Mercy Corps on using research to counter violent extremism

Rebecca Wolfe, director of peace and conflict at Mercy Corps. Photo by: Jennifer Ehidiamen / Devex

Development organizations are exploring different ways to address the root causes that breed violent extremism in vulnerable communities across the world, but one of the key challenges is clearly identifying those causes.

Mercy Corps, a global nongovernmental organization, has undertaken several years of research to inform its evidence-based approach to reducing violent extremism. Data and research collected between 2010 and 2015 enabled Mercy Corps to shift their approach to programs aimed at countering violent extremism.

“We were making assumptions about why young people were behaving in a certain way by talking to informants and youths not involved in violence,” said Rebecca Wolfe, director of peace and conflict at Mercy Corps, who presented some of that research at a recent event in Washington, D.C.

Devex spoke with Wolfe to learn more about how research can be used to augment other programs aimed at reducing extremism.

You have talked about some of the approaches you’ve discovered that work to help tackle violent extremism, including community service. Can you tell us a little bit more about that approach and how it has worked?

Since the first evaluation of our program in Nepal in 2008, we have seen that community service has [had] such a strong effect. [For the] young people who had been in civil war for years — all they wanted to do was contribute to their communities. They got a very small grant … they were so motivated to do community projects. It is a relatively inexpensive way to give young people a way to improve their communities. We see that it helps them counteract the stereotype of young people being a problem in their communities, which is a norm in many places. Also, we have seen young people take leadership opportunities. Again in this program in Nepal, a number of the youth ended up on local councils as a result of their participation. We did a large youth program there that had a community service component. We saw young people getting involved in parliament as a result of their work.

Would you then recommend that more organizations tackling violent extremism focus their resources on community service?

Here is where my thinking is today — it does change as we learn — community service is a good avenue, but it is trying to think about what needs to change in that person. So I think of development programming for the most part about creating behavior change. It is that combination of training and that opportunity and the solidifying of the identity that is leading to it. You might be able to do that through another type of intervention. It might not be civic education. It could be a livelihood; it could just be plain education … it is trying to understand what changes in someone's behavior.

How have you changed your approach to research and are you seeing similar changes in the industry?

I do see a shift in more organizations getting more involved in research … I think as development has grown and matured, we recognize the need for evidence-based [approaches] … all this is relatively new, we've needed to mature. And so now I think we've recognized the need and we can't continue to do this work without understanding and learning to create that evidence.

How has the research-based approach impacted your work?

Our research has changed the frame of why young people get involved in violence. There was a point where I felt all I was doing was writing proposals that were about employment programs for increased stability or reducing young people’s participation in violence. I think at one point I counted 20 proposals in six months. I don't see that anymore. It [research] has influenced our practice on the ground, but I think the scaleable influence has been that we've shaped donors perception of what this is.

What has been the most surprising element of your research findings on extreme violence?

It is the importance of talking to the people involved in violence. It seems so simple and yet people don’t do it. And I see that mistake happening time and time again. We are not going to design appropriate programs if we don't understand the problem.

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About the author

  • Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters ( with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.