Ahead of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy’s biennial review in New York this week, member states must quickly resolve debates about the role and relevance of civil society in local and international efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism.
Civil society must be included.
While civil society representatives may not always be fluent in the diplomatic language of development and security, it is becoming increasingly clear that local community representatives are by far the most powerful protagonists to prevent violent extremism.
This is something the Global Community and Resilience Fund (GCERF) has repeatedly seen across our projects. The GCERF catalyses local resilience against violent extremism in Bangladesh, Kenya, Kosovo, Mali, and Nigeria by providing small grants to civil society organizations.
Local civil society members have the insight to identify individuals who are vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization, and the legitimacy to engage without stigmatizing them. Violent extremists often recruit the marginalized.
In GCERF-funded projects in Kenya, for example, members of local civil society are working with religious leaders and community elders to identify vulnerable youth and encourage them to join peace clubs, in order to strengthen their sense of belonging, respect, and ability to drive positive change in their communities. In Nigeria, community leaders selected vulnerable young men and women and invited them to attend a week-long program to become Peace Ambassadors. Equipped with the necessary skills and confidence, these young people are now building active networks to raise awareness and mobilize their communities against violent extremism.
Local civil society members have a nuanced understanding of the conditions, factors, and incentives that potentially drive vulnerable individuals to violent extremism. In Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, for example, despite the increasing hate speech toward Rohingya refugees, the underlying grievance is the host community’s concern over rising prices, environmental impacts, and a lack of outlets to express these frustrations. In response, GCERF grants have helped to establish platforms and community forums to engage, discuss and debate. Local business representatives and district authorities often participate.
Local civil society members are best placed to address the drivers of radicalization to violent extremism. In the North Central region of Nigeria, violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa have exploited tensions between herders and farmers. In response, some communities have established semi-formal, alternative mechanisms to resolve these disputes, while also raising awareness about the tactics violent extremist groups use to manipulate opinions. These community-led initiatives reinforce social cohesion and community agency through forgiveness rather than retribution and punishment.
In Bangladesh, GCERF grants support debate competitions that strengthen critical thinking and questioning skills among vulnerable students. The program’s success has now encouraged teachers to build debating skills into the regular curricula for students between the ages of 15 to 18.
None of these initial successes can wholly address the problem of violent extremism: It would be a mistake to consider community-based responses as the only – or even always the most effective – response. Community members can be antagonists as much as they are protagonists, vigilantes instead of vigilant, and exclusionary rather than inclusive. But GCERF’s experiences prove that the critical mass have the capacity to be change agents within their communities and are equipped with ideas and insights to make a difference.
GCERF supports them through small grants, but the international community has the capacity to do much more. It can provide them with the space and trust to identify the context-specific drivers of violent extremism, and design their own responses rather than imposing ready-made strategies on communities.
What’s more, at the U.N. this week, the international community will have the opportunity to ensure genuine engagement by allowing civil society to voice their needs, challenges, and goals.
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