With extremist violence, don’t repeat past mistakes

By downplaying it and focusing only on great power rivalries, we once again risk ignoring burgeoning threats to liberal values.

An ISIS propaganda video shows a deadly ambush of US soldiers in Niger (photo credit: screenshot)
An ISIS propaganda video shows a deadly ambush of US soldiers in Niger
(photo credit: screenshot)
Extremist violence, sometimes called “the battle of our generation,” has dominated the attention of much of the globe over the past decade. As attention shifted to the threat of terrorism, great power rivalries were downplayed and developed countries joined forces to battle extremism.
That sense of a common front was temporary. The end of ISIS’s caliphate and other events of the past year have refocused Americans and its allies on the enduring reality of great power rivalries. The states jockeying for regional supremacy in Asia and Europe are shaping trade relations, governance norms and values, and the economic and political prospects of millions of ordinary people.
Great power rivalry never went away. It is real and promises to intensify in the years ahead. Yet extremist violence continues. By downplaying it and focusing only on great power rivalries, we once again risk ignoring burgeoning threats to the liberal values and practices that have helped reduce poverty and prevent large-scale war. Extremist violence continues to haunt the lives of millions in the Mideast, Africa and other regions. As much as revanchist states, this violence threatens the rules-based international system.
This system, while far from perfect, has contained extremism and enabled unparalleled gains in living standards and personal freedoms.
It has been maintained by deliberate policies of successive US administrations, working in collaboration with US allies and other partners. The breakdown of this system would represent a huge step backward in human affairs. As the system’s linchpin, the US would not be immune from the ill effects of its disintegration.
Violent extremism and the threat it still poses does not exist in a vacuum.
It is largely the outgrowth of extreme poverty that does not provide the resources to invest in and provide the education, health care, economic opportunity and effective governance that are the necessary conditions for a peaceful society.
Continued poverty that grinds down the lives of hundreds of millions of people can be effectively addressed through one clear path: Sustained economic and social development.
This is the work of international development organizations. Our organization has been involved in this work for decades. The most important lesson we have learned is that development is a years-long process. While large and expensive top-down projects can result in impressive physical changes and temporary income gains, they rarely result in the transfer of skills and attitudes that equip communities to initiate their own sustained development.
Lasting development is achieved when communities identify their own needs and organize themselves to address their own concerns. Effective international non-government organizations (INGOs) assist this process.
An example of where this works is in Mali. The insurgencies by extremist groups in Mali and neighboring countries feed off and take advantage of deep poverty. Militant groups often pay more than what people can earn in the agricultural sector, which dominates in Mali and other Sahel nations. Signing on for violence is often as much an economic as an ideological decision.
We work with local community groups in Tominian Cercle within the Segou Region in central Mali. As a semi-arid region, the communities of the Segou region have limited livelihood options. The majority of residents are nomadic pastoralists and semi-sedentary farmers.
World Neighbors has worked in and with these communities for 11 years. During that time, village associations and partner groups have greatly increased their capacity to initiate and manage their own projects.
This includes literacy training and basic sanitation and health training, with a focus on women.
In addition, farmers have greatly increased their agricultural output using sustainable techniques designed to lower input costs and increase climate change resilience.
Perhaps most important, villagers use a savings and credit program to generate capital for improved farming implements, more productive livestock, small businesses, payments for childrens’ education and more. Participants become highly dependent on one another to improve their living and social conditions. These groups enhance community solidarity and weaken the appeal of outside groups that may attempt to recruit members.
We run similar programs in Burkina Faso, another country threatened by extremist groups. All have shown impressive results in reducing poverty and strengthening communities in sustainable ways. With all of these communities in Burkina Faso and Mali, the development process takes time, so we will work with them up to 10 years before they “graduate.”
All of the graduated communities are sustaining their own initiatives and thriving – independent of our assistance.
The spiral of intolerance and instability that violent extremism sets in motion entrenches poverty – further opening individuals and groups to the siren song of extremist solutions.
This vicious cycle can and must be prevented through longterm development programs that build on communities’ own resources and initiatives, providing a path toward economic and political security.
And with that, a path to hope.
More than any military solution, it is hope and expectation of a better future that will drain the life from extremist ideology and violence, and with it, a still active threat to the rules-based international system that remains far and away preferable to any alternative.
The writer, is president and CEO of World Neighbors, a global development group based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She holds advanced degrees in political science and Soviet Studies from Columbia University and Harvard University.