Resilience beats the counter-narrative hands down. Paul Bell - veteran of counter-radicalisation campaigns - speaks out

A Gentler Rain: CVE and the road to resilience

 By Paul Bell

Countering violence extremism through argument and demonization has reached the end of the road. Instead, we will only improve people’s resilience against extremist ideologies by going upstream to address the reasons they are recruited, alter their experience, and open alternative pathways to them. 

Why do people change their minds? If I had a dollar for every theory advanced, I’d be a rich man. John Maynard Keynes said he changed his mind when the facts changed.But that leads to another question: whose facts? And another: which facts?And another, which really says people believe what they want to believe, or what might be called the Mandy Rice-Davies proposition: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” It’s a never-endingbad-feedbackloop, as old as the ‘first argument’. And Countering ViolentExtremism- CVE as this largely narrative-based, post-9/11 discipline has become colloquially known - has seemed well stuck in that loop. 

 But in the 15 years since I became involved in this field, I have seen a gradual shift from counter-narrative approaches to towards strengthening the resilience of young people vulnerable to the appeal of violent extremism (VE).

 That shift’s been overdue. I myself have never believed it was possible to win an argument with a person holding a diametrically opposed view, especially in politics and conflict. Such views are entrenched in identity and experience, largely formed by it, run to the deep heart of those who hold them, and are not swayed by arguments or facts. 

 I came to CVE with that perspective, and all of my subsequent experience has borne it out. As I learned more about the states of mind of people in conflict - conflict around them and within them, and learned too from esteemed colleagues who understand the drivers - psychological, psychosocial, sociological - of the VE phenomenon, so my conviction strengthened that it is emotion, rather than thought, that largely masters the propensity to violence. Perhaps that sounds obvious; to many - for their own reasons - it is either not, or not permitted to be so.

 To confront VE is to confront a psychopathology - a roiling, combustible compound of identity, experience and emotions- and is therefore more likely trigger than defuse it. The likelierway to defuse it, indeed perhapsthe only way, is to replace those negative emotions with other more positive emotions. Oftentimes the most one can hope for is a countervailing emotion that offsets the power of the negative. Certainty giving way to doubt. Black and white melting into grey. Impulse giving way to a pause that might make the difference between angry frustration and extreme action. Such emotions are replaced only gradually, falling [as it were] as the gentle rain from heaven, and largely through the human experience of something different.

 Resilience, an old notion that has taken on new meaning in the world of conflict and development where these conjoin, is that gentler rain. Resilience - at individual and community level - is about being braced for shock,able to absorb, adapt to and overcome challenges and obstacles.This theme has come increasingly to define the European’s Union’s strategy and desired outcomes for its aid and engagement among its near neighbours in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Its support is focused on enabling its neighbouring states, communities, and even individuals, to adapt to social, economic and political pressure; grow sustainably; maintain cohesion; improve security; and manage risks and opportunities peacefully and stably. We also see resilience now becoming the theme of other major aid packages, e.g. in recent months a $50m five-year USAID package for Tunisia. In my own travels elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, I sawthis theme taking hold. 

 CVE’s shifttowards a resilience construct arises, too, from a settling realisation that the counter-narrative dimension of CVE has not been effective and that programming must adapt to the sensibilities and suspicions of host governments.

 In the years before ISIS, counter narratives appear to have done little in MENA or Europe to insulate significant numbers of young people against recruitment and the desire to fight in Syria. If using counter-narratives to counter VEwas about winning the argument, there’s no evidence to suggest it did. Various factors have been at play. I’ll point to three.

