Protection Is Not Enough: We Must Prevent Extremism

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Protection Is Not Enough: We Must Prevent Extremism

Posted on: 12th November 2019
Stefania Giannini
External Contributor

In a world that is increasingly polarised, unequal and permeated by technology, there is an increasing sense of exclusion and vulnerability. Violent extremist movements seize upon these sentiments to divide, fuel hatred, and stoke up cultural and interreligious tensions that serve their purposes.

In the face of such challenges, protection does not suffice. We must prevent. In this context, the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism calls for a system-wide approach to address the underlying conditions that drive individuals to join violent extremist groups.10 Providing a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and actions needed to effectively prevent the spread of violent extremism leading to terrorism, it identifies “education, skills development and employment facilitation” as an important lever to foster respect for human diversity and prepare young people to enter the workplace.

More recently, the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech recognises the role of education– particularly related to global citizenship–as a tool to bolster people’s resilience to hate speech through critical thinking and competencies for intercultural dialogue.

UNESCO, as the leading UN agency on education, dedicated to “building peace in the minds of men and women” (UNESCO Constitution) has been giving prime attention to the promotion of education as a tool to prevent violent extremism.11

It does so within a holistic framework that addresses, head-on, the drivers of violent extremism.12

How can education contribute to prevention efforts?

Although education cannot prevent an individual  from committing a violent act in the name of a violent extremist ideology, the provision of relevant and high- quality education can help create the conditions that make it difficult for violent extremist ideologies and acts to proliferate. More specifically, education policies can ensure that places of learning do not become a breeding ground for violent extremism. This implies addressing the various ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors driving violent extremism.1‘Push’ factors refer to circumstantial conditions such as poverty, corruption, marginalisation, discrimination, and poor governance. ‘Pull’ factors are understood as individual motivations such as the search for identity/purpose, inter alia, identification with collective grievances, the distortion of ethnic or cultural differences, and the attraction of charismatic leadership and the sense of belonging. These factors are mutually exclusive and no single factor is a signal of radicalisation leading to violent extremism. Instead, a combination of these factors can help explain why certain individual motivations and contexts precipitate adherence to violent extremist beliefs. Understanding these nuances is critical, in order to avoid making generalisations that may stigmatise individuals and/or groups, which in turn can further fuel violent extremism. Read more, here: role of education is, therefore, not to intercept violent extremists or identify individuals who may potentially become violent extremists, but to create the conditions that build the defences, within learners, against violent extremism, and strengthen their commitment to non-violence and peace.14

The role of education is not to intercept violent extremists or identify individuals who may potentially become violent extremists, but to create the conditions that build the defences, within learners, against violent extremism, and strengthen their commitment to non-violence and peace.

Teachers are essential to this process. Confident, well-trained and respected teachers can be role models, change agents and mediators, nurturing dialogue and modelling mutual respect. They can also be the first to address concerns of learners that may be pushing them towards extremism, and mitigate them through the exploration of controversial issues. Finally, teachers can serve as a bridge between school, families and

the broader community to ensure that all concerned stakeholders are working towards a common goal to support and assist learners who are at risk.15 16

For UNESCO, this educational approach is best promoted through Global Citizenship Education (GCED). GCED seeks to nurture a sense of belonging to a common humanity, as well as genuine respect for all. GCED is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as highlighted by Target 4.7 of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education, prescribing that by 2030 countries should:

“..ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

Indeed, GCED is an emerging approach to education that focuses on developing learners’ knowledge, skills, values and attitudes in view of their active participation in the peaceful and sustainable development of their societies. GCED is about instilling respect for human rights, social justice, gender equality and environmental sustainability, which are fundamental values that help raise the defences of peace against violent extremism.17

The impact and effect of education

Measuring the effectiveness and impact of the prevention of violent extremism through education (PVE-E) is a complex undertaking, because in essence, how can you measure something that you are ‘preventing’ from occurring? Of course, there are proxy indicators that can be used, including ‘propensity to support/use violence’ and ‘ability to demonstrate critical thinking and communication skills’. There is also substantive, qualitative evidence–decades of research in fact–on Peace and Human Rights education, which demonstrate its effectiveness and impact.18

Confident, well-trained and respected teachers can be role models, change agents and mediators, nurturing dialogue and modelling mutual respect.

To understand this further and contribute to this effort, UNESCO commissioned a comparative study of 32 case studies of PVE-E, representing a selection of activities across the world and involving a range of ages. It covered formal, informal and non-formal education.19 Despite limitations, the study revealed that relevant, good-quality education can help to create conditions that make it difficult for violent extremist ideas to proliferate. It can do this by addressing the causes of violent extremism and fostering resilient learners able to find constructive and non-violent solutions to life challenges.

More research and evaluations are needed to pursue and refine our understanding of what works, under what conditions and why, in order to improve the effectiveness of these prevention efforts.

What can be done?

There is no single set of solutions for the prevention of violent extremism through education, as educational responses will vary according to different contexts.

For example, conflict situations, demographics, citizenship models and arrangements between private/ public providers.

Building on the lessons learned from peace and human rights education, and in consultation with experts and practitioners from around the world, UNESCO nonetheless identified five main areas of action for the prevention of violent extremism through education.

  • Inclusion – The development of school policies that promote inclusion and respect for diversity, and nurture a sense of belonging to the school community and broader social environment.
  • Resilience – The development and implementation of pedagogies (teaching methods) that strengthen learners’ resilience in the face of hardship. This implies motivating, supporting and equipping teachers with the skills and tools needed to understand their own biases, and then building  their abilities to address violent extremist narratives at the level of individual students. Resilience can also be built by supporting and nurturing learners’ capacities and motivating them to engage in constructive social change.
  • Safety and well-being – The creation of safe and supportive school environments is crucial. There should be zero tolerance of violence, as well as a genuine commitment to building an ethos of care in the school context. Schools must be places where learners experience first-hand justice, fair play and respect for others.
  • Procedures – Supporting vulnerable learners at risk of being recruited is key for the prevention of violent extremism and helps set the example of what it means to care for community members. This implies seeing learners not as potential ‘perpetrators’ of violent extremist acts but rather as potential ‘victims’ of recruitment and exploitation by violent extremist groups.
  • Partnerships – They are the cornerstone of effective prevention efforts, which require an efficient and concerted mobilisation of all stakeholders across sectors, including the media, community leaders, health workers, internet platforms and politicians.

The ultimate goal is to prevent violent extremism  but, in doing so, we are also advancing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by enhancing the quality of education to build more just, peaceful and safer societies.

Find out more