Digital initiatives in prevention of violent extremism and peacebuilding

Ram Ganesh Kamatham
8 min readMay 5, 2022
L’Observateur Paalga Troops in the Sahel File photo

Peacebuilding seeks to transform society in non-violent ways, through engagement with the structural conditions conducive to violence, in order to create durable and sustainable peace (Galtung 1969, Lederarch 1997). Peacebuilding is multi-disciplinary and involves a variety of intergovernmental, regional and local agencies, theoretical perspectives and historical processes in pre-and-post conflict settings. In this essay I focus on three issues, based on a digital initiative that sought to prevent violent extremism among youth in a post-conflict setting:

1) How digital tools complement small-scale workshop-led approaches at the tactical level

2) How nudges might address maladaptive actions and facilitate environmental change

3) How the shift towards complexity thinking can bolster regional and multilateral approaches

Digital as a tactical level tool to scale programs

Account of a fictional bombing in the game world: images from the course

UNESCO-MGIEP (mgiep.unesco.org/) is a category 1 institute committed to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 4.7 and specialises in digital pedagogies and products. The institute has a program called Youth Waging Peace that was focussed on youth-centric peacebuilding and prevention of violent extremism through education (PVE-e) initiatives. Peacebuilding at the programmatic level was usually workshop centric and was limited to small-scale interventions, which were rich in qualitative changes but often lacked demonstrable quantitative impact. With pandemic related travel disruptions posing an additional challenge there seemed to be an opportunity to scale the initiative through the development of an online course that would enable wide geographical dispersion (global reach through the internet) while remaining deeply personalised (through an individualised learning experience delivered through a custom-built learning management system).

This case occurs at the intersection of peacebuilding and digital technology, with a convergence of diplomatic skills (conflict resolution/mediation) and digital diplomacy (understood as tools, topics and environment deployed for strategic aims). While diplomacy is traditionally about people, this case introduced technology as an intermediary, through product (edutech) and process (learning experience).

The design philosophy of the course was informed by the intellectual shift that built on earlier systems-based approaches, towards complexity thinking (Khanmen 2011, Heifitiz et. all 2009, Snowden 2007). There is a valid criticism that this case is likely yet another “technical fix offered to an adaptive problem” (de Weijer 2012). The very decision to scale for demonstrable impact can be challenged as a faulty assumption, one that seeks to define a rigid quantitative metric for measuring impact through learner volumes. A provisional response to the criticism is that the case is offered as a safe-to-fail experiment — one that tried to achieve certain effects which can be amplified towards a limited goal. The outcome is not fixed a priori and goal-setting consists of balancing aims with limited objectives. Thus, despite the technical shell and product-centric focus of the initiative, there is also a sense of tentative probing and sensing for ways forward, as an acknowledgement to environmental complexity.

This diplomatic innovation is therefore methodological, one that seeks to respond to the conventional mismatch suggested by de Weijer and advance an innovative approach towards conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Peacebuilding here is achieved through tactical sensemaking — where digital tools and processes are directed towards small environmental changes. The strategic aims however, remain transformational and so the outcome is only partially known in advance.

Open exploratory game world

Creating the conditions for environmental change through nudge behaviours

Nudge theory as a method to modify human action has most notably been associated with behavioural economists (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). Nudge theory presents a somewhat more optimistic view of human nature when compared to classical game theory, which tends to operate on a flawed homo economicus model that privileges rationality, utility and brute modification of incentives/gains and disincentives/losses. One criticism of this perfect rationality from anthropology, characterises it as unnatural, anti-humanist and as a “character without character” (Sahlins 2013).

In order to model choice in a more nuanced manner, gamification was adopted as an instructional strategy to appeal to youth (18–35), with the introduction of two pedagogical elements — a narrative based approach and a set of affective somatic skills. Both these elements resist reductive rational-choice frameworks. The choice-architecture geared towards learning, is therefore open-ended and rewards collaborative worldbuilding, with victory conditions, winning criteria and achievements undefined.

Non-linear narrative with character immersed in the game world prompts real world problem solving

A story offers a pluralistic perspective and better reflects values — both stated, implicit and latent. Narrative has emerged as the preferred method for peacebuilding, one that acknowledges the rootedness of community values, but also the need for branching out and for wider environmental changes to sustain healthy interdependence (Roig 2019). The narrative approach to identity also accommodates the fluid nature of how we define ourselves and others — a basis on which to retrain the evolutionary impulse to think in terms of a threat emerging from in-group out-group dynamics.

