Ten Tips for Developing Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) Theories and Programs

By Catherine Lena Kelly and Robin O’Luanaigh

Due to the variety of contexts in which P/CVE programming occurs, attempts at standardizing any single approach to developing it risks being undertaken in vain. Nevertheless, there are still some overarching themes, concepts, and principles that many P/CVE practitioners should consider keeping in mind as they develop theories, approaches, and programming.

1) Do your research. Familiarize yourself with the most current research on VE dynamics and drivers and terminology.

Using insights from the latest P/CVE research– and research on conflict, peacebuilding, and stabilization more broadly– strengthens a program’s ability to be current, reasonable, and evidence-based. P/CVE is a new and emerging field, so research projects are springing up constantly and across various sectors of international development programming. Staying up-to-date on the latest conclusions and evidence about “what works” is an ongoing interdisciplinary effort, especially since different donors may employ different terminology and approaches to P/CVE. There are many excellent applied research products that have come out over the last few years to this effect, some about political violence more broadly and others about P/CVE specifically; we particularly recommend the reports, articles, and digests from Mercy CorpsInternational Alert, the United States Institute of Peace, the RESOLVE Network, the University of Maryland START Consortium, and the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

2) Consider local factors. Make sure that you are also up-to-date on the specific country-level and subnational dynamics and drivers of violent extremism (VE) relevant to the proposed program.

Several potential drivers of VE– including government repression, the curtailment of civil liberties, and state illegitimacy or collapse– are fundamentally rule of law issues, as argued in ABA ROLI’s 2017 Issue Paper and in subsequent evidence-based analyses. The bottom line is that VE has multiple causes, many of which are local. In particular, they are often rooted in locally salient grievances related to the state and the nature of the state’s relationship to residents. This ultimately means that drivers vary considerably by context, with different ideologies, economic conditions, and political and social situations shaping the risk and resiliency of different communities to VE. Localized drivers and enabling conditions change quickly over time and require constant refresher research that at its best privileges collaboration with local academics, practitioners, and research firms to detect these changing factors.

3) Specify the goal you intend to address. Decide what goal your program is going to focus on achieving and how the P/CVE activities you intend to support relate to that goal.

There are several options that program teams should carefully consider before designing activities and choosing desired outcomes. On one hand, you may espouse a program goal that explicitly relates to P/CVE, like reducing rates of recruitment into terrorist groups or mitigating ordinary citizens’ support for extremist ideas or actions. On the other hand, your program may include P/CVE efforts but espouse a more general goal related to promoting justice, peace, or good governance. Framing P/CVE as part of conflict transformation, legal empowerment, and peacebuilding initiatives can, in some cases, foster more sustainable change.

4) Consider using rule of law approaches. Situate your proposed intervention within a broader, rule of law-oriented theory of change framework

ABA ROLI’s "Rule of Law Approaches to CVE," identifies several possible theories, among many, on this topic. In some cases, it may be useful to consider the following:
  • Strengthening justice institutions can help to build public confidence in the state through the delivery of high-quality justice services. These efforts can help to resolve local disputes that might otherwise foster grievances against the state, and thereby build community resilience to VE;
  • Empowering citizens and community leaders to engage in governance-related dialogues with state officials can contribute to more effective dispute resolution and problem-solving, and reduce the pull of VE organizations offering alternative forms of governance and service provision;
  • Supporting fair criminal justice processes can help ensure that those accused of terrorism or other offenses avoid arbitrary detention, know their rights, and get due process. These actions can thereby reduce the likelihood that people rightly or wrongly accused are further radicalized due to grievances about their treatment by state security and justice actors;
  • Supporting local efforts in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms can contribute to deterring governments from future curtailment of political rights and civil liberties, a core driver of VE; and
  • Reducing organized crime and corruption can reduce opportunities for violent extremist organizations (VEOs) to take root, given that they often profit from trafficking, smuggling, and money laundering opportunities in predatory states.
5) Are you preventing or countering, and why? Reason through the nature of your approach and tailor programming accordingly.

