By Daniel Hooton, Strong Cities Network Associate
For a field that prides itself on maxims of prevention, pre-emption, and stopping extremist violence at source, we don’t work enough with other sectors and apply the lessons we ourselves urge others to take up. Were we to do so, we could make our work more effective, better communicated, and more positively perceived in local communities.
Quito, Ecuador last month played host to Habitat III, UN Habitat’s once-every-twenty-year gathering to debate the future of urban development. It was Ecuador’s opportunity to host their own Olympic village as more than 35,000 national and local leaders, urban designers, housing specialists, development workers and campaigners from all corners of the globe descended on this ancient volcanic city.
And they did more than debate. The event was designed to revise and set out afresh the priorities and targets for urban development, population management and the future of human settlements – all this enshrined in its central manifesto, the New Urban Agenda, each article of which has been crafted meticulously in line with the Sustainable Development Goals in session after session since the last Habitat plenary in Istanbul in 1996.
The setting could not have been more apposite. With its sprawling mountainside neighbourhoods perched atop perilous Andean shelves, Quito exemplifies the challenges that Habitat III set out to address: How do cities, and those that design, manage and develop them, cope with the pressures – economic, spatial, social and the rest – borne of a rapidly growing and increasingly urbanised population?
Regrettably, the CVE community has been largely absent from this discussion, illustrative of the policy void between those of us working in the national security or counter-extremism space and those working towards development agendas.
The void is not a necessity, nor is it helpful to either sector. This isn’t to deny the expertise and specialised focus of practitioners and policymakers on either side, rather to emphasise that we do ourselves a disservice not to learn the lessons from those working on issues with similar symptoms and causes, albeit from oft-divergent perspectives.
One part of the picture is the understandable mistrust and scepticism towards CVE from those outside the field, largely because of perceived blurred lines between so-called ‘soft’ prevention work and ‘harder’ counterterrorism work. Second, dealing with violent extremism and radicalisation issues has in many cases been treated as a separate, specialist field, with an overwhelming focus on Islamist-inspired extremism. The irony here is that those often charged with leading local-level CVE efforts come from broader backgrounds of crime prevention, social work or youth engagement and are by no means always from policing and law enforcement. Third, the CVE community has spent a vast majority of its energy consistently reigniting an internal debate around the respective influences of social and economic conditions versus more subjective trajectories of personal grievances and susceptibility to extremist narratives, only to arrive more often than not at the conclusion that it’s a bit of both and varies from one subject to the next. This factor in turn leads many within the CVE field to be sceptical of the role of the development sector, with its broad focus on fighting poverty, in countering violent extremism as a specific threat to safety and security.
In spite of these stumbling blocks, there are clear synergies between the two fields of CVE and development in which we would do well to work together towards a more integrated understanding and perspective towards common goals.
Take Habitat III as an example. People from across a vast range of professional backgrounds, as well as a host of multilaterals and UN member states came to Quito to identify and commit to solutions on the macro-infrastructural scale: the sustainability of housing, planning, climate responsibility, transport, food, water, gender equality, human rights, violence prevention and economic empowerment. Every one of these meta-issues includes a commitment to building more inclusive, resilient and sustainable communities.
And that’s where the CVE community has a not insignificant contribution to make. For over the course of the last 10 years, and increasingly as the field develops, there has been a veritable wealth of research and practice which answers a question that permeates and underlines each of these structural challenges: How do we, as individuals and communities, live together, put up with one another, acknowledge our differences and recognise that the arguments for respect, unity and opportunity for all are more powerful and more pervasive than those that seek to divide or preach hate and violence? How do we, as we become more diverse, more mobile and more populous, live side-by-side without ending up hating one another and finding cause for division?
The work that the CVE community has opened up – and continues to pioneer – around integration, inclusion, community cohesion, youth engagement, communications, the power and dangers of narratives, and the role of multiple stakeholders in building trust with civil society deserves more than to be kept behind a self-imposed screen of exclusivity. Instead, it should be working with all partners, be they from the development sector or elsewhere, to show its relevance and its enduring necessity.
It may never be that the CVE field, and the positive work that it has done in these areas, manages to shake itself of the negative perceptions of security, surveillance, intrusion and distrust that surrounds its relationship to counterterrorism. But the last thing we should be doing is accepting this as a foregone inevitability.
Cities, and the message of possibility and potential that can be built around the question of designing, governing, servicing and inhabiting them, present a natural stage for narrowing the void and opening up greater collaboration, especially as both fields increasingly seek to emphasise local action. It is lamentable that the positive work to which the CVE field has contributed is too often shrouded in negative language and unhelpful connotations; the work itself deserves better. By deepening cross-sector collaboration and resisting the urge to decorate ourselves in exclusivity and specialist expertise, it just might be that our work can be more effective, more influential, and better received.