Editor’s Note: Community and civil-society programs to counter violent extremism (commonly referred to as "CVE") seem to have fallen out of favor under a Trump administration that wants to look tough on terrorism. Perhaps more surprisingly, voices on the left of the spectrum also seem to believe CVE programs are useless or even counterproductive. Andrew Glazzard, a senior research fellow at RUSI, and Eric Rosand, who worked on CVE at the State Department before directing the Prevention Project, argue that these criticisms are overstated and often quite wrong. CVE programs have many weaknesses, but they remain a vital part of counterterrorism.
Not so long ago, CVE or PVE—countering or preventing violent extremism—was the new hot thing. President Obama was its most visible standard-bearer, hosting conferences and urging nations to invest more in preventing radicalization and recruitment to violent extremist groups. Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was not far behind, presenting his Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism, an apparently decisive contribution that offered global legitimacy to what had been viewed as a largely U.S.-led effort. As early as 2011, the Global Counterterrorism Forum, bringing together 29 countries and the European Union, put CVE at the center of its activities, producing best-practice guides and sponsoring two new institutions dedicated to the task. Many national governments seemed to buy in, with presidents and prime ministers publicly embracing the need to go beyond security-led responses to terrorism and address its symptoms using a variety of “softer” approaches. New policies and programs soon followed around the globe, from Albania to Afghanistan, Canada to Cameroon, and Kenya to Kazakhstan.
Has CVE Gone All Wrong?
A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that CVE is down, and possibly on its way out. Media reports suggest that President Trump is acting on the critique from the right that CVE, because of its focus on all forms of violent extremism and emphasis on engaging and empowering communities is too politically correct and insufficiently focused on ideology. He took aim at the U.S. government’s CVE approach within days of arriving in the White House: His aides reportedly floated a plan to rename and refocus domestic CVE programs as “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” and his proposed FY2018 budget zeros out any funds for the DHS CVE grant program. Domestic CVE programs are under fire from the other end of the political spectrum as well. The Brennan Center for Justice, for instance, recently launched a broadside against the U.S. government’s efforts, claiming that they stigmatised Muslim communities and were ineffective, while the UK’s Prevent program, now enshrined in British law, has been under attack since its public launch in 2007. Prevent’s critics range from academics to Muslim advocacy groups to former government ministers, one of whom, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, has labelled the program “broken” and “toxic.”
Outside the U.S. and UK’s domestic arena, some international NGOs are also questioning the theory and practice of CVE. Conflict prevention and peacebuilding organizations such as Saferworld and International Crisis Group have recently published major pieces challenging the wisdom as well as the effectiveness of CVE approaches. In many ways, this is the latest version of an old argument about the securitization of aid. International NGOs have long protested that aid should be allocated to those most in need—not those most important to Western security interests. They argue that CVE is conceptually weak, with terms (including “violent extremism” itself) conveniently undefined; that it confuses conflict violence with terrorism, or focuses on some manifestations of violence at the expense of others; that CVE fails to deliver on its promise to “tame” militarized and other hard-security approaches to counterterrorism; that it prioritizes Western security concerns over the needs of its supposed beneficiaries; that it ignores lessons learned from earlier approaches such as security-sector reform and demobilization; that it provides a blank check to repressive governments to harass political opponents in the name of countering violent extremism; that it stigmatizes targeted communities; that it over-focuses on ideology and propaganda, ignoring or downplaying the structural factors that cause conflict and terrorism; and that it is constructed on a remarkably weak base of evidence.
Even in Washington, despite the president’s bluster around “CVE,” the Department of State’s budget for supporting locally-led CVE work abroad is higher than ever.
For all the criticism, however, CVE is not going away. Spurred on by Secretary Ban’s Plan of Action, an increasing number of U.N. agencies, including those focused on education, development, and women, now have CVE (or PVE in U.N. terminology) near the top of their priorities. This is a far cry from a few years ago when these agencies insisted on steering clear of this work. Far from seeing it as broken, the UK government views Prevent as critical to the UK’s success in reducing the risk of terrorism: It has inspired other programs across Europe and beyond, delivered prevention training to 800,000 public-sector workers, and intervened in over 1,000 cases of individuals judged to be at particular risk of being drawn into terrorism. As a result, Prevent is likely to have an even greater role in the next iteration of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy, particularly given the recent spate of attacks there. The European Union is spending more on CVE than ever before. In 2016, CVE accounted for more than half of the European Union’s external assistance budget on counterterrorism and PVE (up from around a third in 2015). Internally, largely driven by the need to prevent more from Europeans running off to Iraq and Syria, the European Union has also called for more non-security-related investments in CVE. Even in Washington, despite the president’s bluster around “CVE,” the Department of State’s budget for supporting locally-led CVE work abroad is higher than ever.
