Friends, not Enemies of the State: Civil Society in Extremist-Affected Nations

“Improving government legitimacy is vital to a just and peaceful Iraq,” Mercy Corps posits in their newly-released “Investing in Iraq’s Peace: How Good Governance Can Diminish Support for Violent Extremism.” The title and the research behind it unsurprisingly affirm what has come to be the prevailing hypothesis in the global Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) discourse: poor governance resulting in marginalization, whether real or perceived, is a key driver of extremism; More so than poverty, religion or ethnicity. Indeed, data collected everywhere from Iraq to Nigeria, Colombia to Afghanistan support this notion. And yet improving governance remains an under-pursued and scarcely funded CVE strategy. Perhaps because improving governance, for many, seems an abstract and onerous objective; and one that extremist-affected states often resist. 

This report, however, suggests an indirect approach to improving governance may be a paradoxically straightforward way of targeting extremism: Invest in civil society, and governance will improve, followed, in turn, by a reduction in extremism.

Most of us quietly root for the grassroots NGOs who are demanding improved transparency in weak states, or for watchdog groups exposing state corruption and human rights abuses in an effort to spark reform. But it comes as no surprise that the governance institutions these civil society actors have in their sights, hardly jump at the chance to invest in or empower them. This report suggests, however, maybe they should be.

Mercy Corps' research in Iraq suggests that as the prominence of civil society groups rise, (For example, those who serve as honest brokers between marginalized groups and government bodies) so too do public perceptions of governance. This demonstrates the correlation between civil society and governance. If, by extension, improvements in governance are correlated with drops in extremist sentiment -- as has been documented in contexts around the globe -- it follows that the strengthening civil society may be an indirect way to counter violent extremism. 

In Nigeria, a state signaling its earnest desire to counter the extremism promulgated by Boko Haram, the government (and donors and businesses and others) may consider enabling and investing in civil society as an important element in CVE campaigns. In Mali, where a strategy entitled “Civil Society for Human Security” was penned by a consortium of local NGOs, the national government (who has already been the target of AQIM and ethnic extremists), may be well-served listening to and integrating critique offered them by their domestic civil society. In fact, across the globe, naturally defensive officials may find that embracing their critics helps them defeat a far more insidious foe.       

The idea that “boosting civil society reduces extremism” remains a vague hypothesis, but Mercy Corps' new research on Iraq, coupled with data from extremist contexts around the world, offer empirical evidence to suggest there is indeed a link. States from the Sahel to the Levant to Latin America to Southeast Asia that each face their own brands of extremism may wish to consider making nice with even the peskiest of NGOs, advocacy groups, or watchdogs. Doing so may spare those governments from a far worse enemy of the state.