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14 Apr 2016

Reflections from Geneva – Vocational Education in the Context of Violence Extremism By Tara Noronha

By Tara Noronha, Mercy Corps.

A few weeks ago, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) – supported by NORRAG – convened a workshop in Geneva that brought together key practitioners, donors, policymakers, and researchers for thoughtful, honest discussions on vocational education in the context of violent extremism. The world as we know it is changing rapidly; all of us in the room shared feelings of urgency in understanding the drivers of violent extremism and what role, if any, vocational education can play in addressing these root causes.

In Geneva, I shared lessons from Mercy Corps’ employability work from around the globe. Mercy Corps works in more than 40 countries, in some of the most difficult environments in the world. We work with young people who are dealing with the typical trials and tribulations of youth but are also doing so in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen where the rules of the game are constantly changing. These youth are not only dealing with typical transitions, such as school to work and reliance on families to becoming financially independent, but they are also navigating these pathways in extremely complex circumstances – amidst conflict, political strife, climate shocks, poverty, etc.

While we have seen the extraordinary ways that young people are shaping their economies, their communities and their futures, there is still much work to be done. Over the past several years, Mercy Corps has embarked a comprehensive research agenda in the countries where we work, which deepens our understanding of the complex factors that drive youth to support political violence.

One thing we have learned is that in isolation, vocational training cannot combat poverty or violence. It’s not the ‘magic bullet’ intervention and it never has been. However, when vocational training is done right, it can be extremely effective in equipping youth with relevant, marketable skills. For example, through the INVEST program in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, Mercy Corps’ vocational training model has enabled vulnerable male and female youth to increase their employment. Our model promotes demand-driven courses (routinely informed by market assessments) and a close relationship with the local private sector. Our initiatives focus on both supply and demand; we know that promoting a healthy private sector and ensuring safe and decent jobs are just as important, if not more important, than building technical skills.

The INVEST program was extremely successful in achieving its intended goal of ‘increasing market-driven knowledge and skills which generate income and employment opportunities’ for more than 25,000 youth and in developing a proven, replicable model for vocational education. As a learning organization, Mercy Corps conducted an impact evaluation to understand if these economic impacts had any influence on youth’s attitudes towards political violence. While the program had significant impact on employability and employment outcomes, it did not affect youth’s attitudes towards political violence. Future programs which intend to directly address the root causes of youth participation in political violence must first understand the multiple and often interconnected economic, social, and political factors which are at play and then ensure an intentional, adaptable approach.

Mercy Corps’ recommendations for smart, holistic youth development programming are aligned with many of the conversations in Geneva:

  • End siloed, single-sector programming, and support multi-sectoral, multi-year programs with adaptive management structures that create systems within which youth can thrive.
  • Be realistic and ‘keep it real’ about the utility of vocational training as a single intervention to address unemployment or violence.
  • If the need is identified, ensure that all vocational education is demand-driven and is linked with real income opportunities in the local labor market.
  • Identify the most vulnerable youth – and be vigilant about ensuring programs don’t just reach privileged youth in urban centers.
  • Do not make assumptions about the drivers of instability. Shape future “countering violent extremism” (CVE) strategies through rigorous, iterative analyses of the political, social and economic factors that drive youth to support political violence and how violent extremist recruitment tactics evolve.
  • Increase investments in two-track governance programs that connect youth “voices” with meaningful reforms on issues of corruption, predatory justice systems and exclusive governance structures.

Tara Noronha is a Senior Youth Employment Advisor at Mercy Corps. For more information, please visit

Related NORRAG Blogs:

>> 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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