But are the criticisms, especially from the international NGOs, justified? Is CVE at best ineffective, and at worst an aid to repressive, autocratic regimes? Our research on the topic includes extensive consultations with academics, governments and other donors and civil society representatives, data collection on a thousand projects in over 100 countries, and in-depth interviews with CVE practitioners in civil-society organizations (CSOs) worldwide.
Much CVE Criticism Misses the Mark
Our emerging findings suggest that the CVE field has its fair share of problems, but that much criticism is off base.
Take, for example, the claim that the CVE field regards itself as wholly novel and therefore need not concern itself with lessons learned from other fields. This is undermined by the wealth of literature from academics, think tanks, NGOs and practitioners which positions CVE in relation to what we know about development programming, conflict and peacebuilding, communications campaigns, counterterrorism, and even public-health campaigns. The RESOLVE network, which aims to build a global network and database of CVE research and researchers, is developing an online library of CVE-relevant material. It contains 2,395 documents from the 1990s to 2017, much of it drawn from research into exactly those fields that CVE is supposedly ignoring, such as peacebuilding. (Indeed, RESOLVE is housed within a peacebuilding organization—the United States Institute of Peace—which rather proves the point.)
Or take the claim that CVE prioritizes Western security concerns over local needs. Our research shows that CSOs certainly have mixed feelings about CVE terminology: Perceived as a near synonym for “counterterrorism,” the CVE label can alienate recipient communities and individuals. But when unpacked and explained, even if it is not relabelled, the purpose of CVE intervention is recognised as a priority by communities from Afghanistan to Kosovo. After all, whatever we call it, violent extremism affects local populations in Africa and Asia far more than in North America or Western Europe.
On the other hand, much of what the INGOs claim is true. Terms in CVE are ambiguous and contested; the “causes,” “drivers,” or “factors” that contribute to extremist violence—especially the contribution of ideology versus structural factors—are controversial; the evidence for what works in CVE is extremely weak. But it would be nonsense to suggest that these problems are not recognized in the CVE field. And many CVE practitioners are committed to doing something about it. On the evidence base, for example, we are starting to see independent evaluations of CVE interventions reaching the public domain. More and more initiatives to improve our understanding are now planned or underway, including one developed by the authors of this article, and a donor CVE community of practice is forming to share lessons learned in this field.
Moreover, CVE is hardly alone in being built on shaky evidential foundations. Do we really know what works in conflict prevention and peacebuilding, let alone counterterrorism, for example? But ceasing or reducing investment in CVE on this basis would be short-sighted and hold it up to an unreasonably high standard. Similarly, the argument that CVE has so far failed to reduce states’ reliance on hard (and often counterproductive) counterterrorism measures rather misses the point. We still have terrible, destructive wars despite billions of dollars spent on conflict prevention and peacebuilding, but only the most doctrinaire ideologue would argue that we should simply give up and accept that “shit happens.” More importantly, the global CVE conversation is making a case for non-coercive, preventative measures in managing the risk from violent extremism, even if many states have a depressing tendency to ignore the advice and keep on trying to solve their problems with force. We know that highly-militarised responses to terrorism and insurgency are often counterproductive, and it is the CVE community that is at the forefront of promoting the message that CVE and military approaches are not alternatives but should be complementary—so much so that it is clearly and commendably written into the U.N. Plan of Action.
One criticism deserves particular attention: the “blank check” argument. This is important because it claims that CVE is not merely rubbish, but actively harmful. An overly broad definition of violent extremism—especially one which conveniently prunes away the word “violent”—can and in many places does permit states to act against their political opponents under the cover of achieving a global good. Again, this is hardly news to the CVE community, which has expressed similar concerns about governments cracking down on fundamental freedoms, such as the right to free expression and assembly, all in the name of more security. CVE, unlike conventional counterterrorism, is supposed to include the empowerment and inclusion of civil society as a partner for governments in a “whole of society” movement. Indeed, in our research, this came out as the top concern on the part of CSOs working in CVE: Even states which have a largely positive reputation for their CVE stance stand accused of restricting the space for civil society.