 The first - just to get it out of the way -- is the disproportionate amount of time and money spent on religious re-indoctrination relative to the role of religion in radicalisation and VE. It is well established that recruits to VEknow little about religion, and care even less. Religious belief has little to do with violent extremism. Extreme interpretations of doctrine provide a political language and a framework for justifying violence - but they arenot its primary drivers. Yet, in the (mainly Muslim) countries at which these programmes are targeted, governments continue to prescribe state-approved doctrine, control mosques, license imams, and provide guidance on Friday sermons. Why? - because religious extremism is a metaphor for political resistance and dissatisfaction with the status quo, therefore governments tend to characterise it as a perniciously twisted strand of Islam, a ‘foreign import’, and the reason young people turn to violence. As a rationale it obviates the need to account for causes of breakdown in the social contract, and whysome countries therefore insist so firmly on religious re-indoctrination in their CVE programming.

 The second factor is that, for young people who are, inevitably, the bulk fodder of radicalisers of any political hue,VEis nota major preoccupation. It is, rather, the preoccupation of governments - governments which face security threats and are struggling to contain the discontent and disaffection that arise in the gap between societal means and popular expectations. All significant analysis suggests this. The same patterns and demographics are everywhere: struggling economies; a youth bulge; povertyand (quite particularly) relative deprivation; joblessness, especially among young people; corruption,the entrenchment of elites, a casual contempt for the views of young people; institutional weakness; deep fractures between citizens and the national security apparatus; the exploitation of sectarian division for political advantage; high levels of societal violence. These are the real preoccupations of young people, because most of them struggle every day under the weight of it all. These are the drivers of violent extremism, the spaces in which it survives and grows.

 Thus, the old-fashioned counter-narrative programming that many international donorsstillseem to expect, and are disappointed when the evidence of success is found to be so threadbare, has been flawed. It has notfocused on young people’s preoccupations; instead, it stigmatises, it tells its mainly young target audiences that they are perceived, not as the future of the nation, but as a threat to national security. This makes counter-narrative programming difficult to deliver. In target communities, it is difficult, even dangerous and often counterproductive, to speak openly about CVE. People feel targeted, misunderstood, threatened, suspicious, resentful - and do not engage. These failures translate into disappointing, limited, unverifiable outcomes that call into question the value of CVE programming in general. I have watched diplomats responsible for overseeing such programmes quietly shake their heads and dismiss it all as mumbo jumbo. They’d switch it off if they could, but what to (affordably) replace it with?

 A third factor is that the entire subject and practice area is extremely sensitive for host governments too. I used to run an IO/psyop unit for the Americans in Iraqand would describe what we were running to ourteam as a sort of buzz-wire game. It needed a steady hand to thread the wire and operate credibly, responsibly and effectively, while not touching the wire and triggering the sensibilities of our hosts and our diverse target audiences.

 Governments are understandably sensitive about how international actors engage with their fractured, struggling and restless young populations; they don’t want international agencies stomping around in this space because it’s a political and ideological minefield. After 9/11 they watched with alarm as donor organisations poured billions of dollars into human rights programming designed to drive change and unleash democracy. Instead, as they see it, it drove chaos and unleashed hell. That’s hard to argue with and now, following the post-2011 crackdown, civil society and government across the region fear and mistrust each other.

 So now we’re having to do it their way, which can be challenging when there is a strong state-driven emphasis on security and religion - especially in those states that are led by institutionalised leaders who derive their legitimacy from religion.By contrast, the republics - certainly those in my experience -while less than democratic, show greater awareness of their demographics and socio-economic deficits in terms of how they frame issuesand policy, and influence the spending of international donor finance and programming on CVE.

 CVE practice is being forced to adapt. Over time there has been a shift away from counter-narratives towards preventingVE (PVE) and the deployment of alternative narratives; if it can’t be about ‘winning the argument’, then programming can at least presenttarget audiences with a different, fuller, more realistic picture that is more engaging for identifying a little more closely with people’s lived experience. (Audiences know their own ground truth; communications that fail to acknowledge that truth are bound to fail.)

