To combat extremism, we need local partnerships
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When combating issues such as violent extremism, it’s tempting to look at the problem through a top-down lens. But effective strategies begin on the ground, with local leaders who understand their communities. They possess important knowledge about the resources their people need, the challenges they face and the values that shape their lives. That information is critical when fighting extremism.

Disastrous consequences occur when national governments, aid workers and international coalitions attempt to enforce solutions to extremism without inviting local leaders into the conversation. Research conducted by five major United Kingdom nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) found that its sector is “failing to learn” from one crisis to the next, missing opportunities to work effectively with local partners.

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It should be noted that this has been a failing of large organizations in particular. There is broad agreement that smaller NGOs are nimbler and more inclusive, but they find it difficult to secure sufficient funding.

 

Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has even emphasized the need to focus in on the problems facing individuals and communities, saying in a recent interview that world leaders “have not been paying enough attention to the aspirations and grievances and challenges of the people” in volatile situations. His stance indicates the growing recognition that programs don’t work without local partnerships.

What we stand to gain

When you’re working in a region threatened by extremism, you’re dealing with a complex set of circumstances. Unstable areas are typically rural and impoverished, and their security needs run deep. By partnering with local leaders, whether those are government workers or tribal heads, NGOs can address the roots of instability in these communities. Providing sustainable pipelines to food and resources can be a game changer in places where these fundamental basics are lacking.

But you learn about the underlying causes of instability only if you cultivate relationships with local leaders. Once you’ve earned their trust, they can bridge the gap between your organization and the community you’re serving. Over time, they might offer intelligence about extremist groups or be willing to participate in anti-extremist initiatives. However, you must begin by learning about their vulnerabilities and providing viable alternatives to their dependence on extremist groups.

The U.S. and its partners have retaken 40 percent of ISIS-controlled territory in part through local partnerships. They’ve provided weapons and training to allied fighters and delivered humanitarian aid and services where they’re desperately needed. These strategies have proven critical to reducing ISIS’s influence in the Middle East.

I believe that if government aid organizations and NGOs apply similar strategies, we will see a remarkable reduction in support for violent extremism because of three key factors:

1. Extremists’ messaging will cease to resonate.

Every time NGOs and foreign governments work with local leaders instead of imposing solutions, extremist indoctrination weakens. If communities witness us working with their most trusted figures, it becomes more difficult to see us as an enemy. As they experience the tangible benefits of these partnerships, they’ll be less susceptible to violent indoctrination as well.

The Strong Cities Network has made great strides in this area, providing cities plagued by high rates of radicalization with grants and resources to build stronger communities. By giving local leaders financial and logistical support to meet their people’s needs, they’ve significantly reduced the number of citizens who become violently radicalized.

2. The spread of violent extremism will slow.

As governments and aid organizations come to understand the driving factors that lead to radicalization, they can adjust their policies to correct these problems. By improving rights conditions, access to education, and general security, they will alleviate the desperation that causes some citizens to radicalize.

In the U.S. State Department’s strategy to combat violent extremism, it calls for partner governments to continually improve their understanding of the causes of violent extremism and to work with NGOs to update or create new plans of action. Once these new policies take root, the number of extremists and incidents of terrorism will decrease.

3. Peace will flourish as more people earn a living wage.

Violent extremist fighters often are paid for their services in some way, making it an attractive — albeit devastating — path for deeply impoverished people. However, if they earn sustainable incomes through legitimate means, they are more likely to choose peaceful forms of existence.

Many young men in Nigeria voluntarily join Boko Haram because the group offers them financial stability and business loans, which are opportunities they’re unlikely to encounter elsewhere. My organization has been working alongside tribal leaders in northeastern Nigeria, where we’re creating targeted poverty eradication solutions to build resiliency in rural communities. If we can establish economic opportunities for young people, we’ll remove a major incentive for joining extremist groups.

Although the development sector is not known for systemic change, there is light on the horizon. In 2016, about 20 international NGOs signed on with Charter4Change, an eight-pillar plan for creating stronger relationships with local partners. The agreement calls for 20 percent of the NGOs’ humanitarian funding to be applied through local and national organizations, though it applies only to disasters for the time being.

This is a step in the right direction, but the ultimate goal of NGOs should be to go out of business. When we succeed in empowering our local partners, we have no reason to exist — and that will be the greatest measure of our success.

Mina Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization working in areas of instability and conflict. She currently serves as an International Security program fellow with New America, focusing on national security and preventing and countering violent extremism. Mina also served as a fellow with the United States Military Academy at West Point Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations, where she developed community-focused programs in humanitarian and disaster response.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.