Affective somatic skills retrain the body from inside-out, seeking to regulate emotions, encourage mindfulness and root actions in compassion and empathy. The practices also reflect the shift away from purely cognitive skills/biases or capacity development towards social-emotional learning (SEL) — which has physiological effects right down to the neurotransmitter level, and social effects through learning to work with others and embarking on a process to collectively envision systemic change. Both these elements seek to resolve maladaptive behaviours which result in hardening of in-group identification and increased hostility to out-groups. The digital space becomes a site for collective decisions and meaning-making, through an open-ended learning experience.

Complexity thinking at the strategic level: contextual solutions and regional norms

Prevention of violent extremism draws its strategic aims from a set of 2013–2015 UN meetings that resulted in a 2016 global plan of action (presented to the UN General Assembly A/70/674), and politically expedited by the threat from ISIS, Boko Haram and other emergent extremist groups. One of the obstacles faced however, was the problem of accurately defining the phenomenon of terrorism which necessitated a practical approach. Terrorism itself is a tactic, so to avoid political impasse the prerogative of definition was passed back to individual member states to be determined in consonance with the UN Charter and international human rights law. On the other hand, there was some diffusion to the set of phenomena under consideration, in the overall shift from security-centric kinetic counter-measures and towards softer preventive measures involving an all-of-UN approach.

Despite this flaw, the plan manages to indicate push and pull drivers that enumerate key individual and social level factors. While this linear dynamic may suffice at the broad intergovernmental level, its translation by different states has resulted in mixed responses. In some instances, complexity thinking required a movement away from models and theories of change that sought replication of success and towards contextual solutions relevant to local contexts — or in one variant, a focus on integrative complexity and value pluralism (Davies 2019). Digital approaches allow this scaling to occur in a cross-cutting trans-national environment, to sense what works better (Davies 2019:p48).

Regional approaches also play an important role in implementation. However, the 2016 plan emphasises only institutional and infrastructural elements such as technical assistance of regional organisations to member states, early-warning centres, and border management. In the absence of efforts towards creating shared regional norms these technocratic methods fail, and the burden of implementation falls back to individual member states which are prone to a narrow responses, bounded by their respective domestic politics and resource availability.

Regional norms and peace-building is an underexplored area of inquiry, and one that can potentially inform multi-lateral approaches and strategies to shift the focus further, from preventive measures that define success through non-events (absence of terrorist incidents) towards proactive measures: peacebuilding (increased social cohesion, reduction in structural violence, embodying of pluralistic values), and the forwarding of equity and social justice.

Works cited

Davies, Lynn (2018) Review of educational initiatives in counter-extremism internationally: what works? University of Birmingham/ConnectFutures https://www.gu.se/sites/default/files/2020-03/1673173_review-of-educational-initiatives-180110.pdf

Galtung, Johan (1969) Violence, Peace and Peace Research Journal of Peace Research Vol. 6, №3, pp. 167–191 Published By: Sage Publications, Inc. https://www.jstor.org/stable/422690

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009) The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, fast and slow Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lederach, J.P., (1997) Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington, DC

Roig, Julia (2019) Engaging with narratives for peace Policy Brief №39 Toda Peace Institute

https://toda.org/assets/files/resources/policy-briefs/t-pb-39_julia-roig_engaging-with-narratives-of-peace.pdf

Sahlins, Marshall (2013) On the culture of material value and the cosmography of riches HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 161–95

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.14318/hau3.2.010

Snowden, Davin and Boone, Mary E. (2007) A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making

Thaler, Richard H.; Sunstein, Cass R. (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness Yale University Press

de Weijer, Frauke (2012) Applying Technical Fixes to Adaptive Problems in International Development; how can practitioners help overcome this typical problem? Centre for International Development, Harvard University

Reference links

UNESCO-MGIEP project design phase and implementation phase documentation

https://spark.adobe.com/page/LR87BwnQlJuFH/

https://1drv.ms/b/s!Ahl0TncD96X8inI3qDxlLyvjBKp4?e=tCoqgX

SEL competencies

https://casel.org/core-competencies/

Safe to fail experiments

https://cynefin.io/wiki/Safe_to_fail_probes

2016 plan of action for the prevention of violent extremism 2016

https://www.un.org/sites/www.un.org.counterterrorism/files/plan_action.pdf

https://www.un.org/sites/www.un.org.counterterrorism/files/information_note_media_pve_poa.pdf

UNGA A/70/674 — United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy

https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/A/70/674

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