CVE, unlike conventional counterterrorism, is supposed to include the empowerment and inclusion of civil society as a partner for governments in a “whole of society” movement.
Again, CVE’s detractors seem to miss the point. Repressive (and not-so-repressive) states have always used politically contentious language to support their friends and suppress their enemies. This is as true for “terrorism” as it is for “extremism”—but that does not mean we should stop trying to counter terrorism because of the moral difficulties involved in the word’s definition and scope. Moreover, it is often CVE practitioners who insist on restricting the scope of CVE to the most violent groups, on the grounds that it is the use of and support for violence that distinguishes violent extremists from someone’s political enemy.
The most important point here is about who should be leading CVE. National governments—rightly—see themselves as having primacy on security. Most of us would agree that security is a service which governments are obliged to provide to their citizens. But the point about CVE, at least in our understanding, is that it aims to mobilise society, from the bottom to the top, in a shared endeavour. That is why CVE practitioners increasingly emphasize communities—CSOs, local authorities, community groups, religious leaders, women, youth, families, and teachers and other local professionals—rather than national governments as having primacy in CVE. The most urgent task for CVE practitioners and their political supporters is to keep open as much space as possible for civil society and the broader communities, space that many governments (and not only the most dictatorial) are trying to close.
None of this is to say that CVE is problem-free. It is a new field (albeit one that draws on a long history of practice and effort under different headings). It works in the most sensitive and politicized territory imaginable. It would be surprising if, by this point, CVE practitioners had achieved consensus or established a body of knowledge to reliably guide future practice. Indeed, our research has identified other problems with CVE not mentioned by international NGOs: Many CSOs worry at their own lack of capacity, and donors struggle to identify capable partners in many countries; some CSOs and NGOs have followed the perceived financial incentives to develop CVE projects but feel they lack the knowledge and experience to deliver CVE outcomes; donors tend to be risk-averse and rely on top-down programming models that fail to incorporate local perspectives from start-to-finish, whereas CVE needs more experimentation and local research. But we have also found some good news: Donors and practitioners are learning and using more research in their work; the most successful projects are being implemented by CSOs embedded in communities, with track records that pre-date the arrival of the CVE and PVE labels; some projects are helping to break down barriers between state and society. This fine-tuning could not come at a more appropriate time given the increasing reality that we will need CVE tools to deal with two of the most pressing security challenges confronting governments in both the developed and developing world: 1) how to identify and steer young people away from violence before they appear on the radar of law enforcement and security agencies; and 2) how to rehabilitate the thousands of individuals returning from Iraq and Syria for whom prison is either not an option due to lack of evidence or not appropriate given the risk of further radicalization.
More can be done to improve CVE, in theory and in practice. One of the authors of this essay has written at length on this, proposing dozens of recommendations to governments, multilateral bodies, and CSOs. But here, let us propose just three measures. First, donors and the implementers of CVE projects need to be much less discreet about their successes and failures. The effect of CVE is very difficult to judge when evaluations are conducted behind closed doors (if at all). Second, CVE practitioners need to be more experimental, but use the knowledge gained from pilot projects to scale up what works while adding to the evidence base. Third, governments and particularly multilateral organisations need to be blunter and clearer with their member states and diplomatic partners about the necessity of civil-society partnerships: CVE simply cannot be effective in countries where the space for civil society has been closed.
Despite it being necessary, we suspect that CVE will always be controversial. As in any other complex endeavour working on sensitive issues, it will always be difficult to measure success and prescribe solutions. Some criticism of CVE is healthy: CVE practitioners should not be afraid to be held to account for shortcomings, and CVE theorists need to explain how and why CVE can reduce the impact of and risks from violent extremism. But whatever one thinks of how it is practised, a preventative approach to violent extremism is justifiable on ethical, financial, and practical grounds—and if prevention is possible, then we should continue to find more and better ways to achieve it. Less CVE is unlikely to mean more peacebuilding or conflict prevention; less CVE will, if recent history is anything to go by, mean more counterterrorism and hard security. CVE’s detractors should be careful what they wish for.
The authors wish to thank Michael Jones, RUSI Research Assistant, who conducted much of the research used to support the findings in this article.