A new British Council All Party Parliamentary Group report suggests that the UK must focus on preventing violent extremism in the Middle East and North Africa. The report emphasises the importance of addressing the underlying economic, social and civic factors that can push young people towards radicalisation.
Violent extremism in the Middle East and North Africa (‘MENA’) continues to blight the region and the wider world. The recent defeat of Daesh on the battlefield by no means ends the threat. Many nations face the risk of ‘blow-back’ as their nationals return to their countries of origin after fighting in Syria and elsewhere. The Arab Youth Survey (2017) identified terrorism as one of the leading problems facing the region.
Poisonous extremist ideologies and the effects they can have on impressionable young minds are familiar. However, as well as this ‘pull factor’, experts and policymakers are increasingly focussing on deeper, underlying ‘push factors’, which they see as creating the environment in which violent extremist narratives can flourish and successfully attract followers. Addressing these push factors may be the most effective way of building the resilience of young people and preventing them from being attracted to violent extremism in the first place. Indeed, without doing so, strategies to counter violent extremism once it starts to manifest itself – however necessary - are unlikely on their own to provide permanent solutions.
An extensive inquiry into this topic has recently been conducted by a sub-committee of the British Council All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) – a cross-party body of Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. After gathering evidence from a wide range of experts in the field, it has now published its findings in a new report: Building Young People’s Resilience to Violent Extremism in the Middle East and North Africa (2017).The report aims to inform the UK government, the British Council, and other organisations working in the cultural, educational and civil society sectors, how they can better help prevent violent extremism in the region.
Factors contributing to violent extremism
The report identifies three broad areas which are contributing to the problem by creating underlying, or ‘upstream’ risk factors. These factors are best grouped under the headings ‘economic’, ‘civic’, and ‘social’.
Economic factors include poverty, inequality, poor quality education and lack of skills, high unemployment and underemployment (particularly amongst young people, often regardless of educational attainment), and a huge demographic ‘youth bulge’ which interacts with and further exacerbates these pressures.
Civic factors include corruption, weak governance, inadequate rule of law, and a lack of voice or influence for young people in society.
Social factors include binary thinking, lack of criticality in education, inequalities between generations, communities and genders, and marginalisation of large sections of the population. These actors are present, overlapping and exacerbating each other in many countries in the region, resulting in a perfect breeding ground in which violent extremist narratives can take hold.
Factors contributing to building resilience
The report suggests that underlying, upstream educational and cultural interventions can address these risk factors over the long-term - by building the resilience of populations to violent extremism. It identifies many existing interventions which it believes are effective and can be expanded or copied at much greater scale across the region in order to address the economic, civic, and social risk factors identified.
The report suggests that underlying, upstream educational and cultural interventions can address risk factors over the long-term - by building the resilience of populations to violent extremism
Programmes addressing economic factors include those providing better education, language training, and interventions designed to encourage soft skills, innovation, entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. Together these programmes could help promote flourishing economies in the region, which could attract more investment and create more jobs for young people.
Programmes addressing civic factors include those which seek to understand the needs of different communities and encourage debate and dialogue within and between such communities and between such communities and governments. Together these programmes could help to improve civil society and promote democratic accountability and good governance.
Programmes addressing social factors include those focussing on addressing marginalisation, gender, ethnic and religious inequalities, and critical as opposed to binary thinking in education systems and policymaking. Together these programmes could help to build more stable societies.
At present many such programmes are enjoying local successes. However, there needs to be more investment of time and resource into ensuring that evidence of impact is gathered to determine which interventions work best in which contexts. More broadly, a much greater degree of investment and coordination will be necessary between the UK government and the various organisations providing these projects - working with partners in the region - along with a greater commitment to engagement over the long term.
Many successful examples already exist of cultural, educational and civil society programmes which can help build the resilience of young people and their societies to extremism
Violent extremism is a serious problem in the Middle East and North Africa and the wider world. The report from the British Council’s APPG suggests that it will continue to be so unless far more is done to address the underlying economic, civic, and social factors which contribute to an environment in which extremist narratives can flourish. Many successful examples already exist of cultural, educational and civil society programmes which can help build the resilience of young people and their societies to such extremism. The report concludes that through expansion of such programmes, and through greater coordination, investment, and focus on the sorts of interventions that work, the UK and the rest of the international community can help to address these underlying problems.
Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Advisor and Insight Editor, British Council