Governments do grasp this. There are moments of progress though these tend to come and go with the officials who learn but move on, or are eventually overridden by traditional perspectives higher up the chain. One such moment came in the programme I worked on until the summer of 2018, which notched up a small win simply in persuading a government to change the name of its small, struggling CVEunit. The change was merely to substitute the word ‘alternative’ for what had been ‘counter’ - a smallbut significant step in terms of shifted perceptions of what their work was really all about. Other governments are becoming conscious of the need for ‘youth engagement’, even if only in the appearanceof ‘consultation’; approaches continue to be dominated by the top-down nature of national power. Post-2011, and post-Syria, challenges to such approaches quickly butt up against bad mistakes and bad memories. Progress is therefore tentative. 

 In general, PVE andalternative-narrative development remain largely centred on messaging - and the next step is crucial. That step, I believe, is to understand the dual effects of much of socialprogramming, including communications programming. The value of social programming is not simply in the change it is capable of delivering for people but also in its ability to influencethose people, encouraging in them the thought processes and behaviours that are conducive to sustainable societal and political development. (It’s not about teaching people what to think, but how.) Social programming is therefore also influenceprogramming, with influence being driven by the experienceof social programming, its processes and the effects of these on those who take part. It is experience that opens the alternative pathway to young people, especially those vulnerable to the attraction, glamour, sense of belonging and purpose, and economic incentives that VE groups offer, operating as these do at the most immediate levels of community life. Along the experiential pathway comes that crucial shift from negative to positive emotion, or even neutral emotion; a shift that makes the alternative, more positive offering, and even an alternative future, more plausible to the young mind searching for meaning, answers and a way out. The pathway becomes the narrative. People arrive at their place in society and life and society by the pathway of their experience - and can be encouraged by experience towards an alternative pathway. A new and better experience generates the emotions that make the alternative pathway visible and possible. From here a new narrative naturally flows. 

 WHY may resilience do better? Is there be a better chance of preventing young people from becoming violent extremists if, rather than force-feeding them a prescribed religion or press-ganging their loyalty to a state they believe is failing them, they are provided with skills and experiences that enable them to see themselves and their life-chances more positively?

 Any answer begins by accounting for the increased sensitivity of host governments towards foreign CVE interventions; CVE’s licence to operate is coming increasingly to depend on it being repositioned - away from the overtly securitised space it has hitherto occupied, and towards, in, the ‘youth development’ space, which is politically more anodyne and supported by new global/multilateral policy frameworks e.g. the UN, the EU. Resilience, as an approach to social programming and influence, easily accomplishes this repositioning.

 Secondly, resilience programming is about strengthening individuals through experience. In the context of CVE, this is about experiencing the impact of particular behavioural and attitudinal values like tolerance, openness and the willingness to negotiate- values that also provide the glue of well regulated, responsive and functioning polities. CVEprogramming seeks to create spaces in which such values can be experiencedin action, not merely talked about. 

 I have worked on resilience programming in two different settings; one has been my own programme workacross five countries in the Middle East and North Africa over the past three years, the other is my involvement with the world’s leading youth development and non-formal education programme, The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award for Young People, which has more than 1.3 million participants its programmes across 130 countries every year. 

The Award’s purpose is absolutely notto tackle violent extremism. It is a non-formal education programme that provides a direct and individual experience for each person who experiences it. Like a good resilience programme,the Award allows young people aged 14-24to choose their own pathway to progress,builds their confidence in themselves, imbues their lives and pursuits with greater purpose, teaches them to adapt to and overcome challenges, and improves their links to and relationships with their communities.It does this, not by ‘delivering a message’ but through providing an experience that engages its participants, enabling them to improve their skills, often with very little to hand, and helping them discover they are capable of things they couldn’t imagine before they began. 

 Its impact on participants is highly significant. For countless thousands of participants, it has transformed lives; indeed, several million young people around the world have been through its programmes over the 61 years of its operation. Where the Awardreaches into marginalised communities, that effect is more than merely enhancing, its impact can be exponential.

