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Development programs can help reduce political violence

Work on the rocks
Thursday June 14, 2018

Maintaining a critical eye toward development programs — particularly those with the explicit intent to counter violent extremism — is important, especially given the dearth of rigorous research analyzing their impact over the short and long term. In a recent article in War on the Rocks, Jessica Trisko Darden uses research from our global organization, Mercy Corps, to convey the flaws inherent to development programs seeking to counter violent extremism. We commend Trisko Darden for pushing those seeking to counter violent extremism to be more self-reflective and to ensure that development programs do not exacerbate the very issues they seek to address. Yet, we find her characterization of our research incomplete and in some cases inaccurate. We stand by the conclusions offered in recent Mercy Corps reports on Somalia and Afghanistan: Under certain circumstances, development interventions can decrease support for political violence.

Program Objectives

We want to correct the record regarding the original program goals, the intent of the research, and the findings themselves. To build her argument, Trisko Darden highlights our research findings related to two programs that Mercy Corps implements—the Somali Youth Learners Initiative, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the INVEST program in Kandahar, Afghanistan, funded by the State Department (not by the United States Institute for Peace, as her article states).

It is important to note that neither the Somali youth program nor INVEST are development programs with an original, explicit objective or strategy to counter violent extremism or to prevent youth radicalization. The Somali program reflects USAID’s broader development agenda in Somalia, which prioritizes job opportunities, particularly for youth. The INVEST program sought to improve the employability of vulnerable, displaced Afghan youth in Kandahar through technical vocational training.

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In Kandahar, we also studied cash transfers, a short-term economic intervention that humanitarian organizations use to help displaced communities globally. We sought to test the effects of cash transfers and the INVEST program by asking whether these programs might also reduce support for political violence rather than against their original intended economic goal. Many countering violent extremism programs have focused on vocational training, and our research partners wanted to add in the additional element of cash, an immediate and relative less expensive economic solution, to the study.

Our Findings

We are committed to transparency in our research — presenting both the positive and negative findings from these studies. Trisko Darden’s article, however, only highlights findings that align with her argument that countering violent extremism programs are ineffective or harmful, while overlooking results that suggest these programs’ potential to reduce support for violence. For instance, her article highlights that the provision of cash in Kandahar by itself increased relative support for armed opposition groups such as the Taliban (by roughly 4.5 percent). Yet the more important point is the central finding of that study: The combination of cash and vocational training reduced relative support for armed opposition groups by nearly four times that effect (a reduction of 17 percent).

With regards to the youth program that we implement in Somaliland, Trisko Darden incorrectly states that the secondary education program provided in the semi-autonomous Somaliland region of Somalia, made youth less likely to use violence in personal disputes – there was no statistically significant effect. She is correct, however, in reporting our finding that providing secondary education to youth in Somaliland did increase their self-reported support for political violence. We carefully evaluated these findings when they came out two years ago and arrived at a preliminary analysis based on our field research to explain them – it seems that as Somaliland youth became more educated, they had higher expectations for their future and became dissatisfied with their government’s ability to respond to their needs. Yet even if they supported political violence, their rates of participating in political violence went down. Our research found that those enrolled in the secondary education program in Somaliland were 16 percent less likely to have actually used violence for a political cause. By decreasing social isolation, secondary school enrollment in Somalia seemed to protect youth against recruitment by armed groups.

Moreover, Trisko Darden neglects to mention positive findings from our research of the same Somali youth program implemented in the more conflict-affected areas of Puntland and South Central Somalia: In these unstable parts of Somalia, youth who were enrolled in secondary schools through the Somali youth program were 48 percent less likely to support political violence. Those who received both secondary education programming and participated in civic engagement activities were 64 percent less likely to support political violence. Overall, these studies suggest — contrary to Trisko Darden’s conclusion — that development programs can be effective in reducing support for political violence, particularly when individuals benefit from a number of different types of resources and programming.

Lessons for Countering Violent Extremism

As with any empirical research, we must not draw overly broad generalizations from these preliminary studies but rather use them as the basis for adapting programs and testing new approaches. Nonetheless, over the past few years, after conducting nearly a dozen studies on political violence across seven countries, we are arriving at some common understandings: We are learning that, for development programs to reduce support for and participation in violence, they must be multi-dimensional, addressing both individuals’ skill deficits and desire for upward mobility in addition to short- and long-term economic needs. In Somalia, we found consistently that when young people were both enrolled in formal schools and participating in civic activities, they were less inclined to support violence. In addition, we have found that successful strategies for countering violent extremism need to challenge the source of deep-rooted grievances, which often involve unjust or weak governance and real or perceived inequality. Our research finds that when individuals, particularly youth, find avenues to participate civically in their communities — for instance, through community service or advocacy campaigns — they can constructively channel grievances.

Advancing the Research Field

Our research goal is to advance our field’s overall understanding of the potential for certain development programs — and more likely a combination of them — to reduce political violence. We are collecting evidence that might be helpful to Mercy Corps’ and the broader NGO sector’s ability to design future programs aimed at shifting local attitudes about the use of violence. Nonetheless, we always moderate expectations about our findings, acknowledging the limitations inherent to this type of field research. One significant limitation is that we rely on self-reported survey responses to measure our respondents’ support for — and in some cases actual participation in — political violence.

We believe there are many rich research questions yet unanswered regarding the root causes of radicalization and political violence. Answering them requires rigorous evidence and sophisticated methodologies. We encourage a healthy dose of skepticism and self-critique to ensure that development programs are not inadvertently harmful, are implemented efficiently, and remain accountable to donors’ objectives. We emphatically agree with Trisko Darden that more can be done to improve programs designed with the goal of countering violent extremism in mind, as well as to address the broader social, economic and political goals of stability. Although our field has a long way to go, we see some potential for improved programming based on our research from Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

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