In Somalia, better education alone is not enough to challenge extremism

In Somalia, better education alone is not enough to challenge extremism
Secondary school students in Somalia. Photo by: Teresa Krug / CC BY-NC

Better education and vocational training are not enough to steer young people in Somalia away from radical and violent groups such as al-Shabab.

Instead they must be combined with opportunities to take part in community and civic projects in order to reduce violence, a new report has found.

This is the main conclusion of the “Critical Choices” study by international aid agency Mercy Corps, which collates the findings of an impact evaluation of their five year USAID-funded Somali Youth Leaders Initiative.

The report found that interventions that combined secondary education with civic engagement opportunities — such as taking part in local sanitation and hygiene campaigns or planting trees in school grounds — led to a 14 percent reduction in young people’s propensity to participate in violence, and a 20 percent drop in their likelihood of supporting violence.

In contrast, the results showed that while better access to secondary education by itself reduced actual participation in acts of political violence, it actually increased ideological support for political violence.

The findings mark a departure from the common assumption that lack of education alone is a main driver of violent extremism. It also debunks the traditional view that countering violent extremism interventions are “too difficult to measure,” said Shannon Green, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which hosted a panel discussion on the new report in Washington, D.C.

Mercy Corps researchers, through the report, also seek to fill what they perceive as an evidence gap around effective approaches to preventing politically motivated violence in Somaliland, Somalia, and other similar conflict situations around the world.

The report is timely, according to Jon Kurtz, director of research and learning at Mercy Corps, because it makes the case for continued non-militarized U.S. support to fragile and conflict-affected countries at a time of uncertainty among the development community due to President-elect Donald Trump’s comments about withdrawing aid from countries that “hate us.”

“We hope our new research encourages the Administration to embrace constructive policies that mitigate conflict, by demonstrating the important role civic engagement and education play in the fight against violent extremism. Programs like these are a proven way to prevent violence, recruitment and radicalization,” Kurtz said.

The survey interviewed more than 800 young people between the ages of 15 and 24, from three regions in Somaliland, over a two week period earlier this year. Somaliland is a semi-autonomous state but is internationally recognized as part of Somalia.

Researchers carried out a mixed-methods impact evaluation to test what impact, if any, the SYLI program has had on stability in the country.

Somalia is plagued by violence from al-Shabab, which is Arabic for “the youth.” The group emerged as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s now-defunct Islamic Courts Union, which controlled the country in 2006 before being ousted by Ethiopian forces. After the Ethiopian invasion, al-Shabab’s membership grew and it is now believed to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. The group now controls much of southern and central Somalia.

While Somaliland has been relatively unscathed by al-Shabab attacks — the last attack was in 2008 — the extremist group does recruit from its territory. According to the Mercy Corps report, a typical al-Shabab member is a vulnerable youth with few family ties and little education.

As a result, Somali youth, who account for 75 percent of the population of the whole country, are a Somali government focus and “simultaneously represent both the hope for a bright future and a possible source of instability,” according to Beza Tesfaye, conflict and governance research manager for Mercy Corps and the author of the report.

In response, the Somali government has been supporting programs such as the SYLI program, which operates in Somalia and Somaliland, to increase access to secondary education, in order to move young people away from the potential lure of extremist violence.

However, as the report indicates, education alone is not enough and in fact can have unwanted and counterproductive consequences. For example, although the survey found that improving access to secondary education through the SYLI program reduced youth reported participation in political violence by 16 percent, it actually increased their reported likelihood of supporting political violence by 11 percent.

This could be due to the fact that education may have created greater awareness of historical injustices and raised expectations among students that turned to frustrations, Tesfaye said.

In contrast, the survey found that combining secondary education with civic engagement opportunities resulted in reported drops in students’ propensity to both participate in and support violence by 14 percent and 20 percent, respectively. These opportunities include young people constructing small gardens in school grounds, organizing International Peace Day events, and taking part in sanitation and hygiene campaigns.

“One big implication from this study for youth programming was that you have to address both the lack of skills that young people are facing but also the lack of opportunities, and just doing one without the other is not adequate,” Tesfaye said.

“Education alone is not enough — you raise the expectations and give students the tools but you don’t give them the platform to exercise some of what they have learned. And if that doesn’t happen then those raised expectations have the risk of being turned into frustration and grievances,” said Feysal Osman, civic engagement specialist for Mercy Corps in Somalia.

As a result of the study, Osman said Mercy Corps had realized that education interventions need to be complemented with civic engagement opportunities so that students’ “raised expectations do not turn to frustration and violence.”

On the back of these findings, Mercy Corps is urging the international development community and Somalia’s government to increase investment and political commitment into youth education and civic society initiatives.

While the research was done in Somaliland, the SYLI program is being implemented throughout Somalia. Tesfaye acknowledged that Somaliland’s political and security context does differ in some ways from that of Somalia. The policy implications in the report are addressed to the national government because its policies, including the recent National Strategy and Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, applies to the entire country, including Somaliland, Tesfaye said.

For more Devex coverage on the role of young people in global development, visit Focus On: Youth