Countering Violent Extremism and Bridging the Security-Development Gap

When President Obama addressed the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, he stressed the need to involve all stakeholders -- governments, civil society, affected communities, and the private sector. The round of regional summits that have followed the White House event, and will conclude with a high-level segment at the UN General Assembly, have with varying degrees of success indeed begun to engage this range of stakeholders.

What has become increasingly clear, however, is that the divides within governments on this issue are often as significant as those between government and other stakeholders. In particular, there remains in many administrations a gap between those government agencies charged with security, and those with responsibility for overseas development.

Countering violent extremism depends on bridging this gap.

Ultimately, countering violent extremism is about mobilizing development tools to achieve security outcomes. Its focus is on prevention and sustainability, on engaging and empowering communities, on providing constructive alternatives through training and employment, and addressing root causes which may include poverty, disenfranchisement and marginalization. These interventions however are targeted on communities at risk of violence, and with the goal of strengthening resilience against violent extremism; rather necessarily than reducing social inequalities or alleviating poverty.

Here are some lessons that I have learned in encouraging dialogue between security and development policy makers and practitioners around the world, in my role as Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF).

First, it is important to acknowledge that there remains a lack of research and evidence on the drivers of violent extremism. Poverty may be a contributing factor in some cases, but certainly not all. Violent extremism challenges wealthy as well as poorer societies, although it almost always does more damage in the latter. Material poverty does not equate with spiritual poverty. Just as important as it is to avoid generalizations, is to emphasize that countering violent extremism strategies should adopt a principled approach, including respecting rights and 'doing no harm.'

Second, it is necessary to articulate why engaging in security is relevant for development. For example, there is evidence to suggest that insecurity can be an obstacle to achieving development outcomes for individuals and communities: it is no coincidence that the last bastions of polio are in Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and northern Nigeria. At the national level violent extremism can result in long term economic instability, disrupting tourism and overseas investment: a real risk now in Tunisia. Engaging in CVE also provides an opportunity to mainstream development principles in security settings.

There are equally important reasons for security actors to engage in development. Disparities in income, justice and opportunity can push and pull people towards violent extremism. Violent extremist groups often fill gaps in welfare. Equally they may forcibly recruit people -- especially the youth -- who lack the empowerment to resist. There are also lessons to learn from decades of development successes -- as well as failures -- in engaging communities.

Security and development should remain distinct endeavors. They will often focus on different communities, aim for different outcomes, and measures these outcomes differently. But as long as we distinguish means and ends; security-relevant and security-specific interventions; and outputs and outcomes, both sectors can benefit from interacting around countering violent extremism. Once governments can present a coherent approach, then perhaps all the other relevant stakeholders will become more fully engaged.