Can We Prevent Violent Extremism?

I have been to Nigeria many times in my former roles as Executive Director of UNICEF and Director of Peace Corps; but last weekend was my first as Chair of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF). GCERF is a global fund that supports local initiatives to build community resilience to violent extremism. My visit was to a Youth Peace Camp in Jos in the central state of Plateau, and coincided with communal violence in the state in which armed herdsmen are reported to have killed 19 people in response to the murder of a boy from the herding community.

I went to Nigeria with some general ideas about what drives violent extremism: that it is too simplistic to attribute it to any religion, that poverty and marginalization may be common denominators, and that it is context specific. I also intuited that development interventions are relevant though not alone sufficient ways to address these drivers and help prevent violent extremism in the first place.

I left with a much stronger sense of the complexity of violent extremism, a much clearer idea of what it takes to prevent it, and optimism that the Government of Nigeria, supported by the international community, is moving in the right direction.

Start with the complexity. Is poverty really a driver of violent extremism? Certainly I met poor young people who had become radicalized to violence; but not because they were poor, rather because their sense of worthlessness and excess spare time had led them to drug addiction, which in turn made them susceptible to offers of money in exchange for violence. How best to intervene? Address the underlying poverty? Educate young people about drug abuse? Chase down the drug dealers? Focus on those recruiting vulnerable youth to violence who in some cases I was told may be local politicians?

What about the preventing violent extremism (PVE) mantra about creating positive alternatives, in particular getting young people into work. I spoke to young people who were frustrated to the verge of radicalization not because they didn’t have a job, but because they didn’t have the right sort of job. They didn’t aspire to be farmers, what they wanted was ‘white collar’ jobs and preferably in a city. And I saw the results of local surveys that indicate that one of the locations where radicalization to violent extremist agendas is most likely to take place is the workplace. It’s not just jobs; it’s the right sort of jobs and in the right sort of environment.

During my short visit I heard about all sorts of exciting activities, launched with GCERF’s support, to help individuals and communities understand and resist radicalization to violent extremism, including sports and drama, inter-faith dialogue, media, and action by religious leaders against hate speech. The Youth Peace Camp where I had the honour to make a speech and hand out certificates at the graduation ceremony; brought together self-identified trouble makers from local communities and tried to turn them in Peace Ambassadors.

These are all of course worthy initiatives, though they need to be focused on the right people, conducted sensitively, and be scaled up and sustainable over time – and even then it will be difficult to demonstrate their impact. But what I think underlies them all is three core principles, and I think if we adhere to these then we have a chance to prevent violent extremism.

First, PVE interventions have to be inclusive. A small gathering I attended hosted by a local NGO brought together Muslims and Christians, poor and rich, herders and farmers, to share their concerns. More often than not their concerns were similar not different, and focused on factors outside their own identities; two that recurred were corruption and drugs.

As important, second, was that this meeting was also attended by community, religious and local political leaders. I was surprised by how open people were in their criticism of the leadership, reassured that the leaders were listening, and convinced that building confidence between communities, their representatives and leaders, and local authorities, is critical for PVE.

Third, none of this can work in isolation. I was very struck by nascent communities of practice being developed among local NGOs within different communities across Plateau; the Peace Ambassadors were going home to communities across three local government areas; the Youth Camp graduation was attended by state-level representatives. Resilient communities are networked communities.

The Government of Nigeria is about to launch its national action plan to prevent violent extremism, an important legislative step as encouraged by the former UN Secretary-General in his UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism to focus national attention on prevention as a key component of countering violent extremism and terrorism. Of course in any country and on any topic the gulf between a plan and action can be daunting, and needs to be filled with a national focal point, adequate resources, a trained cadre of officials and so on.

But all too often the main stumbling block in implementing national plans and strategies is that they do not filter down to the local level. The Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund is making a modest effort to raise awareness, mobilize action, and create meaningful alternatives among local communities, which will now be more informed, better financed, and more confident, to take forward the national project to prevent violent extremism, and lift a barrier to Nigeria’s development.

Carol Bellamy, Chair of the Governing Board, Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF)

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