Editor’s Note: Congress charged the U.S. Institute of Peace with convening the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Following the public launch of the Task Force’s final report, four groups of experts came together to discuss how to implement the report’s recommendations. This four-part series will discuss the findings from these strategy sessions. Part one summarizes expert discussion on how civil society actors are preventing violent extremism and building resilience in their communities and practical ways the U.S. and other international actors can more effectively interact with civil society to bolster its role in prevention.
Despite the loss of thousands of American lives and trillions spent since 9/11, extremism continues to spread. Tackling this thorny, generational struggle, especially in fragile states, requires a new policy of prevention that addresses underlying causes. How can civil society play a role?
The Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States looks at two Tunisian towns in its report to Congress. Sidi Bouzid and Metlaoui are alike in many respects: they suffer from social and economic problems, have a shared tribal heritage, and are centers of political resistance. But, they also have stark differences.
In Sidi Bouzid, extremist preachers gained control of most of the town’s mosques and sent dozens of fighters to join ISIS in Syria. Conversely, in Metlaoui, no mosques were taken over and only one fighter left the town to join ISIS. What accounts for these two towns’ differing ability to resist extremist forces? Metlaoui’s historic presence of labor unions gave citizens an avenue to express their grievances and a mechanism to seek redress. On the other hand, the people of Sidi Bouzid were without established ways to organize and express discontent, leaving the town more susceptible to extremist ideology.
What this example demonstrates is that the presence of civil society institutions that give people outlets to express their grievances allows communities to address local problems and resist extremism.
Civil Society: A Key Stakeholder in the Prevention Agenda
In some of the most fragile states and communities in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Middle East civil society is essential to effective prevention of violent extremism and fills several important roles that counter the influence of violent groups. Civil society can:
- Develop alternative channels for nonviolent conflict transformation;
- Provide powerful positive psycho-social benefits associated with being part of a movement or peacebuilding effort; and
- Build societal resilience and provide avenues for strengthening human dignity so that local people can decide their own future.
Abusive regimes and weak state-society relations severely limit civil society’s role in effective prevention. In fragile states, civil society confronts systems of exclusion, mistrust in institutions, and a lack of access or mechanisms to help citizens know their governments, let alone hold them accountable. Too often, civil society is seen as an enemy of the state, and must fight for space, freedoms, and rights that are regularly abused or mishandled, including in the name of national security imperatives.
Now is the time for a new approach that enables local people to decide their future. We must change our funding paradigm and reexamine how to provide resources, to whom and with what conditions and risks involved.
Empowering civil society through additional international support will take more than just added funding—it requires a change in approach. The current model for funding civil society organizations hinders their effectiveness. In fragile and complex conflict environments, the flexibility that local actors need to channel positive aspirations, remain grounded in their communities, and redirect grievances toward meaningful, peaceful change will require the U.S. and international community to build alternative mechanisms for channeling support and ensuring accountability.
At times, financial incentives from international donors can compel civil society actors to pursue short-term objectives or incongruent goals. As opposed to only offering project-based funding, international donors could provide more core funding for groups to develop and sustain their work.
Local civil society actors should be given greater flexibility to design and adapt programs, rather than becoming implementers for projects designed in far-off capitals that have little ability to adjust course when the context shifts. Externally designed programs are often unable to adequately channel and respond to local aspirations in ways that locally designed efforts can.
Often, local civil society actors undertake their work regardless of whether they have international support or not. For example, a local peacebuilding group in Sri Lanka began actively conducting rapid response interreligious dialogues in the aftermath of the recent attacks there, without guarantees that international funding would be forthcoming.
If donors want to support such work, they should do so flexibly and not require lengthy proposals. The challenges the U.S. faces in providing such unencumbered funding are enormous and require careful analysis of previous cases where flexibility has yielded results and how donor-funding mechanisms can adjust accordingly.
Connecting Civil Society and the Security Sector
International partners could advocate for more civil society participation to drive security sector assistance and reform. A refocus of security imperatives integrated with a community-led mentality could yield a security paradigm that more fully respects rights and protects civilians—a welcome shift from the current practice of these topics as an ancillary module to counterterrorism tactical capabilities.
Anecdotes from Kenya’s coast about police officers talking to local civil society organizations about the challenges of youth radicalization and in the Sahel where dialogues between security forces and communities have helped rebuild frayed confidence, demonstrate the promise of what is possible when security services move from state predation and abuse to listening to and working with civil society as a trusted partner.
And civil society cannot prevent violent extremism without stronger commitments from government to build more inclusive political systems and break patterns of exclusion, including those protected and perpetrated by security actors.
Future Priorities for the Policy Community
Additional analysis and work are needed to address the following gaps. Experts inside and outside government should engage with Congress on foreign assistance broadly, as well as prevention and violent extremism specifically, to yield more shared priorities. Similarly, additional conversations are needed with the military and the Department of Defense to discuss prevention and inclusion of civil society in understanding the security sector.
Lastly, because of the outsized impact felt by civil society in fragile places from the unintended consequences of U.S. policies, more work is necessary to ensure “do no harm approaches” are mainstreamed across U.S. policy, including in more prevention policies (for example, the Women Peace and Security Act and the National Counterterrorism Strategy).
Implementing inclusive, locally led solutions will take a new approach. Experts suggested specific practices should be built into next steps, in three key ways:
- Those outside government can help the U.S. government if it decides to create an “action plan” on the Task Force report recommendations or in the case of passage of the Global Fragility Act;
- Enabling analysis that is more useful locally and specific contextually by building more national research capacities in fragile states; and
- Unlocking ways to provide more small funds directly to local civil society groups.
Civil society actors are hungry for a prevention agenda that they are both a part of and recognizes their daily realities where the struggle against extremism is one of several societal challenges. With this in mind, civil society should be part of an agenda where the U.S. not only focuses on what we are against, but what are we for—peace, prosperity, equality and resilience.
Leanne Erdberg is the director of countering violent extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Bridget Moix is the senior U.S. representative and head of advocacy for Peace Direct.