Silhouettes of young people
Young Turks. Photo ©

British Council, adapted from the original.

February 2018

In a new discussion paper, Sheelagh Stewart, the British Council’s Senior Conflict and Stability Adviser, outlines how education, culture and social enterprise can improve young people’s resilience to the narratives of violent extremism.

Up-stream Solutions for Up-Stream Challenges

94% of the deaths caused by terrorism in 2016 occurred in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Why are these regions so badly affected? Part of the answer lies in the underlying political and economic conditions. In recent decades, governments have struggled to cope with the high expectations of rapidly expanding youth populations. Instead, young people face a daunting set of challenges: unemployment, corruption, political marginalisation and authoritarianism. These conditions have increased the risk of internal conflict and violent extremism. 

The overwhelming majority of young people in these countries are peaceful and strongly opposed to the world-view of ‘violent extremists’; indeed, they are among their main victims. However, a small minority continues to be drawn into these groups, which use violence to further a radical ideology and eradicate those with different views. The sad truth is that extremists have greater appeal in places where there are limited alternative offers of community, direction and purpose. Recruiters deliberately prey on young people who have given up hope of seeing change in their lives, often using seductive narratives - rooted in local grievances - which claim that violence is the only answer.

In a new discussion paper, Sheelagh Stewart, the British Council’s Senior Conflict and Stability Adviser, outlines how education, culture and social enterprise can improve young people’s resilience and their ability to resist the narratives of violent extremism. The paper builds on academic research and is based on an extensive review of British Council programmes from the Middle East and Africa, as well as evidence gathered by NGOs such as International Alert, Mercy Corps and Search For Common Ground. 

A young person’s ability to resist violent extremist narratives can be improved when education that builds skills related to resilience (such as critical thinking, the ability to listen, empathise, and manage ambiguity) is combined with an opportunity to apply the new learning in community projects, social enterprise and other real-life settings

The paper argues that a young person’s ability to resist violent extremist narratives can be improved when education that builds skills related to resilience (such as critical thinking, the ability to listen, empathise, and manage ambiguity) is combined with an opportunity to apply the new learning in community projects, social enterprise and other real-life settings. 

Improving the way in which civil society and the state interact with each other is another fundamental part of the analysis. Rebuilding trust between young people and governments is critical if marginalised young people are to reject extremists’ narratives that there are no peaceful or legitimate ways in which their grievances can be addressed. The approach works by helping young people and local authorities to work together on creating and negotiating solutions to the specific local issues that extremists exploit in their call to violence. For example, in Kano state, northern Nigeria, distrust of the security services fighting Boko Haram was increasing support for extremism, but was reduced among the local population due to the work of the British Council programme funded by DFID that created a conflict management alliance to manage relations between the security services and the community.

The paper concludes that programmes based on dialogue and mutual exchange can create immediate opportunities for reducing distrust, mitigating grievances, and providing positive pathways for young people living in areas where violent extremism is a high risk. While building institutions remains critical to the long-term solution, this takes time to achieve tangible results. In the meantime, policymakers need to find shorter-term interventions to prevent violence in areas where extremist recruiters are targeting vulnerable young people. This resilience building approach contributes to this objective, by supporting local stability through trust-building between citizens and local authorities and improved opportunities for young people. 

Investing in Young People

However, there’s one factor which is vital to the success of this approach, and that’s local context. Recruiters exploit different grievances in different areas, depending on what resonates most with the local community – for example, in one area it may be poor public service provision, while in another it could be abuses by security services. Engaging young people through educational, cultural or civil society activities is therefore only likely to have an impact on reducing the appeal of extremists if these programmes are developed in a way which helps to address the specific local factors fuelling recruitment. 

Stewart’s paper is highly timely and contributes to the intensifying debate on what works - and how - in attempts to prevent recruitment to violent extremist groups

Stewart’s paper is highly timely and contributes to the intensifying debate on what works - and how - in attempts to prevent recruitment to violent extremist groups. In recent years, the international community has invested serious time and money behind a more comprehensive approach, which focuses not just on tackling symptoms, but also root causes. The UN’s launch of the Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism in 2016 has highlighted the need for development programmes to be at the heart of the solution. It has also provided a framework for national governments to draw up their own action plans, including the roll-out of programmes which provide educational, civic and cultural opportunities for marginalised young people. 

The Preventing Violent Extremism field is a fast growing area of study, and, as a parliamentary inquiry concluded last year, there is still much work to be done on establishing what kinds of interventions work best and how. However, there is an evolving consensus around the centrality of youth inclusion. A major joint study by the UN and World Bank released last autumn concluded that one of the most effective approaches was to address grievances arising from exclusion from access to power, opportunity and security. Another conclusion highlighted the importance of increasing meaningful participation of women and youth in decision-making. These findings are echoed in the new discussion paper, and in recent research carried out by organisations such as International Alert and Mercy Corps on why young people decide to take up arms. 

The take-away for policymakers is clear – as youth populations continue to grow in Africa, South Asia and parts of the Middle East - a long-term solution to violent extremism will only be found if governments invest now in young people and their communities, and include them in the decisions that will shape their future.

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Analyst, Security and Stability, British Council

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