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Pause and Reflect: Incorporating Emerging Research

When a discussion led by CVE academics, researchers and field staff turned to multivariate regression analysis, I was lost. Looking around my table at others from the field, the same look was there. So I passed a note to the person seated next to me, asking if she knew what “they,” meaning the academics and researchers, were talking about. She didn’t. That led to less-than-brilliant success with our group assignment to propose avenues for future research. The academics and field people at my table were off in completely different directions.

Although we managed to come up with something for reporting out, it got me thinking that many people working on large multi-component CVE field projects may lack the skill set and the time to engage with academic and even applied research, the scale and scope of which grows by leaps and bounds. (CVE practitioners are challenged just to keep up with an environment in flux, never mind managing multiple activities in multiple locations.) And new research, sometimes small-scale case studies or larger-scale quantitative research, is being produced almost daily.

At the end of the day, when other field folk shared that they were totally intimidated being in a gathering with academics and researchers, I knew I was on to something.

How can field project staff access and benefit from this research and determine whether it applies to their setting and their program? How can they apply any of the key research findings, let alone stay abreast of the literature when they’re in the field implementing a project with a fixed work plan and limited flexibility to make adjustments against tight two to five-year timeframes?

Research shows that several factors that operate at the individual, group and societal level, as well as factors that are local, domestic, regional or global, impact the motivations of violent extremists. How to handle what is often more community-based programming when many drivers (for example, weak state or grotesque corruption) are societal or structural in nature? What to do? It is easier to target communities and institutions and there can be solid gains. But within those, who do we target?

Much has been learned since USAID released the “Development Assistance and Countering Extremism: A Guide to Programming” in 2009. Yet this document is (and has been) essentially the design and field manual for many CVE projects. What is seen on the ground is interpreted by consulting this guide, but nuanced and new learnings from emerging research are largely left out of the picture. The sheer volume of CVE research is comforting because it indicates a recognition that hard evidence is needed to understand drivers, motivations and tactics of extremists so that prevention and responses are appropriate. But, it makes it impossible for field implementers to keep up, let alone digest, and apply new learning.

What if research could be summarized into small chunks and in layman’s terms? This could help field staff quickly learn about emerging trends and findings that would point them in the right direction for further reading as well as pause-and-reflect during implementation. What if we created short bibliography summaries by topic with links to reports on a quarterly basis? These could emphasize the findings that are applicable to programming.

There is encouraging news. USAID is calling more and more for a learning agenda that brings together its implementing partners and stakeholders for sharing and adaptive management. For instance, implementers are building in staff time for start-up learning so that there is a common understanding of basic terms, issues, etc. RESOLVE and other global research networks are past defining VE terms. But, in the field, this basic is much needed.

Here are some illustrative examples of ideas pitched by field staff for CVE programming. Your neighbor throws garbage in the drainage ditch and you fight about it. So a neighborhood clean-up is proposed because such a fight is considered a risk for violent extremism. In a certain part of town, young people are hooked on Tramadol, so a drug addiction awareness campaign is launched to prevent violent extremism. Insufficient textbooks in a secondary school? Let’s buy textbooks to prevent violent extremism as students will get into scuffles because of the book shortage. No midwives in the village? Let’s train some to prevent violent extremism.

On the surface, none of these ideas would pass muster as CVE activities. However, they reflect a bare minimum level of understanding of violent extremism. If you delve more deeply, perhaps in that neighborhood there are different ethnic groups that are traditionally at odds. Tramadol addiction may be indicative of an increased flow of drugs into a city by criminal networks who could conceivably hide under the banner of extremists. Poor maternal health services would constitute dissatisfaction with government, providing an opportunity for another exploitable grievance. But, often there is an absence of convincing appropriate rationale, which suggests that there is limited comprehension of basic VE terms and issues.

A crib sheet of vocabulary and a flowchart with a basic explanation of if-why-then would be helpful. Certainly not a prescriptive or exhaustive flowchart, but illustrative enough to generate more thoughtful consideration. If neighbors fight over garbage in the drainage ditch, this situation is not VE. If the neighbors are the very same in opposing political parties fighting for control of the local council, there may be a window of opportunity there. Probe further and find out what other issues might be at play that might make this an appropriate circumstance for spending scarce CVE funds.

Because men are more often the perpetrators of extremist violence, the programming focus tends to be on them. But we see more and more women radicalized, active or associated members of extremists groups. Are their profiles and motivations for joining up different from men? If so, how are we designing interventions to reach women? Don’t just try and “see what sticks.” Check out the research on women’s participation in extremist groups. At a time when CVE funds are limited, there is emerging research that can point to possible approaches and programming options. At a minimum, we need to pause and reflect.


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