There is something of a paradox emerging around global efforts to counter violent extremism. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Aden, Baghdad, Dhaka, Istanbul, Kabul, Nice, Orlando, and elsewhere, public awareness of the problem and the need to address it has never been greater. The White House’s CVE summit in 2015 and the meetings that followed it, along with the January 2016 publication of the UN Secretary General’s Action Plan to Prevent Violent Extremism, have helped build high-level support for a response involving governments, the private sector, and civil-society organizations. Countries from Finland and Kenya to Canada and Nigeria are heeding the call put forth in that document, developing their own national plans to steer their populations away from violent extremism. And in May, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) released their first-ever joint strategy for international CVE, which encourages the use of traditional development tools to help communities identify the early signs of radicalization and intervene before violence breaks out. 

Even as states and international organizations are beginning to turn their attention to preventing violent extremism, however, funding and organizational weaknesses are limiting their progress. Reliable funding for CVE programs is hard to come by, and donors have generally failed to coordinate their contributions and embrace the experimentation that experts argue is essential to reaping the full benefits of CVE programs. The result is that the world’s increased attention to violent extremism has not produced CVE programs that are as effective as they should be. These problems have some clear solutions, and donors should embrace them quickly.


The most immediate difficulty confronting CVE programs is a lack of funding. That problem is most acute in a number of countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia—precisely those regions that are most affected by violent extremism—and it is restricting the ability of communities in those areas to take action against extremism on their own. The limited funds that donors do direct to CVE programs often end up in places where violent extremism has already broken out, such as the Horn of Africa, leaving behind countries where there are opportunities for effective preemptive actions, such as Burundi and Senegal.    

Funding for CVE programs typically comes from security and development budgets. On the security side, the vast majority of funding continues to support traditional law enforcement and intelligence priorities, such as training programs for prosecutors and police. Few states explicitly designate resources for CVE efforts, and funding for the community-based professionals who lie at the heart of the CVE agenda—social workers, mental-health counselors, faith leaders, and so on—is in short supply. This year, for example, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism dedicated less than ten percent of its budget to supporting community-led CVE projects—and relative to other countries, that percentage is high. That matters because communities are more likely than foreign institutions to notice the early signs of radicalization and can more effectively steer vulnerable people away from violence. Making matters worse, in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kenya, Western governments have been hampered by officials who fear that CVE funds will end up helping their political opponents. And in some communities in the Middle East and North Africa, locals worry that Western policies, such as support for some repressive governments, might end up encouraging the radicalization that Washington and its allies aim to prevent.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at a roundtable on countering violent extremism at the White House, February 2015.
Gary Cameron / REUTERS

With respect to development funding, meanwhile, government donors have been reluctant to shift their support from long-standing priorities, such as public health and poverty reduction, toward CVE programs, which some argue could politicize, and thus risk undermining, traditional development policies. Making matters worse, in recent years, the development budgets of a number of Western states have shrunk, and in Europe, states are redirecting much of the money they had previously reserved for international aid toward efforts to alleviate the migration crisis.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s recent decision to allow member states to report CVE funding as part of their annual development assistance targets, along with the World Bank’s newfound willingness to support programs aimed at addressing the social marginalization that drives violent extremism, might encourage development agencies to allocate more funds to CVE. Those changes have legitimized state development spending on CVE efforts, but most national development agencies are still years away from embracing the CVE agenda. They have their own priorities, and they are reluctant to compensate for what they see as the consequences of a heavy-handed approach to terrorism over the past two decades that has, in some cases, been supported by Western governments.


In part to compensate for the difficulty of securing funding from Western donors, in recent years, governments and the United Nations have called on businesses to support CVE efforts. The case for the private sector’s involvement is clear: businesses are perceived as more politically neutral than are most governments, and violent extremism poses a clear threat to the private sector, since it disrupts supply chains, drains local labor pools, and endangers employees. In the wake of the attacks in Dhaka earlier this month, for example, Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi and Toyota are withdrawing essential staff from Bangladesh and are considering scaling back their operations there. 

Despite the compelling reasons for its involvement in CVE efforts, the private sector has been reluctant to join the cause. For starters, the politics around countering violent extremism are fraught: businesses are wary of being linked to programs that are sometimes abused by governments to go after political opponents or to stigmatize minority communities. Nor do most companies consider it their responsibility to pick up the slack for governments—especially because preventing terrorism can seem like a long-term project with few immediate or measurable returns. So far, the main exceptions to this trend have been social media and technology companies, which have attempted to counter the terrorist propaganda that is often disseminated on their networks by, for example, voluntarily deleting content published by terrorist groups or shutting down accounts that threaten or promote terrorism.

Companies beyond the technology sector should recognize that it is in their interest to get on board. By creating jobs in at-risk communities or offering training and funding to local organizations, they could do a great deal to stop violent extremism at its roots. More generally, to strengthen the communities targeted by terrorist recruiters, firms should direct some of their corporate social responsibility projects toward empowering women and young people and toward encouraging intergenerational exchanges. The Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), which one of us, Khalid Koser, directs, is launching CVE initiatives in Nigeria that seek to draw support from businesses by offering to match their donations.