VE experts often distinguish between programs that seek to counter VE that is already occurring from those that try to prevent VE before it arises. For example, programming that seeks to protect the due process rights of terrorism suspects in court often falls into the “countering” category, while programming designed to help youth identify and resolve disputes that could lead to grievances that put people at risk for VE falls into the “preventating” category. Use these distinctions thoughtfully, with the growing push for a “whole of society” approach to P/CVE in mind.

6) Are you addressing push or pull factors? Decide whether your program will address “push factors” or “pull factors” related to VE.

Pull factors help explain how VEOs attract recruits, usually through messaging or narratives. Push factors help explain how structural aspects of particular political, economic, and social systems create opportunities for VEOs to gain traction. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages of addressing one, the other, or both.

7) Grapple with inherent measurement challenges. P/CVE-specific programs usually require measuring outcomes that relate to beneficiary attitudes, knowledge, or behaviors related to VE.

These items are not equally easy or feasible to measure accurately. Furthermore, some rule of law programs fall into this category of “P/CVE-specific programing,” while many others have P/CVE-related components but do not articulate goals that relate directly to P/CVE. The latter “P/CVE-relevant programs” should be honestly portrayed as such, as they may also have different implications for the extent to which implementers commit to gathering empirical data on whether a specific P/CVE theory of change works in a particular context. Keep these distinctions in mind as you design learning agendas, programming, and Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) plans.

8) Coordinate indicators with objectives— and ask locals what they think. Select indicators for measuring your P/CVE programs’ outcomes and progress towards objectives in alignment with the program’s theory of change.

Metrics that base success upon whether a program reduced recruitment into terrorist groups are not the only, nor perhaps the most advisable, way to measure success. Practitioners often choose to measure people’s attitudes about violent extremist ideas, groups, or activities; although more difficult to obtain, “a more direct measure of the impact of a P/CVE program on VE involves assessing changes in behavior and activities.” Consider investing in research and measurement strategies that encompass the latter. To boot, integrate local beneficiaries’ definitions of what good P/CVE metrics are in M&E planning. An example of this comes from Afghanistan, where the United States Institute of Peace recently found that local actors wanted to measure the “success” of CVE initiatives by capturing ways that programming has led to greater mobility for women in public spaces.

9) Collaborate with local actors and prioritize their knowledge. Privilege local perspectives on VE issues and make local researchers and program manager experts the central actors in P/CVE programming.

This principle is key for many kinds of rule of law programming, but especially for P/CVE, given that VE drivers are incredibly localized and dynamic. Sometimes, VE is perceived as a Westernized concept that has little local resonance; things that we might call VE or P/CVE may not go by those names in the communities where we aspire to work. Tapping into local knowledge and expertise on conflict, security, and governance issues can help to identify the most potentially fruitful ways to design, brand, and speak about P/CVE programs. Ensuring more robust national-local cooperation is also key.

10) Be creative. There is a lot of room for innovation in this field because gaps remain.

P/CVE is a new field and we still do not know much (or, at least, much that is rigorously data-driven) about what works. Efforts within the P/CVE space are profoundly diverse, including initiatives to foster civic education, encourage transparent governance, facilitate economic empowerment, initiate community-based dialogue, disseminate counternarratives, reintegrate former combatants, and foster justice and security sector reform. There is also increasing promotion and support of interagency P/CVE work that leverages the strong points of the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and USAID approaches as part of stabilization. The push towards collaboration, sharing, and data-driven learning in the P/CVE field signals that new opportunities are coming for interdisciplinary research and programming.


Catherine Lena Kelly (@catherinelkelly) is an Advisor at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative and a scholar-practitioner focused on democracy, rule of law, and governance.

Robin O’Luanaigh is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and an incoming student at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. She is interested in CVE, counter-radicalization, and learning how to mitigate the threats posed by a variety of violent non-state actors.

The statements and analysis expressed are solely those of the authors and have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and do not represent the position or policy of the American Bar Association.