Broad-brush - because government-aided social development work will always differ in scale and purpose - this sort of approach is where the future of CVE and resilience programming should lie. CVE can make that strategic shift to development work, and specifically youth development, using its activity base to generate the stories that amplify its impact to that wider audience programmes do not reach, providing the evidence that change, improvement and hope are really possible. Such programming should of course also bring to life for young people those small-d democratic and civic values and collaborative behaviourson which social harmony, progress and order depend. 

 What does good resilience programming look like? From what I’ve seen, the following would probably be useful departure points. 

  1. Identify areas where levels of radicalisation, recruitmentto VE groups or for that matter other forms of political violence, have been notably high.

  2. Keep focus local where effects and impacts are more easily discernible. 

  3. Build relationships with credible local civil society actors,engage target audience through themand work through them to understand local upstream drivers of recruitment. 

  4. Create programme spaces in which participants are supported in identifying issues and obstacles, working out solutions for themselves,and reaching out to other local stakeholders who can help. 

  5. Encourage participantsto build more collaborative relationships with local civic and security authorities, or with people of other ethnic or sectarian backgrounds. 

  6. Keep local authorities informed and encourage civil society participants to do the same. The aim is to build those relationships, break down mutual antagonism and distrust and replace them with greater trust. This is about seekingto shift existing terms of exchange between civil society actors and the authorities, from mutual antagonism towards the mutual advantage that is to be discovered in getting something done locally that makes a positive difference in the immediate community.

  7. Use communication toreach parts of the target audience that programmes cannot reach directly. Communications amplify the effects being delivered, showcasing the work of the programme and its effects on individual participants and projecting their stories of self-discovery and accomplishment to a wider audience - with the implicit message, ‘See, change is possible if we do what we can, where we are, with what we have.’ 

I developed that phrase early on in my recent work. It came to capture the spirit of the programme’s intent. It’s a take-out, really; what would one want one’s participants and target audiences to feel and think about their engagement?It draws together the ingredients that are thekey to programme success: the pride of self-reliance (rather than reliance on a state that cannot provide); a greater sense of self-worth (especially in societies that generally talk down to young people and regard them as a problem); a greater sense of realism about what real longer-term change really takes; and a determination to use what is to hand in order to make a difference to their own lives and those of others in their community.

 Resilience pushes the same psychological buttons that VE groups push as they recruit. Resilience is, after all, a state of mind that can work either way: meaning and purpose, confidence, adaptability, the ability to secure the support of others - these are the stock-in-trade of recruiters on every side. What resilience is not,is an end state. It is a process and as a supreme court judge said to me in the midst of a knife-edge election in a state transitioning from violence to peace, ‘the process is the message’. 

 As a youth-development methodology, resilience needs only to simultaneously(rather than specifically) serve CVE purposes to be effective. It’s the effects you seek, not a nomenclature that satisfies security-minded officials who do not grasp how youth development and resilience work at the social and psychological level and look for the wrong metrics. It may be that governments should review their entire portfolios of aid and social programming packages with a view to understanding and enhancing their parallel potential as CVE instruments. At least part of such enhancement would derive from communicating more effectively around those packages and from drawing on emerging resilience methodology. That would be a fillip to resilience, whose budgets are relatively small and whose practitioners must (usefully) learnto do more with less. Gathering evidence of change is challenging - data emergesslowlyand sample sizes are oftensmall- but an early, sharp and localised focus on research, measurement and evaluation should provide a better understanding of where to look for indices of success. 

 Given the things programme commissioners might start, there is also something they should stop i.e. insisting, in the face of its impossibility, that outcomes should prove a negative. How many young people didn’t become violent extremists because you opened up an alternative pathway to them?It’s a question that will never be answered. Give it up, learn to ask different questions.

 But if there is one thing that, as a practitioner in this sphere, I take heart from, it is this. That with resilience, we are no longer telling young people that the only reason we are doing this is because they might be a security threat.  We are doing this because they deserve our support. We need them to live and prosper. That in its own right is work worth doing.

 The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not purport to represent those of any organisation.

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Resilience beats the counter narrative hands down