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The Future of Countering Violent Extremism

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— 4 minutes reading time

Eric Rosand, Director of the Prevention Project

Eric Rosand is the Director of the Prevention Project, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He has spent nearly two decades working on counterterrorism issues, most recently advising governments, multilateral organizations, and NGOs on how to operationalize a “whole of society” approach to P/CVE.  This includes more than six years (2010-2016) as a senior counterterrorism official in the U.S. Department of State where he played a leading role in developing and launching a series of multilateral initiatives, including the Global Counterterrorism Forum and its three “inspired” institutions, and the Strong Cities Network. His writings have appeared in a wide range of publications including the American Journal of International Law, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The Hill, Just Security, Lawfare, Order from Chaos, Time, and War on the Rocks.  He holds a BA in history from Haverford College, a JD from Columbia University School of Law, and an LLM (Hons) in international law from Cambridge University.

This article is part of a series in which leading experts reflect on emerging trends for cities seeking to address hate, polarisation and extremism.

The concept of “countering violent extremism” (CVE) – which involves the use of non-kinetic tools to undermine recruitment and mobilization to terrorism and focusing attention on the drivers and not just the manifestations of the violence – was not new when then President Obama convened the White House CVE Summit five years ago. However, the unprecedented high-level gathering of governments, civil society, and the private sector elevated the issue as a priority in many capitals around the globe. It sparked the UN Secretary-General to develop a UN Plan of Action that has helped globalize the agenda and a range of CVE platforms that have helped institutionalize it, including by offering more opportunities for sustained networking and collaboration among the local actors – cities, youth, women seen as critical to the agenda’s enduring success. The Strong Cities Network and YouthCAN are among the progeny of this process.

Considerable progress has been achieved since then. More than 35 countries have developed national CVE frameworks. A number of municipalities, recognizing their often unique CVE role, have followed with local plans of their own. The importance of locally-led initiatives is reflected in the more than 1,000 locally-led CVE projects that have been launched across 100 countries, often implemented by civil society organizations. Thanks to research initiatives like RESOLVE and GCRF, there is now a growing body of increasingly contextualized and conflict-sensitive research on the drivers of violent extremism. This has helped clarify the interventions most likely to reduce the threat.

The World Bank and other development institutions are now deploying development tools and resources to help address structural and other drivers of extremist violence. In doing so, they have overcome their reluctance – as evidenced by the Bank’s unwillingness to send a high-level representative to the 2015 White House Summit – to engage in what was perceived as a politicized and securitized agenda. Non-law enforcement professionals are becoming more involved in CVE efforts, with health, social, and youth workers contributing to multi-disciplinary CVE interventions. Finally, funding support for CVE has grown and donors are doing a better job of ensuring that the funds are used to support targeted efforts of local actors on the front-lines.

This progress has been achieved despite considerable headwinds. These include a rise of populism and increasing democratic deficits worldwide, growing societal polarization, authoritarian and other governments that continue to favor state-centric, repressive approaches to security that do more to exacerbate rather than mitigate the threat, shrinking civic space, not to mention a global pandemic that is diverting resources away from other issues.

In addition to these trends, a number of barriers to further progress persist. These include overcoming the tendency to focus almost exclusively on the programmatic aspects of the agenda, while ignoring the policy dimensions. This requires focusing more attention on the behavior of governments and how they treat their citizens, particularly the most marginalized in their societies. In addition, there is the challenge of ensuring that national governments, rather than impose a “top-down” framework for addressing violent extremism, consult with and listen to local communities before elaborating relevant policies and programs.

Despite the elaboration of numerous tools, difficulties in assessing the impact of CVE programs remain. CVE programs continue to be defined by political considerations and assumptions rather than evidence, leading to a preference for short-term, risk-averting approaches and an overreliance on, for example, counter-messaging campaigns and religious and other faith-based actors. While the multilateral CVE architecture has expanded considerably over the past five years, opportunities for the voices of civil society and other local actors to be heard in inter-governmental bodies remain few and far between.

Moreover, there is currently no platform for governments and other key stakeholders to take stock of progress on the CVE agenda – both its policy and programmatic dimensions – drawing attention to its more sensitive aspects, including the governance-related, structural, and other drivers of violent extremism. Finally, the current public health crisis is likely to lead to reduced funding for CVE and many other issues. This underscores the need to overcome the traditionally siloed approach that has characterized funding in the peace, security, and development spheres and, where appropriate, integrate CVE into wider conflict and violence prevention efforts.

Although there has been considerable progress on the CVE agenda since 2015, CVE’s future depends very much on how effective its champions are in navigating the above challenges, particularly in the face of headwinds that continue to intensify.