Addressing Violent Extremism: A Comprehensive Approach Starting With Development

Threats from violent extremism increasingly undermine development around the world. These threats impact our security and prosperity, and as we look for answers, we need to expand how the United States tackles this challenge.  

As we work to defeat and degrade ISIL/Da’esh and other terrorist groups, we know that its defeat on the battlefield is not enough. We also have to address the underlying factors that allow these violent extremist groups to recruit and mobilize people to commit acts of violence in furtherance of ideologies of hate. 

Today’s White House Summit on Global Development will convene leaders from government and civil society to reflect on the achievements and continuing challenges in international development.  They will also review the tool box of tried and tested methods that can be applied to alleviating the drivers of violent extremism. 

USAID Kenya SCORE activity is building the capacity of local civil society organizations (CSOs) such as Kwacha Afrika. As a result these CSO's are empowered to effectively advocate for transparent, inclusive, conflict-sensitive and accountable government institutions at the county level. Kwacha Afrika seeks to address the root causes of conflict and countering violent extremism (CVE) originally focusing in the Coast region of Kenya. [Faith Njoki/USAID Kenya]

In May 2016, USAID and the State Department took a leap forward in expanding how we address the scourge of violent extremism with the release of our first-ever joint strategy. This strategy aims to prevent violent extremism from taking hold by using the tools of development and diplomacy; it recognizes that diplomacy and development tools are fundamental to stopping ISIL/Da’esh and other groups. 

Given the growing threat of violent extremism and an increasing understanding of the problem as both a security threat and one with roots in development challenges, we are working to align the tools used by our two organizations to meet this shared challenge. Since the links between violent extremism and underdevelopment are mutually reinforcing, the need has never been greater to address these issues.

This has implications for our foreign policy objectives and issues of global security. We know that, in the short term, violent extremists’ actions overwhelm health systems, feed insecurity and instability, displace people from their homes, and drive migration. Responding to terrorist attacks consumes government services and resources, in turn stymieing development. And violent extremism impedes economic growth by discouraging sustained investments -- not only by international corporations, but by local entrepreneurs who hesitate to launch small businesses or invest in inventory in an unstable market.   

A child refugee stands in the makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the Greek village of Idomeni on March 31, 2016, where thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded by the Balkan border blockade. [AFP / Bulent Kilic]

Factors driving violent extremism vary across contexts and include socio-economic, political, and cultural structural conditions that have the ability to push or increase the appeal of violent extremism organizations. In addition, enabling factors and incentives can also play a role in pulling an individual towards radicalization to violence. Though knowledge gaps still exist, we are learning more about these drivers and applying our knowledge about which development tools work.

For example, we know prevention efforts are most effective when led by communities themselves -- with young people, women, local governments, teachers, and civil society directing and owning efforts to improve resilience to violent extremist organizations.  So we support working with mothers to help them identify when their children are becoming radicalized and what to do about it. We support rebuilding communities that were recently cleared of violent extremist groups so that they cannot easily return. We support local groups who engage with individuals and groups to counter narratives and the hate speech of violent extremists.

We are seeing success from a USAID program that is a community-led, locally-focused development program in northeastern Nigeria aimed at strengthening the relationship between citizens and the state, which had weakened in recent years due to the pervasive security challenges associated with Boko Haram. 

Participants gather in advance of a procession in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to mark the 2015 launch of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. The launch was organized by Women in Law and Development in Africa, Tanzania Chapter, and was attended by USAID Tanzania Acting Mission Director Daniel Moore. [Jessica Padron, USAID Tanzania]

Programs such as the one in northeastern Nigeria exemplify how the merging of development challenges and security concerns makes development tools one of our best responses.

Traditional counterterrorism and development tools both play critical roles in combatting violent extremism.  Specifically, development tools can be used to respond to the factors that violent extremist organizations exploit for recruitment.  Development programs that reduce the allure of violent extremist groups have immeasurable payoffs, both in terms of reaching development goals -- meaningful objectives in their own right -- and in terms of advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives. As we continue to expand our response to the violent extremism challenge, we will continue to elevate development as a tool to respond to the drivers of violent extremism.

Members of Lamukani Community Justice Center in Kwale County are supported by USAID's Coast Conflict Intervention and Action (CCIA) activity to attend trainings on devolution.The 32 member-group undertakes outreach activities to increase community knowledge on what the constitution says about land, devolution and alternative dispute resolution methods to promote peaceful coexistence. [Irene Angwenyi / USAID Kenya]

About the Authors: Michael Ortiz serves as the Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Department of State. Russell Porter serves as the USAID Coordinator for Countering Violent Extremism

For more information:



Omar M.
July 27, 2016
The role of civil society in P/CVE, particularly in Africa needs to be emphasised. To build resilience in communities is a time consuming activity and needs continously support by development partners.
USAID has integrated reconciliation and trauma healing into peace building. This has helped communities move out of the cycle of violence and revenge. [Photo courtesy of Aernout Zevenbergen/Pact ]
July 20, 2016


Latest Stories

January 19, 2017

What We Got Right

With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the… more