Extremist groups thrive in fragile states where basic needs go unmet. Development efforts can address the conditions that make people vulnerable to extremism. If you look at a map of where terrorist groups operate and where terrorist attacks occur, you will find that many coincide with locations of intractable conflict and deep development deficits. Low human development indicators, stark disparities in opportunity and access to resources, poor or scattered governance, and a history of conflict and social marginalization feature prominently among afflicted communities.

Food aid, sent from Uganda via South Sudan, is distributed to internally displaced persons living in southeastern Central African Republic. (UN Photo/Herve Serefio)
Food aid, sent from Uganda via South Sudan, is distributed to internally displaced persons living in southeastern Central African Republic. (UN Photo/Herve Serefio)

These factors do not predestine individuals to extremist ideologies or tendencies, despite the prevalence of this dangerous assumption. Still, these realities can and do contribute to environments where violent extremists can present themselves as an alternative to the grievance-inducing status quo.

As governments continue to search for ways to tackle the spread of violent extremism, increasing development efforts can help counter the belief that violent extremists present the only available option to improve one’s livelihood and bring about societal change. International assistance can address grievances that foster violent extremism, as well as help build resilience in practical and effective ways.

Using development aid to address violent extremism is not a new suggestion, but progress has been hindered by overlooked aspects. These include a lack of deep understanding of contexts, high expectations of what one program can achieve and the tendency to ignore emotional human needs. Therefore, opportunities exist to make better use of development aid to address violent extremism.

Focus on Context and Embrace Complexity

Development experts disagree on a lot of things, but they largely agree on the maxim that “context matters.” At the hyper-local level, the hardest development cases suffer not just from obvious development challenges, but several overlapping and deeply entwined issues—none of which can be fixed by considering only one sector. This is perhaps why the world of international aid has a track record of crafting tools, resources and approaches useful in assessing and working to improve specific issues within highly complex contexts. In successful cases, development professionals use assessments to make sense of complex dynamics with deep appreciation of the communities impacted, and then help design conflict-sensitive programs.

However, development gains are not easy, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected environments. A lack of infrastructure, constrained economic prospects, deadly health deficits and limited rule of law all converge, stymying the impact of any one development approach. But in the fragile places where violent extremists find the lush grounds of discontent, they usually also have further challenges—venal elites controlling power, endemic corruption, weak and unprofessional security services, widespread abuses of human rights, and often incentives for perpetuating insecurity and fragility, rather than solving it.

Development is needed more than ever in these environments because it can provide a nuanced assessment of the situation, resources unavailable elsewhere and an appreciation of localized impact. For instance, it can offer unique opportunities for civil society groups in places where civic space is repressed and organizations are systemically persecuted. It can also work to build specific impact, like community-relevant defense lawyers who build trust in a legal system where rights are abused by security actors, or transparent retirement and pension systems in the military to address public sector theft and improve soldier morale in places where corruption corrodes public trust.

Development professionals perhaps see the same grievances that violent extremists see, except they are looking for ways to partner with people to address those circumstances, rather than warp them into a narrative of hate and violence. Violent extremists promise a transcendentally changed status quo—that all current grievances, all the difficulties of daily living, can be solved by adherence to them. Development can help transform environments too—although incrementally, and with a greater need for political will and resources.

The Case for Indirect Impact

For too long, we have been hindering the potential impact of development assistance on extremism in fragile states because we have been fixated on direct impact, demanding that each program must directly demonstrate how it is countering terrorism. This sets up unrealistic standards for development aid.

If the conditions conducive to violent extremism are often the same fragile circumstances where inequity, abuse, marginalization and corrupt governance issues exist, then we must learn to value programs that illustrate an impact on these factors. This does not, however, mean that development and peacebuilding assistance efforts must be relabeled to have impact or be relevant to counterterrorism.

Efforts to address violent extremism can instead refer to a whole host of potential programs that, in concert with one another, are working to address multiple ways that violent extremism takes hold. This shifts the burden of assessing impact to beyond a singular program or programmatic timeline.

Not every effort can be adequately measured in a dynamic system, especially on a short timeline. The extent to which any one effort might directly impact violent extremism in the near term is not always clear. Policymakers should not expect impact on loftier goals that stretch what is provable beyond the capacity of one intervention alone. Instead, we can emphasize measuring attendant circumstances (e.g., less security sector abuses in pre-trial detention) and efforts that might contribute to wider changes over time (e.g., prevented radicalization in prisons).

Do Not Cede Terrorists the Moral High Ground

Finally, development efforts are in crucial need of elevation within the arsenal of efforts to address violent extremism because they recognize the humanity of individuals and communities. For groups that violently deprive people of life and limb, terrorists certainly do try to fashion themselves as society’s saviors. Terrorists see gender and reify specific gender roles and responsibilities for men and women. They promise adherents agency and self-determination. They give them a mission and a role in service to that sacred calling. They provide belonging and community—a brotherhood (or, in some cases, sisterhood) where you struggle together. And they provide safety and security, albeit by the sword. In short, they promise to fulfill many basic human needs.

Development efforts and international aid are often pursued for national and international security and peace and have the added legacy of being grounded in deep appreciation of humanity—the inherent rights of individuals and the commitment that we are willing to help others enjoy the dignities that we enjoy. They understand how to empower young people as change agents who demand reforms and opportunities. They can provide a common sense of democratic hope when repression is all memory can conjure. They can help create systems of accountability from cultures of impunity and follow the money even when the kleptocratic are entrenched. They can be gender sensitive, create opportunities and break down barriers of marginalization.

The Next Chapter

Every day, violent extremists adapt in real time to the latest circumstances—territorial losses, leadership deaths, climate change, new grievances, funding constraints and new technologies. They continue to adapt because they know that the group only exists if new people join. This means that preventing extremism gets harder and more complex with each passing year, as groups adapt to find new ways to draw people to their cause.

The potential for development aid and expertise to address violent extremism is vast but will need new political will in order to unleash it, especially as new forms of violent extremism are on the rise and fragility is becoming more prominent in developed countries. Now is the time to see international assistance as an invaluable means to provide the context-aware, realistic and human-focused approaches we will need to address the future threats of violent extremism—with both the flexibility to adapt and the will to persist.

This article was originally published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change as part of “2020: Challenges in Counter-Extremism.”

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