by Joanna Lancashire
That CVE, or the notion of ‘Countering Violent Extremism,’ can be tied to development assistance is not a new one. USAID has been conducting CVE programming in West Africa since 2006. ‘Countering violent extremism’ gathered significant attention during increased flows in foreign terrorist fighters to the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. The impression, that the shape of violent extremism itself was changing with the rise of the Islamic State, can be seen as the impetus for a wider range of CVE policies, and a wider range of involved actors in the humanitarian space, including multilateral organisations. Alongside many national development agencies strategies adopted in the early 2010s, multilateral organisations such as United Nations Development Program (UNDP) initiated work into preventing and countering violent extremism in 2014, with then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon presenting a ‘Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism’ in December 2015. Although lacking in both uniformity of purpose and strategy, the ideals underpinning CVE – that violent extremists should not only be fought by military means have been driven into the political lexicon by humanitarian actors working toward international peace and security, and countering terrorism as a wholistic concept.
The landscape of violent extremism is increasingly fractured by the nature of the battle spaces and ease of cross-border movement that have defined the early 21st century. For humanitarian organisations, the congruence between development work and countering extremism is perceivably a natural one. Broadly defined, humanitarian P/CVE programming in practice can extend from deradicalisation programmes and cross-community dialogue initiatives to the development of counter-messaging products, to name only a few practice areas. In ways, many of the elements that underpin the current discourse on CVE – community capacity building, education, civil society – are all equally underpinnings of development work in general. To some degree the components of CVE, and in a more limited sense its more controversial iteration ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ (PVE), may be presented as falling under the remit of work being conducted already and the mandate that humanitarian organisations are already bound to perform.
Beyond a value-based rationale, the practical reasons for humanitarian organisations to be the ones to conduct this type of work are many. Multilateral humanitarian organisations may benefit from freer access than state representatives, and may have better relationships with both civil society groups working in peacebuilding and governance, and with violent or extremist actors themselves. From a perceptual point of view, acting as an international organisation can be more effective in jurisdictions where state troops may still be present. There can however be a perception that such activities, particularly when tied to directed funding from states, may push the boundaries of neutrality, to say nothing of the security implications for those involved. Lack of institutional memory or contextual expertise – an issue that is not specific to the humanitarian field, but strongly pronounced in an area in which personnel turnover is high and record keeping can be limited – means humanitarian CVE programming may suffer from questions of efficacy as well as sensitivity.
The definitional issues around P/CVE and problematising of the term, merit a far longer discourse than this piece has time for. However, the continuing lack of uniformity in the way P/CVE is discussed at high-level forums, or in practice or policy, creates issues even as the terms become more commonplace, and the issues better understood. The United Nations has chosen a path that defines its work around both PVE and CVE, though this type of programming was largely initiated on the back of the concept of prevention. P/CVE work is inherently political given its links to the counter-terrorism strategy of states. There is an argument to be made that the move toward state funding of humanitarian C/PVE policies through multilateral organisations is, if not an abdication of responsibility on the part of governments, then a redistribution of it. Despite principles of neutrality, humanitarian organisations are not inherently apolitical, nor are they viewed this way in the field. If anything, national governments have a stronger interest in preventing violent extremism (insofar as this is possible) but run the political and reputation risk of conducting this work themselves. This is particularly relevant given that the discourse that underpins P/CVE has been criticised for assumptions about its target groups. Both in conducting the work of constructing effective programming, and engaging with the discourses left behind by states themselves, this places a heavy burden on humanitarian organisations to manage the risks delineate the policy, they are at least partially implementing on behalf of states.
There is clearly a strong difference between implementing CVE policies in developed societies, and programming in often unstable field environments post or pre-conflict. With few exceptions, arguably not enough work has been completed to consider the efficacy of adapting programmes and ideas such as counter-messaging that have become popular in developed countries to the specific field contexts in which they are being trialed. CVE is still a comparatively nascent field. A problem pervasive to the field in general, but critical in the context of humanitarian operations, is a lack of solid monitoring and evaluation practices and mechanisms. While this is a critical problem in the context of any type of programming, it can be further exasperated in an environment such as humanitarian work facing complex and politically sensitive working environments. This is particularly relevant given that much of the research suggests that targeting disengagement, rather than deradicalisation, may be a more practical goal for CVE programs. This is a difficultly in field environments where lines between structures of radicalisation and recruiters may be both in close proximity, and difficult to disentangle from the structures of community themselves.
Critical problems are clear in the space between how CVE is discussed in high-level policy, and how this translates to implementation in the field. Questions of impartiality with regard to CVE programming are likely to become further embedded as the humanitarian space becomes not only more crowded but more diversified in character. Without a clear policy delineation, and confident consensus at least in the framework of ethics around CVE, humanitarian actors may run the risk of worsening the state of the environments they seek to aid.
Joanna Lancashire completed her Master’s degree in International Security at Sciences Po Paris specialising in Middle Eastern studies, where she was Editor-in-Chief of the Sciences Po Review of Public Affairs. Prior to this, she completed her undergraduate degree in Politics and Law at Sciences Po Paris and at Trinity College Dublin.