What is violence prevention achieving?

Makoko is an illegally built settlement in Nigeria's Lagos Lagoon district, where the State runs no public schools. Photo: One of the few private schools for French-speaking immigrant children from Benin.
Article as analysis
There is a direct link between terror and underdevelopment. Like official Switzerland, UN bodies too are convinced of this. A review of the academic findings.

For Switzerland's Foreign Minister, development cooperation and security policy belong together. It is hardly possible any more to separate internal security considerations from security threats abroad. Didier Burkhalter therefore views the Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) as an important function of development cooperation. By pursuing PVE approaches, development cooperation deprives terrorist groups of their breeding ground. Development cooperation strengthens "the resilience of individuals and communities" and supports them in "creating a social environment where people are not drawn to politically or ideologically motivated violence."[1]  This is stated in Switzerland's Foreign Policy Action Plan on Preventing Violent Extremism. There is growing fear of terrorist attacks in our country as well. Hence there is broad support among the population as well as in the United Nations for projects designed to prevent violent extremism.[2]

The aim of development cooperation is to reduce global poverty. Does PVE mean that this cooperation needs to change direction? Or is it in any case already helping to eliminate the breeding ground for violence and extremist ideologies?

Scholars do not agree on the extent to which conventional poverty reduction reduces violent extremism. The problem with this research however is that so far it has focused on the (relatively) marginal phenomenon of transnational terrorism. It neglects to examine local but widely supported extremist movements and the motives for joining such movements. Terrorism research denies any direct link between poverty and inequality on the one hand, and acts of violence on the other. Research into political violence however shows a clear correlation with poverty and the economic marginalization of minorities. The correlation is particularly strong in cases where State structures are weak.

Scholars are of the view that a weak State and the lack of civil freedoms are highly instrumental in the emergence of political and extremist violence. Poor governance, the failure of the State to provide for basic needs (education, health, welfare), as well as discrimination and exclusion experienced by minorities, can be encapsulated by the term "fragility". This concept also covers the absence of political participation and the growing repression of people with dissenting opinions. When development cooperation focuses on these factors, extremist groups find it more difficult to recruit new followers. In this way it also counteracts a potential feeling of powerlessness. Frustration alone, however, is not enough to give rise to violent groups. Another factor at play here is whether political or civil society players are able to seize the moment and to channel dissatisfaction.

Many development cooperation interventions rightly begin by addressing good governance, the rule of law and political participation. There are certain risks inherent in such pro-democracy approaches, however. Owing to the instability involved, political transitions can create new opportunities for extremist groups and are susceptible to politically motivated violence.

Many different causes of violence

If violence is to be averted, it is also critically important for people to feel integrated into their community. Where local structures are absent, especially for young people who are searching for meaning and identity, violent organizations are able to step into the breach. Young people are included in the Swiss Action Plan on PVE through a focus on access to vocational training and jobs. A research survey on the driving forces behind violent extremism confirms that some extremist groups recruit from among the underemployed and the jobless. It therefore recommends that development cooperation should prioritize job creation, especially in areas with strong opposition movements, and should focus on men of fighting age. While such interventions may be meaningful, another study warns against overestimating the connection between political violence and joblessness. The propensity to political violence arises from complex experiences of injustice, and joblessness by itself would therefore not be enough to engender this.[3] Focusing on vocational training – in close conjunction with job creation, so as not to even further swell the ranks of the jobless and disillusioned – is nonetheless a valid approach to reducing the recruitment basis for extremist groups. Educational programmes are also crucial to preventing violent extremism, as the promotion of critical thinking, tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution strategies diminishes the attractiveness of extremist ideologies. Yet education can also heighten awareness of social and economic inequalities and the readiness for political revolution. But this applies mainly in situations where there is hardly any scope for moderate protest or for exerting political influence. Educational programmes alone are therefore not enough.

The problem with the PVE approach is that violent extremism is currently being associated principally with political Islam. Inherent in this approach is the danger that development cooperation interventions could become restricted to population groups that are subject to blanket suspicion on account of their religion. Too obvious a focus on extremism could also elicit resistance from the population and civil society concerned. It complicates the business of cooperating with civil society organizations that are critical of a government and which for that reason alone are already labelled extremist by ruling elites.

It is clear that development cooperation is already contributing to the prevention of violence. At the same time, its core task – that of striving for a more just distribution of resources, for a functioning State guided by the rule of law, upstanding institutions and political participation, as well as a strong and open civil society – reduces the attractiveness of violence-prone groups that promise a better future. Development cooperation is beneficial in this regard, even if it does not expressly operate under the banner of preventing violent extremism. But neither does it guarantee the prevention of outbreaks of violence. Violence is as complex a phenomenon as development is a multi-layered process. Development cooperation can contribute significantly to development and to counteracting violence, but cannot fully control both.

The author of this article, historian Nathalie Bardill, has explored the question of PVE for Alliance Sud under a third-party funded project.


[1] FDFA, Swiss Foreign Policy Action Plan on PVE. 2016.

[2] Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, United Nations General Assembly, December 2015; Geneva Conference on Preventing Violent Extremism. April 2016.

[3] Mercy Corps, Youth & Consequences. 2015.