Violent extremism is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon. Below, we take a systems-based perspective on the quality of collective efforts to respond to the threat across East Africa; and ask “what next?” is required to build on progress.
Building Shared Understanding: Increasing clarity on problems but not solutions. A skewed lens?
Compared with the Middle East, relatively few studies on violent extremism exist in East Africa. Most research is largely based on surveys of community perceptions which tend to focus on problems such as the lack of job opportunities, discrimination of minorities, and failings in governance. These factors affect millions of young East Africans and certainly do feature in reasons for joining VEOs. However, and while progress is being made, much more needs to be done to understand the social and personal factors which trigger a tiny proportion of these young people to act on their frustrations by joining an extremist group.
More importantly, even less is known (or shared) about the kind of interventions most likely to prevent individuals from being recruited. Publicly available literature is all-too rare, often due to the sensitivities of the information they contain, and the restrictions placed on wider distribution by donors, and there are few examples of ‘scalable’ programmes backed up by evidence to prove their preventative effects.
Wasafiri’s research model, honed over thousands of interviews across the region, emphasizes the need to identify at-risk individuals based on their ‘embeddedness’ in existing social networks which have links to VE activity or support. By focusing on the unique experiences of these individuals and the context-specific drivers of VE in their local communities, we’ve found we are better able to understand patterns of recruitment, and opportunities to disrupt them.
Securing Commitment: The challenge of aligning diverse (and often competing) interests
The dizzying array of factors which contribute to recruitment are the domain of many actors. And therein lies a central challenge to effective P/CVE. Aligning the interests of government, business, civil society, the media as well as those of foreign donors is a mighty challenge. Across and within these organisations lie vastly different interests, agendas, constituencies, resources, mandates and so on.
Closer to the issue, international and domestic policies and programmes tend to be subordinate to the counter-terrorism (CT) agenda. CT often prioritises a more hardline, security driven approach that can undermine longer-term, more nuanced P/CVE efforts in communities, and even worse, inflame local grievances against the state. The consequences of such policy gaps and tensions are real; the lack of a clear policy on the treatment of returnee fighters in Kenya, for example, means that those willing to disengage live in fear of being targeted by security forces.
Changing the Dynamics: Diverse and small-scale interventions are showing early signs of promise, but how to scale?
Evidence of what works is scarce, hindering efforts to replicate and scale successful interventions. This is starting to shift, as P/CVE programmes take root and generate tell-tale signs of results, planned or otherwise.
For instance, our embedded research and community outreach efforts are beginning to demonstrate the value of interventions which assist those individuals and groups who engage regularly in person with at-risk youth in their own communities. By gently nourishing these grassroots efforts over time with the right blend of skills, resources, ideas and networks, we have helped shape conditions which have deterred individuals from joining VEOs. This shift away from more conventional interventions that focus on broader and more superficial definitions of who is at-risk toward a greater focus on the individual and their closest social networks has been game changing at a micro-level. But the costs of time, access and resources make it a model hard to scale.
Enabling Coordination: Mechanisms for coordinating action are emerging, but need support to generate momentum.
Kenya’s National CVE Strategy provides a helpful starting point for enabling more coordinated action from across the assembled P/CVE actors. Some counties in Kenya (such as Mombasa and Kwale) have developed county level action plans which show promise for translating national intentions into county actions. Our sense is that the process was particularly useful for reinforcing the role of civil society (which has often had an uneasy relationship with the state), and for creating important platforms for at-risk youth and their families. But the plans have a long way to go yet before they are adequately resourced and implemented.
Uganda appears to be following suit in developing its own National CVE Strategy. (Wasafiri is among other civil society actors who are helping to shape this work). Again, generating shared commitment, supported by strong coordination and sufficient resources remain questions waiting to be answered.
Elsewhere, valuable forums have emerged to support practitioners and researchers exchange insights and advice. Wasafiri has helped convene one such example; the CVE Research Forum, comprising donors, researchers, and practitioners, meeting monthly in Nairobi.
Regionally and beyond however, evidence of momentum is low. The UN is struggling to assert its leadership and there is no universally agreed definition of violent extremism. In 2016 the UN did adopt a plan of action on P/CVE that includes 70 recommendations for states, and UNDP recently published a compilation of research across 6 countries in Africa, which highlighted urgent needs for governance and security sector reform. The African Union’s convening body IGAD established a CVE Centre in Djibouti with donor support in April 2018, which is focused on information sharing and capacity building across the region. These efforts however have some way to go before translating into more coherent action on the ground.
Augmenting Learning: Information flows need to empower those on the front lines.
Despite the gaps, the body of knowledge from which to design and implement more useful interventions is growing. However, our experience suggests that research and learning efforts are often extractive and do not sufficiently serve the teachers, imams, police officers, families and chiefs working on the front-lines. We see the right information, shared in the right ways, as a powerful lever of change.
To help redirect this flow, feedback loops need to be designed into programme design from the outset, ensuring that research and evidence flow outward and downward. Learning processes could be better designed, involving those who stand to benefit most. New approaches to monitoring emergent outcomes should be tested and scaled.