3 ways the development sector can prevent violent extremism in Africa

Young Somalis look at the wreckage of a car bomb after a double suicide attack by Al-Shabaab in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by: Stuart Price / U.N.

NAIROBI — Development actors are uniquely positioned to tackle violent extremism in Africa and should play a key role in preventing it, according to a United Nations Development Programme report released Thursday.

The study, “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment,” aims to unpack the causes, consequences and trajectories of violence extremism, in order to better inform policy and programming.

Some of the report’s strongest recommendations are aimed at aid organizations and civil society. The development community should prioritize de-radicalization initiatives and work with former members of violent extremism organizations to re-integrate them into society, it argues. The sector also needs to change its approach, the authors say, by depending less on security forces, targeting programming to remote areas and making sure that programs labeled “Preventing Violent Extremism,” or PVE, are sharply focused on this effort.

“There is an urgent need to bring a stronger development focus to security challenges,” UNDP Africa Director Abdoulaye Mar Dieye said at the launch of the report. The study was authored by UNDP Africa’s Preventing and Responding to Violent Extremism in Africa program, which launched in 2015.

Violent extremism has caused over 33,000 fatalities in Africa between 2011 and 2016, with the highest number of deaths in Nigeria, according to the report. The findings draw on two years of research and over 700 interviews, including nearly 500 interviews with individuals who have been involved in violent extremist organizations in Africa, primarily Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Here are the major takeaways for aid organizations.

1. Shift the focus away from security alone

The development community has largely left fighting violent extremism to security actors over the past 20 years, Mohamed Yahya, one of the authors of the report, told Devex. “We’ve seen the results: no terrorist group has gone out of business.”

Seventy-eight percent of the study’s participants reported low levels of trust in the police, politicians and military. Given this, the report argues, security-driven responses to violent extremism are counterproductive, if done insensitively.

The report argues that this relationship between the development sector and security forces needs a rethink, with efforts to ensure adherence to international humanitarian law, civic oversight, and accountability by the state.

Yet many donors are moving the other direction — reducing, or considering reducing, official development assistance expenditures, while military expenditures grow. The report calls into question security-focused interventions and financial support for state counterterrorism efforts, which remain the major areas of international support in Africa.

Some efforts have sought to change the dynamic, bringing security and development initiatives in line. The 2015 United Nations Plan of Action, for example, includes over 70 recommendations for member states and the U.N. to follow in order to prevent extremism. One of the recommendations includes strengthening the professionalism of security forces, which could include providing them with human rights training.

2. Target high-risk geographic areas

The study found that the majority of recruits to extremist groups come from remote areas, including borderlands connecting two or more states. These areas — such as in northern Mali, northeastern Nigeria and the Kenyan coastal region — tend to disproportionately suffer from multidimensional poverty.

Early childhood factors were influential in driving people in these communities to extremism, it found. Among the factors were a lack of exposure to other ethnicities, low perception of childhood happiness and low levels of parental involvement.

To combat this, development programs need to systematically target highly deprived areas, making sure that national and international actors are focusing their efforts on hard-to-reach areas, UNDP argues. This includes working to implement the Sustainable Development Goals in these regions.

3. Hone in on the driving factors

In the development sector, there is a distinction between “PVE-specific” and “PVE-relevant” interventions. Specific programs disrupt the radicalization and recruitment process and reintegrate those who have been part of extremist groups back into society. Relevant efforts look at structural drivers of extremism, including a lack of economic opportunities.

This latter type of programming needs a sharper focus, argues the report. This can include targeting hard-to-reach areas and making sure that non-state actors are part of programs that build on state capacity.

An analysis of programs is needed to ensure that they are actually using the data gathered in the report to develop targeted approaches to prevent extremism. Development partners need to resist the temptation of simply repackaging their programs as PVE to attract funds without an evidence base to show that they are effective, said Yahya.

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About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.