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07 Apr 2016

Preventing Violent Extremism: What Role for Education and Training?

By Laetitia Houlmann, Consultant SDC Education Network and Aude Mellet, NORRAG

Sadly, a more than topical issue

Picture_CCEven if it’s not a new phenomenon, the prevention of violent extremism (PVE) is – sadly enough – a highly topical issue in light of the tragic events that the world has been facing lately. As it is gaining in importance on the international agenda and in the media, the sharing of experiences, lessons learnt and knowledge in this field is more than necessary. The technical workshop on “Vocational Skills Development (VSD) in the context of Violent Extremism”, held at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva on 16-17 March 2016, aimed to discuss the multiple and complex drivers of violent extremism and to analyse to what extent well-conceived VSD programmes leading to employment and social integration could contribute to mitigate these.

The debate was centred around some of the most commonly perceived push factors of violent extremism, namely social exclusion, lack of economic prospects or violent environments, as well as other potential drivers identified by the participants, such as identity crisis and loss of values (be it at an individual or societal level), pressure of urbanisation, migration and displacement of population, lack of social mobility, or state repression. Conceived as a first step to explore synergies and interrelations between VSD programmes and PVE, it brought together experts – researchers, policy-makers and practitioners – from these two areas to examine the issues from the perspectives of both the short-term security agenda and the longer-term development agenda.

PVE through a holistic and context-specific approach of VSD with a focus on socio-economic integration

In the first place, the choice of using the broader concept of vocational skills development (VSD) – instead of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) more limited in scope – is not insignificant. Indeed, VSD is part of an education-training continuum encompassing basic education when needed, technical and practical skills training, and also soft and life skills, in a lifelong learning perspective.

Through this holistic and integrated approach to education and training, VSD programmes arguably contribute to empower the youth, enhance their analytical thinking and give them a sense of purpose, resulting not only in employability and economic integration, but also in social – or societal – inclusion. In the same way, education and training could have a role to play in helping the youth to build their identity in contexts marked with loss of landmarks or values. Since socio-economic integration is often considered as a prerequisite to address violent extremism, VSD programmes pursuing these goals could at least be considered as PVE-relevant, even if they do not specifically aim at preventing violent extremism.

The workshop was precisely an occasion to share experiences and evidence from the field in an attempt to find out which specific components may play a role in the mitigation of violent extremism. Various examples presented during these two days underlined the importance of designing not only comprehensive but also context-specific programmes. To begin with, involving the communities, and in particular young people, in the process is an important factor to enhance acceptance and sustainability. Besides, a sound understanding of the local dynamics and labour market helps implementing appropriate VSD training, and avoids creating false expectations among beneficiaries such as lack of jobs matching the VSD offers, or favouring one target group over another. A further challenge that can be mitigated by a thorough analysis of the context, needs and power relationships in a given society/community relates to the potential stigmatisation of the individuals or populations labelled as “at risk”. In this sense, examples of training programmes including components such as coaching, peer- to- peer support or socio-emotional learning were particularly interesting, and hence would be worth exploring further.

Inclusive, comprehensive, context-specific and demand-oriented education and training as a driver to reduce inequalities and to improve the socio-economic environment of the youth could therefore be seen as an efficient tool to prevent extremism. One conclusion that can be drawn from this workshop is that a VSD approach to training seems more likely to channel PVE relevant elements than a more commonly used VET approach focusing on technical skills. Unfortunately the precise causal links between all the variables at stake are still based on assumptions, and more research is needed if we want to validate them and inform programmes and policies.

The way forward: fostering research and involving the youth?

Who is at risk? What kind of training and skills are the most likely to improve young people’s resilience and societal integration? Does employment really contribute to preventing violent extremism? How do we measure the outcomes of VSD programmes in terms of PVE? These were some of the main questions addressed during the workshop, most of which remained unanswered. This illustrates once again the need for research both at macro and micro levels. On the one hand, there is a lack of common understanding of the very concept of violent extremism, and the differentiation with other terms such as terrorism and radicalisation which are often used interchangeably in the media. On another hand, research and studies conducted at the field level could enhance evidence-based programming by collecting data on methodology, evaluation systems or perception. In this regard, special emphasis should be placed on involving researchers and practitioners representing “the South” since they are too often absent from the debate.

This need for research is certainly a challenge, but also an opportunity to break down silos by looking at the literature and experiences from the fields of education, peace building, or even urban violence, as innovative approaches and lessons-learnt may be useful for designing informed and PVE sensitive VSD programmes. Likewise, engaging with the security sector could help to develop a better understanding of how PVE materializes. The difficulty is, however, that research and evidence-based programming will require long-term investment, while the security agenda is looking for short-term responses. This dilemma in turn raises some questions about the securitisation of development – and more specifically of education. In other words, as expressed by one of the participants, can we find a progressive security approach that is compatible with a development approach?

Amidst all these interrogations and uncertainties, one thing is clear regardless of what research will specifically show: young people must be more actively involved at all steps of policymaking and programming – from needs assessment to design, implementation and evaluation. Whereas they are often seen as victims or even part of the problem– they should rather be considered as drivers of change. This is all the more necessary in the case of PVE through VSD as in other youth-focused interventions, as young people are both the first beneficiaries of VSD programmes and the primary group concerned with violent extremism.

To conclude, even though VSD and education at large can and should play a key role in addressing violent extremism, one must remain realistic on the fact they are not the panacea. PVE is a complex issue and a broader approach involving not only development but also security actors is needed in order to stimulate critical analysis and build innovative policies and programmes.

This workshop was initiated by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) Employment and Income (e+i) Network, in preparation of the Geneva Conference on “Preventing Violent Extremism – The Way Forward” taking place at the United Nations on 7-8 April. It was supported by NORRAG and SDC Education Network.

Based in Geneva, Laetitia Houlmann is working as a consultant in international education and training, in particular in the field of development cooperation. She is currently in charge of the backstopping of the SDC Education Network. She worked as a Communication Officer at NORRAG between 2012 and 2015. Aude Mellet is Communication Officer at NORRAG, where she is also working on a project related to development studies and international education. Her background is in economic and social history and development studies. Emails: and

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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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