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11 Apr 2016

Countering Violent Extremism – can Education and Vocational Training Play a Role? By Martine Zeuthen

By Martine Zeuthen, The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

hornEuropean specialists in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and education programming gathered in Geneva last month, to discuss the role of education and vocational training in CVE programming.

I was invited as a CVE practitioner. I run an EU-funded CVE programme in the Horn of Africa which includes training of law enforcement officers, civil society programmes and individual mentorship.

In my view the essential issue for CVE programming is that we are very clear on what we are trying to achieve and to articulate a clear logical progression from activity to impact. From some conversations at the workshop it seems that some policy makers and practitioners do not wish to target their interventions towards individuals and communities at risk of recruitment and radicalisation but rather wish to have inclusive programmes. In other words their end goal is to contribute to building an inclusive society rather than managing the present problem of radicalisation and recruitment to violent groups. I respect and see a value in this approach as a type of long term development intervention. But the more inclusive the programme, the more difficult it is to show that the intervention prevented violent extremism.  The further we move from the problem the more tangential the intervention is and the harder it becomes to measure any effect.

Measuring effect is essential for CVE programmes as the big void in this field is knowing what works. We need to evaluate continuously.

There are two basic assumptions about the link between violent extremism and education. Assumption 1 is that critical thinking skills enhance resilience against violent extremism. Assumption 2 is that employment and vocational training contribute to a sense of identity, belonging and meaning, and these then contribute to increased resilience. The problem is that many, perhaps most CVE programmes are implemented without testing these assumptions – although the workshop highlighted a couple of exceptions, in particular programmes run by Mercy Corps [Editor: see forthcoming NORRAG blog for more information].

Investment in CVE provides opportunities to articulate, develop and test these assumptions. The implementers of such programmes overseas must also consider the level of risk they are willing to take (this will depend on the context). This will inform how close they are willing to get to the violent individuals.

The discussions highlighted a preference for the term preventing violent extremism (PVE). In my view this is fine if it is seen as a largely semantic response to concerns about linking development funding to the counter terrorism agenda. However, if in fact this indicates a reluctance to focus interventions towards those at risk and to aim programmes at reducing the appeal of and engagement with violent extremist groups, then the consequence is likely to be further politicisation of development assistance. Why not just call it vocational training in fragile environments?

Unfortunately recruitment and radicalisation to violent groups are extremely complex processes and therefore requires complex solutions and complex programming.

As a CVE practitioner I recommend the following as good practice in bringing education and vocational training into CVE:

  1. Undertake rigorous field based research to systematically test the assumptions behind your programme, and to assert under what circumstances education and vocational training contributes to preventing or countering violent extremism;
  2. Use the analysis to identify who is at risk and develop a clear strategy for engaging with these individuals, as well as work out how to measure the impact your programme aims to have on these individuals;
  3. Accept that PVE or CVE work is political and work closely with political sections to ensure that political pressures help not hinder development;
  4. Design your programme flexibly to ensure real-time learning. Make adaptations as you learn more about the context in which you are engaging;
  5. Be clear about the level of risk you are willing and able to take and therefore how close you can get to the problem in your programme.

As I said, this is a complex problem that requires complex solutions. Anyone engaging in this agenda must be ready to learn and as lessons are developed, and must constantly question  established assumptions. That way, programmers can make the adaptations required to ensure the best possible effect.

Martine Zeuthen is the Team Leader for an EU funded program called STRIVE – ‘Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism in the Horn of Africa’ at The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Email:

Related NORRAG Blog:

>> View all NORRAG Blogs on Conflict and Violence

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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