Defeating the purpose
Beyond this general sense that PVE has exchanged much commotion for minimal progress, there are also indications that the framework’s expansion may be making matters worse in precisely the places where it is meant to be making them better. At one level, PVE offers a convenient smokescreen for authoritarian regimes whose behavior is, unmistakably, part of the problem: while evidence remains weak regarding drivers of extremism, it is broadly understood that bad governance—including human rights abuses, suffocating repression of the public space, corruption, economic predation, and so on—is at the heart of the issue. Against this backdrop, regressive governments have latched onto the feel-good, fuzzy logic of PVE as a cover for their most pernicious habits.
In one example, the Saudi government launched in May 2017 its Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology—a futuristic hub complete with an iconic glowing orb—while simultaneously forging ahead with a war in Yemen that is unlikely, through sweeping destruction and siege-induced famine, to mitigate “violent extremism.” Present at the grand opening was Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, whose regime has fashioned itself into a partner in the war on terror while ratcheting up domestic repression to counterproductive extents. Likewise, in late 2014, Iran hosted a conference on countering violence and extremism, while dispatching its militias to the aid of the Syrian regime, and abetting its boundless repression.
Governments have latched onto this cover for their pernicious habits
Similarly, an Asia-based expert noted the incongruity between Islamabad’s warm embrace of PVE rhetoric, on one hand, and an overall posture fostering militancy, on the other: “Pakistan’s primary foreign policy lever is the export of terrorism. So, I’m not sure how you make that logical leap.” Even the ostensibly responsive political class of a country like Lebanon, while embracing a National Strategy to Prevent Violent Extremism, has adopted an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis more than a million, highly vulnerable Syrian refugees; pushed the country to the brink of a financial crisis; and quietly allowed an abusive, dilapidated and overcrowded prison sector to fester.
A second set of concerns relates to how PVE unfolds at the micro level, in the distribution of humanitarian and development assistance by local and international NGOs. In Nigeria, a senior regional donor noted that “policy focus and funds have been redirected to fighting terror in the North, allowing the many other conflicts around the country to worsen and metastasise.” As Western attention increasingly prioritises security, grassroots organisations have found themselves effectively forced to adapt their work to the trend—including by diverting resources from other thematic focal points in which they have proven experience.
This dynamic manifests starkly among both grant-makers and their partner NGOs, whose financial health often depends on alignment with international funding priorities. An NGO worker in Jordan thus noted that his organisation—whose original mission focused on civic engagement and public policy—had largely repurposed itself:
“Our leadership seems to have convinced itself about PVE, but I can guarantee you that if we didn’t have the funding constraint we wouldn’t be doing this stuff. Honestly, almost all our work has shifted in this direction, and deep down we’re frustrated with this diversion from our core mission.”
A PVE expert grumbled: “My partner recently sat with a [Western donor] to discuss an initiative involving LGBT rights in Asia, and the guy said: ‘If you put the words violent extremism in this, it will make my job a hell of a lot easier.’ That may sound like a joke, but it’s not.” A Lebanese government official echoed this theme in his public remarks at a high-profile event to launch Beirut’s PVE strategy: “PVE means absolutely nothing to me. It is a void word. But I know it brings in a lot of money, so I’m okay with it.”
A parallel and closely related shift relates to the degree to which this trend privileges actors most adept at speaking the language of donor agencies—regardless of whether they have the most relevant programming. While this tension pervades many development interventions, the unproven contours of PVE make the framework especially fertile ground for pandering to grant-makers. At a PVE roundtable in Europe, a participant thus teased donors: “If your local partner understands what PVE means, it’s probably not a good local partner. It’s just another organization that knows how to fundraise at the expense of their own agenda.”
The aid sector ends up doing the opposite of what it claims to want
Aware of this tension, the head of a well-established Syrian NGO explained that his organisation, although it mostly eschews such funding, sometimes takes on PVE-labelled projects when they fit other programmatic focal points such as psychosocial support. Even this, however, has provoked criticism from peer organisations for being willing to engage with PVE at all. In other words, PVE—as a particularly extreme example of an industry ever more saturated with ambiguous jargon—ends up doing exactly the opposite of what the aid and development sector claims to want: evidence-driven, impactful, sustainable empowerment of local players.
Some organisations that can adapt to the PVE agenda therefore harbor deep misgivings about doing so—typically because they view it as ineffective, or as a construct that serves to vilify or “securitise” the communities that they aim to help, or both. Indeed, the expansion of soft counterterrorism has meant that a given society’s access to development funding depends on the degree to which donor states regard that society as a likely source of violent extremism, rather than on traditional indicators of need. A host of other objectives have been abandoned outright, or recast as secondary priorities only to the extent that they may prevent terrorism: human rights, democratisation, good governance, the empowerment of youth and women, economic development, freedom of expression, and other core components of the decades-old liberal agenda have been conscripted into the service of the war on terror, eroding the assumption that such goals have any value in their own right, while making them more suspicious to purported beneficiaries on the ground.
This makes little sense, given that even reports funded by the PVE industry suggest that “violent extremism” often boils down to precisely such obvious, banal issues—namely repressive policies and poor governance in the “global south,” and underemployment in wealthier countries. It is remarkable, then, to note how difficult it has become to get Western governments to publicly recognise, let alone act upon, the strong empirical linkage between human rights abuse, bad governance, authoritarianism, on one side, and radicalisation, on the other. PVE almost appears as a means not to address fundamental problems, because that would rattle the status quo.
What is actually “working,” in superficial ways, are military measures, which display significantly more effectiveness—in the short-term—than any PVE counterparts. Put simply, the Islamic State was defeated, for now, through largely indiscriminate bombings, causing vast destruction of infrastructure and an untold number of civilian casualties. In the process, no serious effort was made to address any of the phenomenon’s “root causes”: governmental neglect, poor local and national representation, rampant abuse at the hands of the security services, territorial encroachment by armed factions, and so on.