A new path to counter youth violence

March 3, 2015

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In all my years of traveling in conflict zones, I have rarely, if ever, heard a young person say that he participated in violence because he was poor or couldn't find a job.

Yet we often hear that the key to combatting ISIS and preventing young people from participating in violent movements is getting them jobs. Millions of dollars have been invested in places like Afghanistan and Iraq with exactly this premise — that a targeted focus on job creation can counter violent extremism.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this works. Our new report, Youth & Consequences, examines the drivers of youth participation in violence in three countries: Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found that having a job has little or no impact on whether a young person will engage in violence.

As one young man in Afghanistan told us, “I didn’t join the Taliban because I was poor. I joined because I was angry.”

And that narrative was repeated in Somalia and Colombia. We found that young people are driven to take up arms by legitimate frustrations over experiences of injustice: discrimination, disenfranchisement, corruption and abuse by government security forces. They are looking to overcome these grievances and find some sense of dignity.

The appeal of violent extremism for many youth is rooted in its righteous indignation, its claim to right wrongs, while providing pathways for purpose. Of course, these pathways are tragically misguided.

With violence in Paris and Copenhagen still fresh and 300,000 child soldiers fighting in conflicts around the world — with recruits rising especially in Islamic extremist groups — addressing the root causes of violent extremism is an urgent priority. We have to better understand why youth are drawn to these groups, and we have to be led by evidence of what works.

At the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama called upon leaders from more than 60 countries “to ensure the security, the prosperity and the human rights of our citizens.” Addressing political grievances, the president said, was one of four key areas where the international community should focus together.

“When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied — particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines — when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism,” said Mr. Obama. “It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”

President Obama is right. Success requires a coordinated, global commitment on the part of governments, development actors and donors to fight corruption, extend rule of law and ensure that bad actors shape up.

To make armed groups less appealing, we must tailor programs to address the underlying sources of violence, not just the symptoms. Most importantly, those countries and citizens most directly impacted have to be the vanguard. This is especially true in Arab and Islamic communities.

Under the best circumstances, meaningful change will take time. There are no fast fixes. In most fragile states, drivers of violence are systemic. Colombia has been gripped by conflict for 50 years and will require a generation to heal.

Too often, the political appetite for quick solutions undermines efforts on the front lines, particularly when value is measured by easily counted outputs rather than meaningful, but more difficult to measure, impacts.

Let’s take this insight on the drivers of youth violence and pause for a moment of reflection. Let’s rethink long-held assumptions and be part of a new way forward, together.

Frederick Douglass may have said it best, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

The path ahead remains uncharted, but we have to go forward in the light of evidence and with the conviction that justice will prevail — if good people have the courage to act.