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Sydney summit on countering extremism is a worthy but uncertain first step

Sydney summit on countering extremism is a worthy but uncertain first step
Published 12 Jun 2015 

This week's Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism is part of an international effort to reset the disastrous global 'war on terror.' The vocabulary has changed from terrorism to violent extremism; the focus has changed from reaction to prevention; and the intended audience has changed to incorporate communities at risk.

It is still too soon to say whether this reset will work, and there is a real risk that dialogue and summitry will become a proxy for actual change, but the new approach is intuitively right, has significant political backing, and deserves a chance.

One of the main challenges in delivering results is to engage — or in many cases re-engage — civil society. There is clear recognition that governments cannot counter violent extremism alone, and neither should they have to. This is a shared problem with the potential for common responses.

As Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, I have been convening national committees comprising government and civil society, as well as industry, in countries where we are providing small grants to local communities to try to build resilience against extremist ideologies. Here are three lessons I have learned about engaging civil society to counter violent extremism: [fold]

  1. The trust deficit should not be underestimated. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of the global 'war on terror' has been to destroy confidence at all levels. It's not just that civil society doesn't trust government; civil society actors are suspicious of one another, government ministries compete as much as they cooperate, governments within the same region have different priorities, and no one has confidence in the international community to deliver change.
  2. Resources are a big issue. All too often civil society lacks the resources to engage in national efforts to convene the right people around the table. And that table is usually in a hotel or conference centre in a capital city, meaning only a select part of civil society is engaged, and all too often these are the well-known entities. Where new constituents are brought on board, their priority is often to raise money rather than to contribute as a partner with a shared interest and responsibility.
  3. Representation: 'Civil society' is a nebulous term, meaning different things to different people, including within civil society. Finding a legitimate representative for civil society is next to impossible. There are very few civil society organisations explicitly dedicated to countering violent extremism. The challenge is to include those that are relevant, even if not directly (eg. in the fields of women's empowerment, education and training, and youth). In my experience, however, these organisations are leery of becoming involved with an effort that has often been counter-productive to their aims.

This week's summit has not been as 'regional' as was probably intended, nor has it reached beyond the usual suspects in civil society. The Prime Minister's opening statement (see video) was alarmingly reminiscent of the language of the 'global war on terror'. But overall the Summit has demonstrated Australia's growing commitment to a new international approach.

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