Opinion: 5 tips to improve programs that tackle violent extremism

An image from a panel discussion on educational strategies for the prevention of violent extremism. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

Programming to prevent violent extremism, or PVE, in fragile states and conflicts is challenging and fraught with risks.

With two-thirds of all countries in the world having experienced a terrorist attack in 2016, terrorism has become an unprecedented threat to international peace, security, and development, often feeding off violent conflict. The places with the highest levels of terror in the world — Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Syria according to the 2017 Global Terrorism Index — are also places with persistent conflict, violence, and grievances.

Violent extremism, or VE, rarely happens in a vacuum. It is one possible outcome of conflict, inequality, and injustice. According to the United Nations, preventing conflict and sustainable development should be the primary focus of our defense against terrorism. While many resources have been put into programs to tackle violent extremism, we need to better understand the suitability of PVE as an approach and the impact PVE interventions have in different contexts.

So, International Alert partnered with the United Nations Development Programme to develop a toolkit with guidance on how to help improve the design, monitoring, and evaluation of PVE programs.

Here are our top 5 tips:

1. Understand the context and define your terms first

VE is just one manifestation of a complex web of conflict dynamics. A program’s starting point should be to understand whether — or to what extent — VE is a priority conflict issue where you work.

Programming should be rooted in the realities on the ground for those affected. Communities impacted by violence and partners may not always understand VE in the same way as you do. It’s important to speak the same language and develop a clear, shared definition. We’ve seen in Mali that when communities talk about “terroristes,” they mean individuals or criminal gangs which “terrorize” them, rather than individuals associated with VE groups.  If we don’t check out how people define the issue to begin with, you can see the potential danger in developing a program which assumes there is a VE problem.

Our understanding of the context should be based on an ongoing analysis of vulnerability and resilience factors. Vulnerability does not necessarily lead to VE. People can be exposed to the same social, economic, and political vulnerability factors and most will not engage in VE. In disadvantaged Tunis suburbs, where populations face social stigma and political and economic marginalization, such pressures may lead to migration, drug use, school dropout or suicide. Therefore, it is important to understand VE within broader conflict, development, and governance dynamics, as well as what makes communities and individuals resilient.

2. Ensure conflict sensitivity

Conflict sensitivity helps practitioners minimize negative impacts of a program and maximize the opportunities to do good. It is the cornerstone of understanding how an intervention can impact an environment.

At a community level, the highly sensitive and political nature of PVE programming means that the mere existence of a program can exacerbate tensions. Some attempt to rebrand their program as something other than PVE. Whilst this offers a way to manage risks around perceptions and stigmatization of those engaging in the program, it presents an ethical dilemma around transparency.

Conflict sensitivity is also integral to any monitoring framework for PVE. Monitoring and evaluation processes should consider intended and unintended impacts from the outset and create a framework to capture these. They should not just track performance indicators. Regular monitoring is essential, in order to use data to adapt the intervention to changing dynamics on the ground and an evolving understanding of the PVE context.

3. Base targeting approach on context and risk analysis

Build flexibility into a program so it can be adapted as and when necessary. The language around PVE programming frequently references the need to target “at-risk communities” or “vulnerable youth,” labelling entire populations based on the presumption that they may or may not commit violence. A narrow focus can carry the risk of stigmatisation for program participants and miss those potentially on the cusp of vulnerability. It can also risk provoking a hostile response from VE organizations or the wider community. Taking a broader approach is also complicated and can miss those who would actually benefit from the support.

A whole community may display vulnerability factors, but this does not mean that any of the individuals within the community are ever likely to engage in acts of violence. Some programs target geographical “hotspots,” working with whole communities within identified areas. How hotspots are chosen can raise risks, particularly in areas that have been historically marginalized and where geographic targeting would still have a stigmatizing effect. Where a number of actors use similar targeting methods, this can result in a proliferation of PVE programs in one geographic area with similar — or the same — groups, and inadvertently lead to stigmatization.

4. Gender is more than just focusing on women

Programs need to expand their gender focus beyond women’s roles and participation in PVE. It is important to think of gender as a frame of analysis that incorporates all people: Women, girls, men, boys, and those who define as neither or both. Consider how they all experience life in different ways depending on their age, class, life experience, disability, or education.

Gendered expectations play a role in why some women and men choose to take up arms and others do not, although the same expectations can lead to very different results. The expectation placed on men, for example, to be a breadwinner, or protect and control “one’s woman,” can lead some men to join a VE group, while others may choose to flee the conflict-affected area with their families to better protect them.

5. Set your level of ambition

Be realistic about what you can achieve given your timeframe, mandate, and the context. A consistent trend in programs is high expectations for impact in relation to PVE goals. In reality, these programs are often funded over short time frames, dealing with complex change. In these cases, it is not desirable or feasible to talk about proving attribution, but rather developing a robust monitoring framework, based on evidence and strong analysis, which can demonstrate contribution to PVE goals.

In many cases, applying complex research and evaluation methods may be beyond what is possible given the limitations of context and resources. Instead of striving for a silver bullet, focus on good enough monitoring. Build your monitoring system to suit your capacity and resources. The most important thing is to do what you can to track and understand the impact of your program.

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About the author

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    Ruth Simpson

    Ruth Simpson is senior lead (development impact and learning) MENA at International Alert. She provides expert advice on design and monitoring and evaluation for peacebuilding, conflict prevention, conflict sensitivity, social cohesion and preventing violent extremism. Prior to Alert, Ruth worked with a number of international NGOs and the U.K. government in central and east Africa, MENA, and Latin America.