International thinking on combatting violent extremism has shifted significantly in recent years.

In the decade which followed the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the emphasis centred on traditional hard security measures against radicalised individuals. Yet, with the re-emergence of groups such as ISIS in the Middle East the focus has widened to finding longer-lasting solutions which tackle root causes rather than just the symptoms.

Investment has increased in efforts to reduce the appeal of the recruitment strategies which exploit local grievances and marginalisation. The fundamental principle here is that prevention is as important as cure. In 2016 the UN’s Plan of Action recommended that member states adopt a wider range of preventative measures, including conflict resolution, the promotion of critical thinking in education and the provision of youth employment and other ways to engage young people and provide them with positive alternatives to violence. 

Building pathways

With its significant expertise and resources in the fields of education, development and conflict prevention, the UK is taking a leading role in contributing to our understanding of the complex question of how to prevent violent extremism. A new report, Building Pathways: What Works on developing young people’s resilience to violent extremism, brings together the latest evidence from leading experts.

Launched in the House of Commons on 4 March 2020, the report presents the findings of the Community of Practice on Preventing Violent Extremism (COP), a group of practitioners, researchers and policymakers convened by the British Council in response to a British Council All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) inquiry. The inquiry  recommended that the British Council gather experts who could develop a stronger evidence base as well as share knowledge and collaborate on the range of small-scale programmes underway in the educational, social and civic space. 

COP chair and British Council Conflict and Security Lead, Sheelagh Stewart, highlighted a number of key findings.

Firstly, prevention programmes need to manage expectations over what they can deliver and over what timeframe. 

Tackling root causes takes a generation – therefore responses need to start from where young people are and build the economic, social and political inclusion that is the basis for all sustainable solutions  to the underlying causes which drive violent extremism and many other forms of violence.

Secondly, prevention programmes should focus on engaging young people, either by addressing their grievances or using platforms which interest them, such as arts, culture and sport. Interventions need to provide something immediate, structured and concrete for young people to do, but should go beyond diversion and give them the tools to build their own pathways towards resilience and integration, such as vocational education and civic skills. 

Thirdly, the report recommended the

focus of communications strategy on ‘opening’ rather than ‘winning’ hearts and minds. 

It found that strategies which responded to violent extremist narratives with binary counter-narratives were not effective. However, evidence from BBC Media Action indicated that communication platforms which create spaces for marginalised voices and developing positive social identities and norms have much more potential.

Fourthly, the report highlighted the need for significant improvement in monitoring, evaluation and learning from prevention programming. COP members RUSI and Search For Common Ground both flagged a number of reasons for this, including the difficulty of proving a counterfactual in any field, the short duration of many prevention programmes, and difficulty in identifying those at risk. 

The COP heard evidence of impact from a range of different programmes, organisations and regions. A Mercy Corps programme in Somalia showed that increasing young people’s opportunities for economic or political engagement in wider society reduced their support for armed groups and political violence.

Another programme, run by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, provided advocacy skills and mentoring to women from minority communities in the UK to address identity and inclusion issues.

Speaking at the launch event, British Council APPG Vice Chair Baroness Suttie described visiting British Council debating programmes in Morocco and Tunisia where young people became more confident to argue their case and make their voices heard.  

For her part, COP member Anna Chernova, Senior Policy Adviser, Oxfam, emphasised the importance of the group to its members, who she said saw it as an important interdisciplinary forum that brings together the UK’s world-leading specialist expertise in conflict and violence prevention.  

As the UK government prepares to conduct its integrated review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development, understanding the evidence of what works in preventing violent extremism will be key. Given the multi-faceted and enduring nature of the problem, interdisciplinary groups like the COP will be highly valuable. Speaking at the launch British Council APPG chair John Baron MP stressed the importance of expert groups in informing policy and leadcontributing to more effective policymaking.