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The term ‘countering violent extremism’ (CVE) first began to circulate in policy circles under the George W Bush administration as part of a policy associated with the ‘War on Terror’, rather than a ‘softer’ approach aimed at countering terrorism.1 Since then, CVE – and its contemporary adjunct ‘PVE’ (preventing violent extremism) – have grown in popularity, embodying one of the most important lessons of the last two decades: military and security-focused operations, in isolation, do not end terrorist movements.2 The emergence of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and by its Arabic acronym ‘Daesh’) and the global counter response, US President Barack Obama’s hosting of the first international White House Summit on CVE and the release of the 2015 UN Secretary-General’s ‘Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism’3 further heightened the focus of policymakers, security officials and donors on preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) at the global, regional, national and sub-national levels.
Despite the proliferation of P/CVE interventions, the field has been met with criticism for being overly reactive and externally imposed, infringing on civil liberties and targeting specific communities.4 It has also been accused of lacking a coherent strategy and for being imbued with definitional and conceptual problems, including the prevailing failure to create a globally accepted definition of either terrorism or violent extremism.5 P/CVE programmes also tend to be wide-ranging in scope, involving a variety of different interventions. These might include, for instance, community debates on sensitive topics, media messaging, interfaith dialogues, empowerment programmes (particularly of women), training of government and security officials, or programmes aimed at individuals deemed to be ‘at risk’ of joining or being attracted to violent extremism groups. In practical terms, this means that P/CVE practitioners have struggled to draw clear boundaries between P/CVE programmes and those of other, well-established fields, such as development and poverty alleviation, peacebuilding, governance and education.6
The emerging practice also lacks a strong evidence base and is instead dominated by limited project descriptions or evaluations. Implementation impact is rarely well described,7 leaving the effectiveness of different approaches or programmes undetermined. A restricted approach to data and intelligence represents another barrier to the engagement of many researchers in the analysis and understanding of P/CVE. Consequently, interventions tend to rely on assumption-based logics with little empirical grounding, exposing the field to a range of practical, conceptual and ethical problems.8
This research project, which started in January 2018 and ran for over two years, aims to fill this evidence gap. The project was primarily funded by the Norwegian government. The main question underlying this research is ‘what can work and what has not worked’ in P/CVE interventions, including those implemented by national or local governments, civil society organisations and the private sector. The research, which aims to explore the evidence base of different P/CVE interventions, is based on a literature review which applied systematic techniques to evaluate and synthesise findings across a range of public studies, as well as internal documents provided by donors and practitioners. The 500+ publications included in this review entail: peer-reviewed publications; independent evaluations; programme documents; and analytical and discursive grey literature (materials and research produced by organisations outside the traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels). As part of this research, the team has mapped over 1,500 projects implemented by around 900 organisations across 100 countries.
As outlined in the project's research methodology, the research included English-language studies, published between 2005 and 2020, that focused explicitly on P/CVE interventions.9 We do not distinguish between ‘preventing’ or ‘countering’ interventions. This is largely because although development organisations, practitioners and scholars have individual preferences for applying these terms, others use them interchangeably.10 The lack of a consistent definition means it is not possible to draw comparisons between the relative benefits of ‘preventing’ or ‘countering’ approaches.
The studies have been grouped into several thematic intervention areas, reflecting the literature gathered. Thematic areas covered include: women-centric interventions; education initiatives; P/CVE communications; mentorship interventions; and youth and economic empowerment interventions. A concluding paper, highlighting the key lessons and good practice identified, will also be developed.
All thematic papers aim to provide:
- An introduction to the thematic intervention area.
- A brief summary of the methodology and a description of the body of evidence for each thematic area (namely, a breakdown of the publications included, and an assessment of their quality and of the effectiveness of the programmes reviewed in the papers) for each intervention area.
- An analysis of different P/CVE activities, the explicit or implicit theories of change or assumptions underpinning interventions and an assessment of the effectiveness (or not) of the intervention approaches.
- A conclusion summarising the key findings and conclusions.
The paucity of independent evaluations challenged the methodological rigour of the project’s research and analysis (outlined in more detail in the methodology). The team sought to mitigate these limitations through our quality and impact assessment approach. We believe that the publication series is a contribution to existing knowledge and research in the field of P/CVE. It is important to note that the intention is not to discourage donors from funding some of the important work discussed in this publication series. Instead, the call is for more evaluations to be published.
- Randy Borum, ‘Radicalization into Violent Extremism I: A Review of Social Science Theories’, Journal of Strategic Security (Vol. 4, No. 4, 2012), pp. 7–36.
- Elizabeth Young, ‘Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from a Decade of Operations’, Prism (Vol. 4, No. 2, 2012), pp. 123–42.
- UN General Assembly, ‘The United Nations Global Counter Terrorism Strategy: Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, Report of the Secretary-General’, 24 December 2015, <https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/A/70/674>, accessed 31 March 2020.
- Jessica Wolfendale, ‘Terrorism, Security, and the Threat of Counterterrorism’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (Vol. 30, No. 1, 2007), pp. 75–92.
- Eric Rosand et al., ‘A Roadmap to Progress: The State of the Global P/CVE Agenda’, The Prevention Project and RUSI, 2018, <http://organizingagainstve.org/roadmap-progress-state-global-p-cve-agenda>, accessed 31 March 2020. See also J M Berger, ‘Making CVE Work: A Focused Approach Based on Process Disruption’, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, 26 May 2016.
- Steven Heydemann, ‘Countering Violent Extremism as a Field of Practice’, United States Institute of Peace, Insights (No. 1, Spring 2014), p. 11; Berger, ‘Making CVE Work’.
- National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, ‘Surveying CVE Metrics in Prevention, Disengagement and Deradicalization Programs: Report to the Office of University Programs, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security’, March 2016; Lasse Lindekilde, ‘Value for Money? Problems of Impact Assessment of Counter-Radicalization Policies on End Target Groups: The Case of Denmark’, European Journal of Criminal Policy and Research (Vol. 18, No. 4, 2012), pp. 385–402.
- Rosand et al., ‘A Roadmap to Progress’.
- The review only included initiatives that identified ‘vulnerable’ groups and individuals, articulated explicit P/CVE objectives in their theory of change/intervention logics, or addressed identified factors contributing to violent extremism in a particular context.
- Rosand et al., ‘A Roadmap to Progress’.
An earlier version of this introduction was published in Emily Winterbotham, 'What Can Work (and What Has Not Worked) in Women-Centric P/CVE Initiatives: Assessing the Evidence Base for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism', RUSI Occasional Papers (May 2020).
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