The world’s increased attention to violent extremism has not produced CVE programs that are as effective as they should be.

As for philanthropies in the United States, they too have been reluctant to get involved in CVE. For the most part, U.S. foundations are wary of funding anything linked to what many governments refer to as “violent extremism”—a framework for understanding conflict that many foundations argue is inextricably linked to the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. (Indeed, some foundations have asserted that U.S. policies such as drone strikes and security assistance to repressive governments have made many communities more sympathetic to radical agendas.) Despite their hesitance to fund programs associated with the issue of violent extremism, however, many U.S. foundations support initiatives aimed at improving governance, empowering women and young people, and reforming education in the same regions where the United States and other donor governments aim to reduce radicalization. Instead of pressing foundations to support CVE efforts, a more effective approach would be to encourage them to back programs, such as investments in schools and teachers that promote mainstream interpretations of Islam, that aren’t explicitly linked to addressing violent extremism but will still reduce the vulnerability of individuals to terrorist recruiters. Since companies and foundations tend to keep their distance from CVE programs, it will also be important to solicit funding from wealthy individuals and family foundations, which don’t have institutional boards to satisfy, can make money available quickly, and might be willing to take risks with projects that are more politically oriented than other groups are comfortable with.


The CVE donor community also suffers from a lack of coordination. In part, that is because funding for CVE tends to come from a wide set of agencies, some involved with security and others with development. The European Commission, for instance, is home to separate streams of funding for CVE programs in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, and it lacks a mechanism to ensure that those programs are working in synch or even off a common set of priorities. More broadly, the civil-society groups, international NGOs, and other institutions that implement CVE programs do not have enough opportunities to share the lessons they’ve learned in the field with one another—nor are there enough opportunities for donors to share their own experiences with their local partners.

Along with its counterparts in Western Europe, USAID is working to create an informal forum to address some of these gaps. But governments should go further, creating a permanent and more inclusive platform that incorporates both counterterrorism and development agencies, perhaps linking it to an existing multilateral group such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which brings together 29 countries and the European Union.

Donors must also begin to take on the aversion to risk and innovation that currently plagues the CVE community. Funding for CVE programs tends to take months to reach the ground, and too often, Western donors direct it only to organizations that have shown they can comply with their onerous requirements, leaving newer, smaller, and more innovative partners behind. When given the choice between funding fast-track programs that cut down the time it takes for grassroots organizations to receive CVE funds and the traditional processes that require nearly a full year of processing time, donors overwhelmingly tend to choose the latter: GCERF’s accelerated funding mechanism has so far raised only $300,000, for example, yet the group has mobilized more than $20 million for its slower programs. That matters because getting funding to the communities that need it quickly is essential to getting ahead of the threat posed by violent extremist groups.

Donors recognize that CVE efforts should respond to local demands. Yet the approaches they have taken so far risks undermining that objective. Too often, donors provide short-term funding to implement narrowly focused programs that are not sustainable once the grants expire; they should support longer-term projects instead. Better yet, rather than simply funding local organizations, whose capacities are often limited, donors should work to develop those organizations’ abilities to work on their own, without relying on the middlemen—usually international NGOs and private sector contractors—that they often employ to oversee their grants. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a White House Summit on countering violent extremism, February 2015.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry  and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a White House Summit on countering violent extremism, February 2015.
Joshua Roberts / REUTERS


One of the most persistent obstacles to CVE today is that states, civil-society groups, and multilateral organizations do not agree on what kinds of programs should be considered part of it. The lines between terrorism and violent extremism can seem blurry, as can the boundaries between countering or preventing violent extremism and counterterrorism, as that term is traditionally understood by security organizations. (Indeed, in its 2016 plan of action, the UN deliberately avoided the controversy, declining to define both “violent extremism” and “preventing violent extremism”—the expression that the world body uses in place of CVE.) 

The definitional murkiness means that there is no shared understanding among governments, multilateral organizations, and civil-society groups on what constitutes a CVE program, making it impossible to quantify gaps in CVE funding at the international level. Yet the process of agreeing on a definition of what CVE entails would likely be so arduous and lengthy that it would result in a watered-down consensus of little utility.  Instead of focusing on definitions, then, states and international organizations should focus on outcomes: reducing the pool of recruits for terrorist groups, countering their propaganda, steering young people who celebrate that propaganda away from violence, and integrating former terrorists who are no longer threatening into their communities, for example.

The funding and implementation challenges facing donor governments and organizations are surmountable. The United States has suggested that it wants to lead the way in promoting collaboration among development and security donors; GCERF is evolving into a global fund, making use of support from 12 governments, the EU, and the private sector; and the UN Plan of Action will ensure that these issues remain on the agenda of governments around the world for the foreseeable future. Those are valuable steps, but the growth of violent extremism warrants an even more effective response. The battle must not be lost for lack of a few hundred million dollars a year or as a result of the reluctance of donors and practitioners to coordinate their efforts, take innovative risks, and invest in long-term and locally directed initiatives.

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  • KHALID KOSER is Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund. ERIC ROSAND is Director of the Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism.
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