On 24 November 2020, UNICRI in collaboration with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) held the virtual webinar “What Enhances Community Resilience to Violent Extremism? Main findings from UNICRI Pilot Project in Sahel-Maghreb region”. As the official launch of the Project’s final report “Many hands on an elephant”, the webinar featured speakers from four partner civil society organisations, as well as representatives from UNICRI and DG NEAR.
After the opening remarks, Manuela Brunero, UNICRI Programme Officer, presented the report’s key findings from the 83 projects it ran across nine countries in the Sahel-Maghreb region. Over the course of five years, the data-driven project identified nine key macro-areas of grievances reported by local communities which are felt to play a role in pushing people into violent extremism. These ranged from a lack of good governance to a lack of educational and economic opportunities, from security to rule of law issues.
A recurrent theme of the webinar was the fundamental importance of community-led approaches that take into consideration diverse social, political, economic and cultural contexts. For instance, in Tunisia where large numbers have joined extremist armed groups abroad, Asma Kaouech, Executive Director at Fanni Raghman Anni, highlighted the importance of using art to promote critical thinking and create social capital. As part of their two-year long project ESPW’ART, the youth-led organisation used a bottom-up approach to successfully engage frustrated youths, creating a space for them to have their voices heard.
Equally, Assinamar Ag Rousmane, Programme Coordinator at Azhar, called attention to social initiatives in Mali. In a country which has faced radicalism as a result of local conflicts and a lack of good governance, the creation of inclusive peace committees comprising traditional leaders from different local communities has helped to promote social cohesion. In a similar vein, Maxime Nadjirambaye Nelngar, Programme Coordinator at Swissaid, explained how the decreasing availability of precious natural resources in Chad had caused tensions to rise between various farming and pastoral communities. By bringing together different community actors, Swissaid facilitated the creation of official agreements on how land will be peacefully shared between communities in the future.
The webinar also focused on the role of women in building more resilient communities. Ahmed Maiga, International Alert Country Director in Mali, suggested that the current conflict in the Sahel may provide an opportunity for a complete transformation of gender roles in the region. This was evidenced by increasing numbers of women taking on the responsibility for generating their household’s income in the place of men, who had been forced to leave by the conflict.
Overall, the UNICRI Project provided much needed data on key areas of focus to ensure the success of future PVE initiatives in the region, which Tijani Mohamed El Kerim, Director of the Mauritian Institute for Access to Modernity and Senior Fellow at UNICRI, touched upon while sharing his first-hand experience from the field. He called for a focus on youths and women, greater social inclusion and unity, collaboration with religious schools and local representatives. Based on its findings, the Project recommends that the State must lead efforts to address the reported grievances, in collaboration with community-based actors, as this is the only way to ensure more sustainable measures. Equally, any solution must envisage long-term processes which are informed by a sound knowledge of the local context.
In the words of Leif Villadsen, UNICRI Deputy Director, in his closing remarks: “I feel confident that the lessons learned presented in the report, some of which we also have discussed today, represent a unique occasion for the international community to improve its P/CVE efforts.
Building upon the results and findings from our work in the Maghreb-Sahel region, the partnership we have established with all our partners, as well as UNICRI’s approach to link research, training and capacity-building, UNICRI stands ready not only to continue its analytical work to expand the body of knowledge on what works and what does not in countering violent extremism, but also to translate those findings into concrete actions.”