How Close Is “Whole of Society” Movement Against Violent Extremism?

Kenyan teacher Ayub Mohamed integrates deradicalization lessons into classes on business and Islamic studies. Nairobi, Kenya, March 3, 2016 (Tony Karumba, AFP, Getty Images)

This week marks the first anniversary of United States President Barack Obama’s unprecedented gathering of world leaders and 120 civil society groups at the United Nations to call for a “whole of society” effort to defeat the Islamic State and prevent violent extremism taking root around the world. Obama’s message was clear: governments cannot do it alone. Communities themselves—families, friends, faith leaders, teachers, social service workers, and neighbors—are the best partners in preventing people from being radicalized to violence. Many in the room affirmed that sentiment. A year later, to what extent has this call been heard and acted upon? The scorecard is mixed.

On the positive side, the number of community-led programs on preventing and countering violent extremism (CVE) continues to grow. Civil society groups, often operating in dangerous environments, are increasingly demonstrating the unique role they can play in violence prevention. Western donors are beginning to invest more resources in this work, which comes in all shapes and sizes.

Civil society groups are, for example, bringing together local authorities, community leaders, the private sector, and family members in vulnerable communities in Jordan to reverse feelings of hopelessness, marginalization, or disenfranchisement among youth. They are providing much-needed psycho-social support to allow for the reintegration of those affected by Boko Haram back into their communities. From Mombasa to Maiduguri and Bamako to Beirut, organizations are innovating to engage young people from communities that are targeted for terrorist recruitment to develop positive, constructive relationships between youth and local authorities, where the broken bond between these two constituencies has been among the main drivers of violent extremism.

Beyond the many one-off civil society projects, new initiatives now connect, network, and seek to grow the community of local leaders and activists who are stepping forward to contribute. Again, the sheer number of programs is impressive.

In April, the Kofi Annan Foundation brought together young leaders across the globe with proven track records in preventing and countering violent extremism in their communities to pool ideas and share experiences. A new network has united some 650 youth activists, artists, and technology entrepreneurs from 100 countries, with Facebook providing a safe space for an ongoing international exchange of practices and to foster collaboration and co-creation between its members. The US Department of State handed out its inaugural Emerging Young Leaders Award to 10 young people creating positive social change in challenging environments.

At the multilateral level, the UN Secretary-General launched his Plan of Action in January to frame what steps governments, UN agencies, and communities should take to advance the “whole of society” approach to preventing violent extremism. In February, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development decided to allow its member states to report CVE funding as part of their annual development assistance targets. Both the World Bank and UN Development Programme, organizations that had historically been reluctant to engage in this area, now support programs aimed at preventing violent extremism.

These are broadly positive developments that include systemic changes within some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful global bureaucracies. Yet, this is only half of the story.  The other half is much less impressive.

The new civil society initiatives and multilateral frameworks will fail to stem support for violent extremism if they are not complemented by political reckoning among governments whose own policies and actions often play a key role in driving their citizens into the ranks of violent extremist organizations in the first place.

The data on what drives support for violent extremism is clear: state violence against its own population is among the single largest factors in support for “terrorist” or violent extremist organizations. Excessive and routine police brutality; kleptocracy and corruption; and the biased delivery of public services are among the key sources of grievance within communities that violent extremist propaganda exploits. This phenomenon is not new. What is new is the ability for armed groups—or “violent extremist” groups as we’re concerned with today—to recruit across borders, aided by social media and other 21st century modes of communication, by tapping into this transnationally shared narrative of grievance, injustice, marginalization, and systemic corruption and abuse.

Despite this evidence, too many governments remain reluctant to acknowledge that how they treat their citizens matters when it comes to reducing the violent extremist threats within their borders, let alone commit to changing their behavior.

Across the globe, governments continue to crack down on civil society space and freedoms. This year has seen governments arresting civil society actors for peaceful protest, criminalizing speech and media oversight, and passing anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies in the face of unprecedented levels of global human suffering. Overly broad definitions of terrorism or violent extremism, particularly across the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, are too often used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders.

Indeed, according to one estimate, more than 63 countries have passed restrictive laws in recent years, shrinking civil society space and increasing the criminalization of and discrimination against civil society organizations worldwide (including restricting or banning foreign funding and imposing onerous registration requirements).

In addition, ongoing wars continue unabated and multiple forms of violence are increasing across the globe. Overall levels of global violence are increasing so much that earlier in 2016 the World Bank revised its flagship 2011 report on global conflict and development trends to clarify that conflict is no longer just one of the drivers of suffering and poverty around the world, but the primary driver.

These trend lines of increasing crackdowns on civil society and increasing levels of overall violence will undermine the possibility of achieving the whole of society CVE approach that Obama promoted this time last year.

Thus, the report card since last September’s summit is mixed. While civil society organizations and Western donors are investing in CVE programs and multilateral organization are prioritizing the need to take comprehensive action to address violent extremism, too many governments are doubling down on the policies and actions that drive support for violent extremism in the first place.

This must be rectified if we hope to meaningfully reduce this increasingly global threat. To start, at this year’s UN General Assembly gathering, governments should come prepared to discuss tangible steps they are taking to tackle the drivers of violent extremism: corruption, marginalization, shrinking civil society space, and ongoing violent conflicts. Governments and local and global civil society organizations should jointly launch an annual CVE “index” process to track states’ risks to violent extremism and hold them accountable for actions taken, or not, to reduce this risk. Finally, governments should channel their interest in CVE towards driving real political commitment and resources to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 of “promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies” by 2030.

Last year, Obama said, “governments cannot [counter violent extremism] alone.” This year we must respond: “neither can civil society.”

Eric Rosand is Director of the Prevention Project. Madeline Rose is Senior Policy Adviser at Mercy Corps.