The U.S. Agency for International Development logo outside a building in Indonesia. Photo by: USAID Indonesia

The U.S. Agency for International Development quietly released its updated policy on countering violent extremism last week, a year after it was approved by then-Administrator Mark Green.

The final version, posted publicly online on April 21, removed references to gang prevention work and how CVE efforts can learn from similarities to that discipline. Previous drafts included language drawing parallels between the two fields, a tie supported extensively by research.

USAID provided no explanation for the omission in the CVE policy, which was written by technical experts.

“As with CVE, USAID’s gang prevention programs are designed to prevent or interrupt violence. While there are notable differences in the target populations, some interventions show promise in both contexts,” said a text box in a version of the CVE policy that was out for public comment in October 2019 and is still publicly available on USAID’s website. “Best practice in both fields cite parental engagement, cross-cutting partnerships and trust-based relationships, credible, often faith-based intermediaries and social cohesion as key to program success.”

That language was removed from the draft of the CVE policy before Green approved it in his final days in office in April 2020. In the version he approved, the language was replaced with a more opaque reference to cross-discipline learning that does not explicitly mention gang violence prevention.

“USAID’s CVE programs integrate lessons learned from other violence prevention

disciplines, such as citizen security,” stated the text Green approved. “While there may be notable differences in target populations, some interventions show promise in both contexts, to include public health approaches that marry broad-based primary prevention with targeted engagement for those deemed to be at higher risk, and a place-based approach that recognizes that violence clusters in specific places, among specific people and around specific behaviors.”

“I don’t think that we’ve, technically speaking, explored fulsomely what the public health approach to violence looks like with respect to CVE.”

— A USAID official

That language, too, was removed, and was not in the version of the CVE policy published by USAID last week, leaving blank space in the document where the text box had been in previous drafts.

The agency made no public announcement when the policy was published — though it was in the works for years.

The link between gang prevention work and CVE is supported by research and technical expertise, said Enrique Roig, former coordinator for USAID’s Central America Regional Security Initiative.

“There is a lot of evidence there between the similarities when it comes to programming with particularly individuals, young men, who are potential recruits for gangs or extremist organizations, when you look at risk factors for why they join,” Roig said. “In terms of looking at it from a public health perspective with regards to violence reduction, that also is very pertinent to both types of programming, whether you’re dealing with gangs or prevention and recruitment of folks in extremist organizations.”

Now director of the citizen security practice area at Creative Associates International, Roig worked on a USAID-funded program in Honduras that shared lessons from gang violence prevention work in Los Angeles and Central America with CVE initiatives in Tunisia. As part of an information exchange, Creative used Honduran trainers to instruct Tunisian staffers in violence prevention programming.

“This was all taking place right as the new administration was coming in — [former President Donald] Trump — and so the funding priorities shifted dramatically. There was not as much interest in doing this kind of programming at that point,” Roig said. “So that came to a screeching halt.”

USAID has publicly acknowledged the link between CVE and gang violence prevention for years, releasing a publication in 2016 with the subtitle “Learning Across Fields” that examined links between street gangs and violent extremist organizations. The agency also held a conference to highlight what the two disciplines could learn from one another.

“I don’t think that we’ve, technically speaking, explored fulsomely what the public health approach to violence looks like with respect to CVE to the extent that we have with violence prevention, so there’s still more to be learned,” a USAID official who was not authorized to speak on the record told Devex.

Some members of Congress support implementing the 2019 Global Fragility Act — which lays out a new U.S. approach to conflict prevention in priority regions and countries around the world — in the Northern Triangle region of Central America, where gang violence is rampant and citizen security is a major cause of out-migration. While the legislation has often been referenced as a tool to prevent violent extremism, some see its framework as a way to address gang violence as well.

“Some of it gets down to issues of how you define violence or conflict, too. This has obviously been an ongoing debate as well. Those of us that work in the urban violence field will say, ‘Well, what’s the difference, ultimately?’” Roig said. “Something like 49 of the 50 most dangerous cities are in the Western Hemisphere. … Why not apply [the GFA] here in terms of giving it more priority and status when it comes to interagency coordination and focus?”

Asked why the version of the CVE policy released last week did not contain the text box referencing cross-discipline learning, USAID said the policy was “based on USAID’S decades of experience in conflict and violence prevention.”

“At the onset of the … [new presidential] administration, a review of this near-final draft policy was undertaken in an effort to ensure it could be publicly released,” a USAID spokesperson said. “An extensive internal review ensured that it focused on high-level guiding principles for our CVE work. As the policy was being designed for publication, minor edits were made, including language referring to citizen security work.”

USAID did not give a reason for those minor edits, nor did it say if the agency’s CVE experts signed off on them. It also provided no reason as to why the original gang prevention language in the October 2019 draft was removed.

The spokesperson said that future programming guidance to USAID missions will include “programming correlations” between CVE and citizen security.

Experts hope Biden will adopt new US approach to countering violent extremism

The U.S. government has spent two decades learning what works — and doesn't — in countering violent extremism. Experts hope President Joe Biden's administration will put those lessons to better use.

Although the agency had been effectively, if quietly, operationalizing the policy since Green approved it last year, its public release came as Samantha Power’s nomination for the role of USAID administrator was under consideration in the Senate.

A new administrator would have the power to request the policy be revamped, but now that it is officially released, revisiting the document would require following specific agency guidance to sunset it, the USAID official said.

Power was confirmed Wednesday by the Senate and is set to be sworn in Monday.

While her nomination was on the Senate floor, an internal email announcing the release of the policy went out to USAID’s staff. President Joe Biden appointed Gloria Steele, former head of the USAID Bureau for Asia and the agency’s mission to the Philippines, to serve as acting administrator at the agency — which was badly scarred by the politicization of decision-making and sidelining of professional technical staffers during the previous administration.

Steele’s email message notes the lessons that can be drawn between USAID’s CVE work and the prevention of violent extremism domestically but makes no reference to gang prevention.

“Our new CVE policy positions us to anticipate how violent extremism will evolve and adjust programming accordingly, and it focuses on building the capacity and commitment of our partners to prevent violent extremism in their own countries,” Steele wrote in the agencywide announcement. “The new policy positions our Agency to leverage lessons learned from our CVE work overseas to share with interagency partners in the United States to help respond to the rising domestic threat of violent extremism.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.