ISS: Vocational training to prevent terrorism can be counterproductive


The basis for focusing on skills development to prevent violent extremism in Africa is questionable.

Numerous programmes to prevent and counter violent extremism in Africa, including those aimed at peacebuilding, include vocational training in their activities. Many push and pull factors are linked to terrorism and conflict, including a lack of education and job opportunities. Filling these gaps can help build societies resilient to conflict and in which individuals are less likely to be recruited by armed groups.

The link between vocational training and preventing violent extremism isn’t that clear, however. Systemic barriers in many communities limit the success of these programmes, and in some cases can even fuel frustrations that pave the way for recruitment into terrorism.

There is no linear connection between vocational training and future job security. And few of these programmes are set up to respond to the underlying socio-economic realities that make people vulnerable to being recruited by extremists.

The popularity of vocational training for preventing terrorism could be linked to studies that while highlighting the primacy of other factors, anecdotally describe how extremists recruit members by providing salaries and other benefits to economically marginalised individuals. Vocational programmes are also used to reintegrate former violent extremists.

Formal education is the best choice as the foundation for sustainable development and economic growth.

According to Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research that mapped 281 initiatives to prevent and counter terrorism in East and West Africa, the largest portion of projects (32%) aimed to provide vocational and skills training.

But these projects and others like them rarely share lessons, let alone address the root causes of violent extremism. The question then is, who drives these programmes and to what end? Are they profiting from the vulnerabilities of affected communities?

Of the 91 projects in the ISS research that dealt with education or skills outcomes, only 14 focused on delivering formal education to vulnerable communities, even though formal education is considered a better investment than vocational training. The ideal is for children to be in school and follow a primary education path, with training in later life supplementing formal education.

This is especially relevant considering that sub-Saharan African countries have some of the lowest rates of formal education in the world. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, children in this region are the most excluded when it comes to basic education, with 60% of those between 15 and 17 years not attending school.

Organisations providing vocational training don’t always assess job availability and market needs.

Several studies have raised questions about the effectiveness of vocational training programmes in Africa. A key concern is that organisations providing these initiatives often fail to properly assess the availability of jobs and needs of the market. People receive skills that don’t lead to employment or viable income, which can dash their expectations and worsen the problem.

Such frustrations have also been described as a significant factor driving people into violent extremism. A Mercy Corps study says poverty and under-employment may be less significant as a violent extremism driver than frustrated expectations. This problem will surely be compounded as informal economies feel the effects of COVID-19 and income generating opportunities become even scarcer.

Vocational training in some African countries and contexts affected by terrorism has also been subject to politicisation or interference along ethno-religious lines, with certain groups excluded from accessing these programmes.

This deepens the affected groups’ marginalisation. In Cameroon and Nigeria for example, where there are over 250 different ethnic groups, inter-ethnic tensions often contribute to the exclusion of individuals of a certain ethnicity and hinder their employment prospects. How can skills training programmes hope to achieve success while certain minorities are excluded from the job market?

Unemployment may be less significant as a violent extremism driver than frustrated expectations.

Vocational programmes can also create tensions due to perceptions of favouritism. Organisations providing training tend to focus on vulnerable groups as their beneficiaries which may lead to hostility between those deemed vulnerable and those who aren’t. Former members or associates of violent extremists often face stigmatisation from their communities and potential employers, who see training as a reward for bad behaviour.

Indeed, affected communities and victims of serious crimes like terrorism face double victimisation and neglect from governments and their communities. Their plight is often not attended to, while resources go towards former combatants and perpetrators to draw them out of criminality.

So why do so many organisations pursue vocational training activities? Perhaps the programmes provide ‘easy wins’ in the short term, even though they lack long-term engagement with beneficiaries, especially in the private sector, who can provide meaningful employment. But they might do more harm than good when implemented in isolation of other strategies.

ISS Today asked the International Youth Foundation how it deals with these problems. The organisation agrees that employment opportunities are often scarce, which is why the government and private sector are engaged in training programmes. Its most successful training programmes in Africa are in entrepreneurship, which is more flexible and enables trainees to decide which market to enter and where the market needs lie.

The foundation recommends that all projects start with a meeting of relevant agencies to ensure buy-in from government, local civil society and the private sector. Local communities are key to the design and provision of vocational training programmes and help prevent them from becoming counterproductive.

Even so, formal education is still the best choice as the foundation for sustainable development and economic growth. Governments should allocate more funding and attention to providing safe, inclusive educational systems that include skills training for older children and young adults.

Written by Isel van Zyl, Research Officer, ISS Pretoria and David Dews, Programmes Officer, Global Center on Cooperative Security, London. Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.