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March 1, 2015

Responding To: Week 6: Violent Extremism

Development in the Face of Violence

Colin Steele

In a February 23 speech at Georgetown, Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler Radelet identified security as the greatest challenge her agency faces in fulfilling its development mission. Given its model of volunteer integration in local communities, the Peace Corps cannot operate in areas too hostile or dangerous for volunteer placement – precisely where the Peace Corps and other agencies of development and goodwill are needed most.

The Islamic State (ISIS) presents the epitome of this problem: first, it has made most of Iraq and Syria too physically dangerous for development agencies to work in. Furthermore, ISIS and other violent groups like Boko Haram and the Shabab are fighting not for a bigger piece of the development pie but explicitly against the “decadence” of the developed world. What, then, can development agencies do to prevent or respond to violent groups and ideologies?

First, development agencies like the Peace Corps can serve as a first line of defense against the spread of violent ideologies. Development workers, especially those embedded in communities, can build skills and mutual understanding to head off conflicts before they start.

However, (under)development isn’t the whole story. Many developing countries have not birthed anything akin to ISIS; many developed countries have felt compelled to make it a crime to leave for the purpose of joining ISIS. It is vital to consider that when violent movements grow in developing areas, their growth may not be wholly attributable to a “failure” of development, nor may more development be an effective approach to halting or reversing them.

This is especially so when violence is carried out in the name of religion. Even if poor temporal circumstances provide fertile ground for violent ideologies to take root, those ideologies often repudiate the very goals of most development agencies (look no further than Boko Haram – roughly, “Western culture is anathema”). Violent groups’ aims become transcendent, and derive their power from narrative and meaning-making rather than promises of better living conditions.

Finally, we need to look more closely at the practice of development in the context of war and crisis. Diplomatic and defense communities – the usual global first responders – may crowd out or ineffectively employ development practitioners. Looking back, we might ask what more development agencies could have done since the conclusion of the Gulf War to make conditions less favorable for ISIS’ emergence. Looking forward, we should consider what new types of agencies or approaches could be tried to achieve development goals in places hostile to traditional development practice, such as mid- and post-conflict societies, where hope and understanding are most needed.

Colin Steele received a BSFS in Culture and Politics with a certificate in Religion, Ethics and World Affairs in 2012. He now works in the Office of the Vice President for Global Engagement. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office and/or Georgetown University.

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