Abdirizaq Mohamed Abdi Abdulle drives through the streets of Mogadishu for a taxi company that employs young people in Somalia, a country that has suffered decades of conflict. What leads youths to become radicalized? Photo by: Stuart Price / AU-UN IST / Albany Associates / CC BY-NC-ND

Youth populations are booming, especially in Africa. As they do, it is ever more critical to identify what might lead them to violence and design programs that enable them to become productive, rather than destructive members of their communities.

It is a critical juncture and one that will require a new way of thinking than programs of the past, new forms of measurement, more research, more funding and a unified effort.

Last month, the U.S. government signaled that it was going to look with greater sophistication at the root causes of violence in a summit held at the White House about countering violent extremism. That was a good sign, but it remains to be seen if the discussion will in fact lead to more research and a greater focus on evidence-based approaches tackling the root causes of the issues.

“Development efforts have often been driven by assumptions and not evidence,” said Keith Proctor, a senior policy researcher at Mercy Corps. “The assumptions that have been guiding much of the stabilization spending have been to some extent guided by larger economic assumptions about what drives people to do what they do.”

The forces at work

The narrative used to be that poverty was the primary driver of violent extremism, but the factors that lead youths to become radicalized are much more complex.

The youth development trajectory is about finding identity, purpose and value in society. Too often during that critical stage they are finding themselves shut out of important decisions and opportunities. The economic, social and political marginalization can lead them to a point of hopelessness or despair.

To better understand the full picture, a variety of agencies and organizations have been working to identify some of the key drivers to extremism. It’s clear it’s not poverty alone, because while the vast majority of young people in Africa are poor, most of them are also peaceful.

The Peace and Governance Office in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s West Africa Mission has identified several key push factors, the forces or root causes that may drive youths to extremism, and pull factors, which are rewards or enticements.

Those push factors are inadequate or weak governance, social exclusion, corruption, a lack of a system to address grievances, poverty, unemployment, a broader lack of opportunity, perceived injustice and pre-existing protracted local conflicts.

And key pull factors are personal rewards associated with membership — be they economic gain, glory, fame, personal empowerment or a rhetoric or appeal from religious organizations.

“With all the analysis that has been done it’s very hard to identify one factor that is more important than another,” said Stephanie Garvey, director of the regional Peace and Governance Office in West Africa. “The reason someone joins is complex and diverse” and we need to deepen our understanding of the interplay between factors.

Last month, Mercy Corps released “Youth & Consequences: Jobs, Injustice and Violence,” which indicated that disenfranchisement, government corruption, ethnic divisions and exposure to violence are all critical factors, said Proctor, who wrote the report.

“The experience of injustice is a far better predictor of future violence than joblessness,” he said.

Jobs are not enough

The narrative that if youths have jobs they will not become radicalized seems to be a thing of the past, as more in the international community are realizing that effective programs must tackle a number of issues beyond employment.

In countering extremism programs, the focus has often been on economic and employment factors, which may be partly driven by metrics — those programs are the easiest to evaluate. It’s easy, for example, to count the number of youths in a vocational program, but much harder to measure and assess attitudes toward political violence and the future, Proctor said.

The youth unemployment crisis has also been making the headlines, which may have contributed to the focus on jobs-related programming.

“What we’re seeing is that it’s not just about jobs, it’s a broader marginalization,” said Nicole Goldin, director of the Youth, Prosperity and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But shifting cultural norms or customs is a difficult and lengthy process and in some ways jobs seem like a quicker potential fix.

Mahdi Abdile, Finn Church Aid regional representative for eastern and southern Africa, has interviewed many former al-Shabab members for a paper about recruitment and incentives, which found that while those who joined were often motivated by the promise of a job, or a phone or money, ideology and the environment — especially any existing conflict — were contributors.

But Farouk Gumel, partner and head of business advisory for PricewaterhouseCoopers in West Africa, said jobs are still important. He sees as there being two types of recruits: those who have nothing better to do and feel they are without opportunities, and those who join radical or extremist groups based on ideology.

“People see it as a business transaction. If you give them something to channel their energy toward, they will abandon the violent approach,” he said.

While not the defining factor, jobs remain important, in part because unemployment, or underemployment, is emblematic of a number of other challenges. So as research continues to emerge on the reasons why youths are joining radical groups — and more is necessary to understand these complex issues — there are also other changes that can be made.

What needs to be done

So what programs or efforts are necessary to effectively counter and possibly predict violent extremism?

Better research, measurement and data are important, as well as increased coordination and more holistic approaches to the challenges. And while jobs may not be the only factor, better programs that prepare youths for actual job opportunities are critical as well.

And perhaps, also, a pledge to do no harm.

Poorly designed programs tackling anything from civic engagement to employment could lead to greater feelings of hopelessness and disenfranchisement if not linked directly to opportunities, something that Mercy Corps has seen play out firsthand, according to Proctor.

Civic engagement programs it implemented have not always led to greater youth participation in the political environment. Political institutions have been hesitant or unable to incorporate them and that has been a source of frustration, he said.

What’s necessary is a better set of metrics to identify when projects are working and should be duplicated, or whether they are not an effective way to counter extremism. It will take more funding for monitoring and evaluation and will be more challenging than some of the measurement in the past.

“There needs to be a deep rethink about what we’re trying to monitor and assess,” Proctor said. “It might not be attractive to those providing oversight but it might be less about what you do and the services you provide but how you do it and how you interact with communities.”

More resources for youth development programming is critical. But that doesn’t just mean more money — there needs to be an investment in bringing in more specialized staff within the government who understand youth development and are working to design programs and policies, Goldin said.

The international development community could also better coordinate its efforts so that countering violent extremism programs work in conjunction with others to tackle the problem more holistically.

Job creation programs need to evolve

While employment may not be the only or even the leading factor in driving extremism, job training programs and job creation initiatives remain important. But they need to evolve and improve, and will be most effective when integrated with other efforts.

Those programs must also be linked to job opportunities and combined with job search skills or they may very well fall short. The private sector can play an important role in helping to identify and support the training of individuals through their own programs or in partnership with vocational institutions.

Companies often have to import employees with certain technical skills that are lacking and so they have an important role to play in supporting and collaborating with the development community to ensure that training programs and vocational schools are teaching the latest information and that there is a pipeline to employment.

Donors, governments and nongovernmental organizations also have a role to play in trying to create job opportunities. Finn Church Aid is working with local governments to set up business and train employees to work in them — including, for example, a stone quarry in northern Kenya.

In Nigeria, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Gumel is working with the government to set up a new development bank to fund small and midsize enterprises. While the process has been moving slowly, in part due to the election delay, the bank could do a lot to boost economic development and job growth, he said.

Local communities are an important resource in program design and implementation. They often have strategies for supporting youths and can identify vulnerable young people and recruiters. There are local mechanisms that can contribute to peace building, but too often those programs have not been done well or Western donors have been resistant to incorporating them, Abdile said.

It is therefore important to engage the local community and ensure that they are equipped to resolve conflict because extremist groups flourish where other conflict exists. The question then is, “How do you really support the community there to address their own problems?” the Finn Church Aid regional representative asked.

“Being able to find the next [Islamic State group] is not a perfect science,” Abdil said. “Radicalization is a long process and it takes maybe a lifetime to get people to change.

Want to learn more? Check out the Youth Will website and tweet #YouthWill.

Youth Will is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, The Commonwealth Secretariat, The MasterCard Foundation and UN-Habitat to explore the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.