex interplay of psychological, social factors, political and ideological factors, as well as cultural and identity issues, as exemplified by our research on Syria. These complexities require us to consider the totality of the individual, their social relationships, the networks and organisations they belong to as well as their relationship with the state and the international environment. Current approaches often miss an understanding of a person’s individual response to their context and how these are influenced by different social factors, spaces of resilience and structural drivers.

We have to get comfortable with this complexity, and invest in understanding people’s experiences of violence and conflict, location by location. From this, we can build locally-rooted responses that work flexibly to build resilience and tackle insecurity in the short term alongside longer-term processes of addressing the reasons why insecurity exists in the first place. Without this, our interventions risk deepening conflict divisions.

Beware the shrinking civil society space

Last year’s Index told us that there are higher incidences of terrorism in states that abuse human rights and supress the population. There is a worrying trend in a number of ‘frontline’ countries towards governments using national counter-terrorism agendas to undermine local factors and detract from fundamental issues such as governance, transparency and human rights. At times, some governments have used counter-terrorism agendas to actively suppress the role of civil society in holding them to account. Donor agendas are being distorted to serve vested interests, drawn into domestic political contests for power and resources that often pre-date the rise of the current brand of violent extremism. A diverse and functioning civil society is critical to broader stability. We need to rapidly address the counterproductive conflation between prevention and countering terrorism to protect the important function of civil society.

Understand what it takes for programmes to work

Alongside expanding our field of vision, we need a better understanding of the impact of preventing violent extremism programming. There is currently very little evidence of the impacts of programming gathered over time and from different contexts. Programming is instead built on anecdotal evidence, often underpinned by assumption and intuition, and transposing ‘lessons’ from one context to another.

If we are to get better at reducing insecurity due to violent extremism, we have to understand the different types of impact (both positive and negative) that preventing violent extremism programming is having in specific initiatives and build on this to develop tested theories of change.

International Alert has been working on challenges such as these since its inception over 30 years ago, in partnership with local and international organisations and institutions. These approaches take time and a commitment to work both locally and globally and to build consensus among the diversity of organisations and institutions involved. It is when we take this time to work together and to listen more to the voices on the ground that, perhaps, we can start to tackle the environments that make a Global Terrorism Index necessary.