The silo problem: Connecting the UN’s efforts to promote sustainable development and prevent violent extremism

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon addresses the Annual Conference of Swiss Developement Cooperation in Zurich, Switzerland January 22, 2016. On the screen behind are displayed the 17 goals of UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.    REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann - LR1EC1M141E1G

This week, diplomats and civil society activists will travel to New York to attend the annual U.N. High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development. This year’s theme is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, on working towards “peaceful, just and inclusive societies.” Meanwhile, the U.N. Secretary-General convened some 1,000 diplomats and civil society actors last week in Nairobi to discuss progress on preventing violent extremism (PVE) in Africa. The agenda was founded on the 2015 U.N. Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.

SDG 16 and PVE: Two sides of the same coin?

The SDG 16 and PVE agendas have much in common. These include the emphasis on strengthening civil society, particularly women and youth, and empowering local agents of change; building social cohesion and resilience and the role that inclusive cities can play in this regard; the need for government to be responsive to citizens’ needs; and the importance of respecting human rights and addressing grievances and inequality. More broadly, the 2018 Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies’ report highlighted the need to scale up the prevention of violence (including extremist violence) for the most vulnerable segments of society if the SDG 16 objectives are to be met.

The vision and intent of both agendas are admirable and necessary. But progress on both has been far too slow and siloed. Many would argue that there has been regression. As the civil society statement emerging from the U.N. conference on SDG 16 in May noted that since governments adopted the SDGs in 2015, “funding for justice has decreased by 40%” and only 2% of total gross overseas development assistance is going towards conflict prevention in fragile contexts, with the lion share continuing to be spent on crisis response.

Many of the roadblocks to achieving progress on the two agendas are the same. When it comes to PVE, the U.N. itself and many others have identified the overly-securitized responses to violent extremism, weak governance, corruption, injustice, marginalization, exclusion, and contracting civic space as key obstacles. This is mirrored by assessments of the SDG 16 agenda. In the lead up to this week’s HLPF, a number of civil society groups identified “[s]tructural inequalities, rising authoritarianism, exclusion and tokenization, inadequate capacity, and lack of political will to address peace, justice, and governance issues” as limiting advancement of the agenda.

Pathways to progress?

Given that 40 countries are already experiencing conflict and a further 92 are less peaceful than they were a decade ago, the SDG 16 and PVE agenda are both in need of urgent and critical attention. So what can and must be done?

First, as advocates for peace, security, development, and human rights—as well as practitioners spanning governmental, U.N., and civil society organizations—we have to acknowledge that both agendas share the same goals. This is particularly true for the agendas on women, peace, and security, as well as youth, peace, and security.

At the same time, we must recognize the political sensitivities that these agendas can trigger. The PVE agenda remains highly contentious in many, particularly local, contexts. For many civil society organizations and other grassroots actors, PVE is too politicized, and therefore falls behind what they view as more pressing community-level concerns. From the standpoint of some states, embracing the PVE agenda means acknowledging that violent extremist movements exist within and pose a threat to the state; however, this recognition itself confers a degree of power and legitimacy to such groups. The PVE framework also requires states to be more transparent and inclusive than traditional counterterrorism and national security approaches allow.

Given these sensitivities, focusing on SDG 16 can serve as an entry-point for discussing and addressing the root causes of violent extremism, but through a more neutral, positive, and empowering agenda. This aligns with the approaches that women peacebuilders, including in the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership, have developed based on their practical experiences. Preventing or countering violent extremism is necessary but not sufficient. To be effective and have sustained impact, it is essential to articulate what we also seek to promote: values, opportunities, and positive alternative pathways for communities to fulfill their aspirations and address their grievances. The SDGs, in particular SDG 16, provide much of this.

The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) was the first entity within the U.N. system to acknowledge (following their 2016 global PVE meeting) the clear need for linking the PVE and SDG 16 agendas. But in terms of embedding this in country programming and interactions with governments, more needs to be done.

