Education and Violent Extremism in Africa: The Importance of Evidence-based Interventions for National Security

The international development sector, especially in the United States, is facing an uncertain future. Long considered to be both a virtuous endeavor and a crucial mechanism for achieving US foreign policy aims, development assistance is struggling to remain relevant. Both politicians and citizens are skeptical of development aid and are increasingly focused on more traditional strategies to ensure national security, particularly in the face of the growing threats of terrorism and violent extremism. Shifts in spending priorities call into question the longevity of US investments in education and women’s empowerment, as well as the continued existence of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department in their current forms.

Education, Workforce Development, and Violent Extremism in Africa

However, as US military leaders have argued, development assistance can be just as important as defense spending to ensuring our national security. Clear connections can be drawn between expanding access to education and workforce development—areas in which USAID has built expertise—and countering violent extremism (CVE), a top foreign policy priority of the Trump administration. Violent extremist groups often recruit from the young, poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized populations of a society, which include many of the same individuals targeted by education and workforce development programs.

These connections are especially clear in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s youth population is growing far more quickly than the number of jobs available, leading to high rates of youth unemployment across the continent. Ten to twelve million African youth enter the workforce each year, but governments struggle to create opportunities for them in economies that are often still largely agricultural. Between 2000 and 2007, the working-age population in Africa grew by 96 million; only 63 million jobs were created during the same period.

In the absence of quality education and gainful employment, African youth may be more susceptible to recruitment by the extremist organizations gaining influence on the continent. Helping African governments figure out how to break the link between unemployed youth and extremist organizations will be a crucial policy issue for the US government as Africa’s power and population grow.

A  constructed classroom by USAID.
Abdulaziz Bashir, USAID (2017)

Education and Violent Extremism: The Evidence

 It is easy to imagine increased US support for education and workforce development programs in Africa as one solution to this problem – if African youth have access to education and jobs, courtesy of USAID-funded programs, they will be less susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups. However, reliable evidence on the relationship between education and violent extremism is actually quite scarce.  An evaluation published last year by US-based NGO MercyCorps of the impact of access to education and civic engagement programs on political violence in Somalia suggests the story is more complicated than it might seem.

The MercyCorps-led impact evaluation, which examined the effects of a USAID-funded program in Somaliland called the Somali Youth Leaders Initiative (SYLI), suggested that education can make youth either more or less likely to become involved in political violence, depending on both education quality and the larger context. It found that while increased access to secondary education reduced youth participation in political violence by 16%, it increased youth support for political violence by 11%. However, when access to education was combined with opportunities for youth to become more civically engaged in their community, participation and support for political violence dropped by 14% and 20%, respectively.

Impact of Youth Leader Initiative on Stability
Mercy Corps (2016)

While additional evaluations are necessary to confirm these results, the story they tell makes sense. Educated youth living under repressive or inept governments with no access to meaningful work opportunities may become increasingly frustrated with their situations. They may then be more likely to turn to political violence as a way to affect change. However, if youth are given positive strategies for changing their lives and communities along with access to education, and see their education as linked to a better future, they may become less likely to resort to violence than their uneducated peers.

The Impact of Education Quality

 Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the relationship between education and violence is further complicated by the question of the quality of education youth can access. Over the past decade African governments (with support from funders like USAID) have successfully increased the percentage of African children enrolled in school. However, in many cases this increased access has come with lower quality; children are now attending school, but are not learning.

MercyCorps’ study shows evidence of this trend. It found that youth with access to education had a much less favorable view of government performance in providing education – probably because they were receiving low-quality education. African governments, and their international partners like USAID, need to be worried not just about whether youth are in school and engaged in their communities, but also about whether poor-quality education is adding fuel to the fire.

Implications for Funding and Policy

As MercyCorps’ research illustrates, US policymakers concerned about the rise of extremism in Africa should think twice before abandoning US investments in education on the continent. While proposed budget cuts to USAID have yet to be approved by Congress, general consensus within the Agency is that education, environment, and gender programs are likely to be scaled back, while spending on health is likely to be maintained. Advocates for education within USAID, the State Department, and their partner organizations need to focus their message to ensure elected officials and the public understand the links between education and extremism and continue funding education interventions.

More research is needed to fully understand the relationship among education, civic engagement, and violence. However, evidence from the MercyCorps study suggests that even if funding for education is cut, prioritizing education quality, workforce development, and civic engagement will maximize the effect of US education spending on violent extremism. USAID and its partners should prioritize these strategies now, but especially if anticipated budget cuts come to pass. While the international education sector needs to tailor its advocacy message to align with the US government focus on CVE to minimize budgetary impacts on its work, it should also focus on incorporating empirical evidence like MercyCorps’ study into project design to improve learning outcomes and decrease violence.

Increasing access to quality education in Africa should be a central component of the US government’s CVE efforts on the continent. However, evidence also suggests that USAID must consider the larger context in which education takes place to ensure their programs actually increase the opportunities available for youth, rather than just their frustrations.

Sarah Maniates is a second year MPP student at Sanford concentrating in international development and education policy. She spent the summer interning with USAID’s Bureau for Africa.

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