Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Dr. Khalid Koser, executive director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) and a nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
In his rallying cry for action to counter violent extremism (CVE) at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concluded, “The bottom line is we need everyone involved—governments, foundations, philanthropists, NGOs, corporations, faith leaders, the private sector.”
Of these groups, it is the last one—the private sector—that holds the most promise, but is also the most challenging to engage; the private sector has typically been leery of participating directly in initiatives related to security and especially counterterrorism. For example, the private sector tends to abstain from engaging in local political or social issues, so when threats of violence materialize or a security situation disintegrates, the chief concern for corporations becomes the vulnerability of their assets on the ground.
Over the last few months, I have worked to bring the private sector in to support the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, the first global effort to support community-level initiatives aimed at strengthening resilience against violent extremist agendas. I have learned these five lessons:
1. Make the Business Case
Countering violent extremism goes beyond the remit of corporate social responsibility for most companies. Instead, encouraging private sector involvement can be accomplished by making a more direct business case. This is perhaps easiest for those sectors already invested in parts of the world vulnerable to extremism, for example the extractive industries. Yet a business case can also be made for companies seeking to tap into new markets. Extremism poisons talent pools, disrupts supply chains, blocks the movement of goods and people, thwarts small and medium sized enterprises, and lowers the return on investment in entire regions. An investment in countering violent extremism is an investment in future growth in those regions.
2. Focus on Outcomes
While the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund uses development tools to achieve security outcomes, a comprehensive approach to countering violent extremism includes military, security, and intelligence measures as well. Other than for those companies working directly in these fields, this makes the private sector nervous. Rather than emphasizing those approaches to CVE, pitches to private sector actors should highlight the outcomes of these programs: stabilizing economies and unleashing the potential of communities.
3. Start Local
In my experience, it is both easier and more fruitful to engage local private sector actors in affected countries. Local firms ultimately have most to lose from the growth and spread of violent extremism, and though their room to maneuver through political constraints may be limited, they can be valuable assets. Yet this does not refer to small businesses alone. The national branches of multinational companies are likely to be more knowledgeable and more invested in countering violent extremism than their global headquarters, to whom extremism may seem like a smaller or more distant problem.
4. Seek Core Competencies, Not Capital
While companies are unlikely to invest equity in CVE projects, they can certainly contribute skills and competencies that complement those of government and civil society. These competencies include operational, technical, and financial expertise; access to business and political leaders; and convening power in affected regions.
5. Widen the Focus
Although the ISIS conflict in Syria and Iraq is undoubtedly the current epicenter of violent extremism, such extremism manifests itself in myriad ways—and not just in association with religion. Quick wins are required for the private sector to engage, and these are to be had in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, for example.
It is certainly in the interest of the global effort to counter violent extremism to engage the private sector in these programs. In order for them to succeed, it should be made clear to the private sector that it is in their interest, too.