At a minimum, we should take stock of PVE activities that already further SDG 16 goals and vice versa. For example, a 2019 International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)/UNDP report reflects on changes needed to existing justice and security processes to ensure that women and girls (as well as men and boys) are protected against violence and sexual abuse when interacting with state security actors. The report points to existing country programs as in Indonesia, where the government has partnered with civil society and community groups to develop standard operating procedures to address the challenges of returnees. As earlier UNDP research demonstrates, abuse by the security sector is a key driver of radicalization and violence. In other words, if more countries embedded respect of human rights, protection, and the rule of law into the ethos of the sector, it would not only advance the SDGs but also contribute significantly to preventing violent extremism.

Separating agendas in major U.N. conferences and publishing new resolutions before meaningful progress on existing ones has occurred does not help. This disconnect among the local, national, and global levels has practical consequences.

For example, by abrogating their responsibilities to tackle the SDG 16 priorities of inclusivity, justice, and rule of law, many member states are exacerbating feelings of marginalization and exclusion that drive extremist and other forms of violence. Additionally, many governments are continuing to reduce space for civic action. In addition to targeted attacks against environmental and human rights activists, peacebuilders are also facing increased threats. As the May 2019 statement recalls, “civil society faces barriers to participation, relating to inadequate funding, visa restrictions, and the scope, substance, and follow-up to participation.”

There are many reasons for this negative trend, but as a recent report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism notes, many states—authoritarian and otherwise—are using the PVE agenda as an excuse to shut down or curtail civil society organizations in the name of security. Some organizations are privately voicing a growing concern that since the U.N. leads on the PVE agenda, governments are thus using the U.N. as a cover to justify their crackdowns. Therefore, instead of the U.N.’s PVE work complementing and moving the SDG 16 agenda forward, it is damaging it in practice.

Breaking down silos at the U.N.: learn from the locals

From the skyline of New York, bringing coherence to this uniquely U.N.-ese alphabet soup of entities and agendas may seem impossible. But on the ground, as people are affected daily by the failure of justice systems or rule of law and the rise of violent extremism, ordinary people leading local organizations—often women and youth—have come up with their own solutions. Some get international donor support, but many do not. They offer critical lessons in how a combination of common sense, courage, in-depth knowledge of local culture, and caring for their own people can be transformative.

In Kenya for example, the organization Advocacy for Women and Peace and Security in Africa tackled the issue of fear and mistrust between the police and community women in the Mombasa area through “police cafés” set up twice a month. The cafés provided a formal and safe space for dialogue between the police and 20 women leaders to discuss community security issues related to violent extremism and relations between the police and women in the community. This focus on building trust and initiating reform from the ground up is sustainable and cost effective, and the impact is evident immediately.

Other links also exist. Extremist movements often seek to divide communities and elevate singular religious or ethno-nationalistic identities, and a key antidote to their ideology is promoting and celebrating the pluralism that defines most of our societies now. SDG 16 calls for “inclusive societies,” which can be achieved in a variety of ways.

First and foremost, enabling a vibrant and independent civil society sector to thrive is essential. Civil society organizations offer a means for people of diverse backgrounds to unite around shared interests and common causes. They help strengthen the social compact by being a key interlocutor and bridge between state and society. Second, socio-cultural programs—ranging from exhibitions and concerts to revamping literature, arts, and history curricula to reflect a diversity of contributors—are a positive and empowering means of fostering belonging.

Here too, civil society organizations and community volunteer groups led by women and young people from Pakistan to Iraq have pioneered such programs. They resonate within their context and reflect their own traditions, while also demonstrating the universality of the desire for equality and peaceful coexistence.

When civil society peace builders can work for peace, equal rights, dignity, and pluralism at the grassroots level, they can provide effective activities that are transforming lives. But to sustain these efforts and scale them more widely, national and global leaders must acknowledge the urgency of the issues and demonstrate their support and respect for civil society as allies in this struggle.

This year’s HLPF offers a critical opportunity for a deeper review of the gaps and overlaps of the agendas, as well as a space to explore existing precedence for effective local practices.

The urgency cannot be understated. Progress across the 17 SDGs is patchy at best. If SDG 16 is side-lined, PVE is siloed, and peace and social cohesion are taken for granted, then other SDGs will become unattainable and efforts to prevent extremist violence will suffer. It is akin to providing Picasso with the best oils and most vibrant colors to paint a masterpiece, but offering him a shredded and torn canvas. Without a strong weave in the canvas, the painting could never exist.