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How educational programs in Africa can help counter violent extremism

- May 17, 2018
Hundreds of al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area south of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2011. (AP)

Somalia’s capital has been rocked by multiple bomb attacks in the past few months, and a May 6 blast in a border town killed seven Kenyan soldiers. In recent months, a series of bombings left dozens dead or injured.

Most analysts believe that al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-backed extremist group that has waged an insurgency against the federal government for more than 10 years, is responsible for these attacks.

The recent violence comes in the wake of devastating twin truck bombs that killed hundreds in Mogadishu in October 2017. Despite making gains in security and governance during the past year, Somalia continues to struggle to escape the trap of conflict and instability.

With the United States currently escalating its military presence in Somalia, a major question for the Somali government, U.S. forces and others actors on the ground is how to counter the appeal of violent groups among young people — their common recruits.

This is also a vital question for governments engaged in conflict zones around the world. Some, including Somalia’s leaders, see increasing access to education as a way to address disaffected youth’s frustrations with the status quo and steer them away from armed groups like al-Shabab.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/11/30/somalias-african-union-mission-has-a-new-exit-strategy-but-can-troops-actually-exit/?utm_term=.52fcb497ca20″]Somalia’s African Union mission has a new exit strategy. But can troops actually leave?[/interstitial_link]

Does this approach work? And if so, does it work everywhere? We set out to explore the common assumption that educational programs will help counter violent extremism.

How we did our research on political violence

Working with the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Mercy Corps — the global organization for which we work — designed a study to help us understand how secondary education affects young people’s support for political violence. We focused on the Somali Youth Learners Initiative (SYLI), a USAID-funded program implemented by Mercy Corps and other partners.

Across Somalia, the program improved access to secondary education, reaching almost 25,000 young people. SYLI also worked with youth in and outside of school to develop leadership skills and facilitate opportunities to improve their communities through civic engagement activities.

In a new report, we describe how the program — both by itself and in combination with civic engagement activities — changed young people’s attitudes toward opposition groups like al-Shabab. We focused on areas of Somalia previously under the control of armed groups and al-Shabab.

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We employed quantitative and qualitative data, surveying 1,220 Somali youth and conducting in-depth interviews with another 40 young people in 2017. We compared students in SYLI-supported schools to out-of-school youth to understand how the program influenced their willingness to support or aid armed opposition groups.

Yes, secondary education did make an impact

We found that the provision of secondary education through SYLI significantly reduced support for violence. In-school youth were half as likely (48.2 percent) to support armed groups as out-of-school youth. Further, the combination of SYLI-supported secondary education and civic engagement activities like advocacy campaigns and community service projects had an even greater effect on reducing support for violence. Our results show students offered civic engagement opportunities were 64.8 percent less likely to support political violence than non-engaged youth.

This study reinforces some of what we learned when we tested the same program in the self-declared independent region of Somaliland a year earlier. In Somaliland the combination of education and civic engagement opportunities had the greatest impact on reducing support for political violence.

However, this new study also highlights the fact that the same program can yield different results. We noted that education reduced support for political violence in South Central Somalia and Puntland, while our survey found that education may increase such support in the relatively peaceful areas like Somaliland.

Why do we see these divergent outcomes?

As it turns out, context matters — even within the same country. In parts of Somalia where the provision of basic services is limited, increasing access to secondary education improved young people’s perceptions of the government. We think this led to a reduction in support for armed opposition groups.

However, in the more developed and stable Somaliland, where people expected their government to provide higher levels of services, it’s a different story. In some cases, the provision of education does not appear to be enough to stop youth from supporting political violence.

These studies have important implications for development programs in conflict-affected countries. The full impact that stability programs have on violence is driven in part by the context in which they are implemented.

In countries emerging from conflict with few, if any, functioning systems, simply investing in basic services such as education can be a quick win for the government — and for donors focused on promoting stability. In the long term, however, this gain in popular support is not enough.

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As conflict-affected areas of Somalia eventually stabilize and develop, education alone will likely not address all the grievances that drive youth to support political violence. Education gives young people the chance to gain knowledge and skills, but it also raises expectations and awareness of what citizens are lacking. Young people can grow angry and frustrated if they perceive the government is unable or uninterested in meeting their needs.

What does this mean for development strategies, and international partners? These shifting dynamics require the development of both short- and long-term strategies for managing and reducing violence — or risk exacerbating the situation.

This means investing in basic post-conflict reconstruction, including rebuilding public services, while laying the groundwork for long-term peace and development by improving governance and providing youth with meaningful opportunities.

Beza Tesfaye @bezates87 is a senior researcher at Mercy Corps.

Beth Maclin is a research consultant for Mercy Corps.