Global Extremes

The industry of preventing extremism – and the Radicalisation Awareness Network

Is the prevention industry part of the problem rather than of the solution?

Harald Weilnböck
27 October 2019
European flags in front of the building of the European Parliament.
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Picture by Philipp von Ditfurth/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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Floods of funds and political investment in so-called radicalisation issues may have created more money making, career planning, attention seeking and power struggling than anything else. The implementation of Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programs shows the kind of selfishness, opportunism, elitism and sometimes even greed which is a significant but little acknowledged element of our liberal societies. In other words, has this prevent industry embarked on the usual paths of neo-liberal business making while expressing unabashed pride about the virtues of western liberal democracy – thus indirectly fuelling all kinds of resentment, intolerance and violent extremisms and making our democracies even more vulnerable than they already are? Are PVE programs and the prevention industry around them part of the problem rather than of the solution?

Last year I published an essay on the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), in it I expressed some personal observations which I made during my voluntary engagement since 2011 in building up the RAN as a bottom-up network of experienced field practitioners in Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE). The RAN is still often called a “bottom-up” “first-line practitioners” network – and proudly claims that thousands of such practitioners are part of it. In some ways it also looks and acts like “bottom-up” – which is why I had called it “the best thing of its kind” in my previous essay. However, in key aspects the RAN seemed to act in quite converse ways, i.e. as a top-down, state-driven and state-controlled initiative which is subject to many influences and directives that are other and more powerful than those of the actual field practitioners who do the prevent work on the ground – know this work best and are in need of support and recognition.

My observations were entirely subjective, of course, not having access to much objective information – which is why I wrote an essay and also brought my semi-fictional friend John A. Cranky into it, to make the read livelier and a bit more enjoyable. Since Cranky, an excellent practitioner who tended to be quite grumpy and harsh in his personal life, would make off-comments like: “The RAN, that’s just a bunch of power hungry money makers and career planners” which was not true, of course – but quite authentic, expressed some atmospheric issues at the time.

The first and arguably most objective observation in my essay was that throughout my engagement in the RAN there was no evaluation. While we local field practitioners have to do an evaluation for every 20K Euro project, the European Commission (EC) spends over 30 million in eight years without any; and there was certainly no lack of grievances among the “actual first-line practitioners” as I had come to call them – since many of the “thousands of RAN-practitioners” had little contact to the main client groups as e.g. vulnerable/ extremist young people. RAN practitioners had asked for evaluation and proposed to furnish a feed-back function, a mechanism of RAN (self)research, a kind of RAN-Info-House, to provide a channel for observations, grievances and recommendations from the field. But this proposal did not even enter the minutes of the pertaining steering committee meeting (SC). In year seven there was a “customer satisfaction survey” of some workshops, done by the RAN secretariat (RadarGroup, Inc.) producing flattering results.

But there wasn’t really much one could do, since the RAN, in my experience, was and became ever more top-down, with the steering committee (SC) not really being a body with any clear functions – while its members seemed to be practically appointed by DG Home/ RadarGroup. I am personally aware that it was once suggested on the steering committee to get into the habit of dealing with topics more substantially and actually conclude and vote on issues, especially if they are controversial, just in order to at least allow for some internal clarification of where the steering committee practitioners stand. But this proposal, too, was neither discussed nor taken into the minutes. Things like this made Cranky call the practitioners on the SC a “puppet theatre”, which I, being one of them, was not happy about at all.

Speaking of minutes. The RAN workshops were originally meant to collect the valuable first-line practitioners’ knowledge and then deliver it bottom-up to policy level. It still rings in my ears how the EC representative in the inaugural meeting of committee convincingly said: “We here at the European Commission e are bureaucrats – we don’t know anything about it really … we want to learn from you practitioners.” But already the processing of notes and minutes from the workshops seemed to not be all too transparent. In recent years it seems to me that minutes were not even shared with attendants anymore for them to comment and correct which, once again, inspired Cranky to give one of his acrimonious statements: “There must be a ghost somewhere in RadarGroup and DG Home who takes and finalizes all these minutes – and then issues them with a stamp on it saying ‘First-line practitioners’ approved!”.

Taking this “ghost” more seriously, there were important PVE issues on which the RAN, in my view, just recycled the general PVE discourses as given by think tanks, media, politics etc. – all far from the actual client groups – and didn’t consider the field practitioners’ dissent and warnings. Three issues in particular struck me as exemplary instances of “EU added damage”:

  1. While “actual first-line practitioners” have always emphasized that counter-narrative videos on the internet are an ineffective strategy which sometimes even makes things worse, RAN has never given much consideration to this – eventually confounding civil society with the internet (cf. the “Civil Society Empowerment Programme”).
  2. Neglecting the concerns of actual youth work practitioners, the RAN seems to have enlisted young people into the RAN and into PVE activities so that “our young people” should “engage in counter-extremism activities” also “in vulnerable communities”, act as “peer-to-peer intervention providers” who “influence (the) attitudes and behaviour” of their peers – which is unethical, mirrors how extremists recruit adolescents and, thus, not only in Cranky’s mind basically borders on child abuse.
  3. RAN’s over-all Islamism bias had obfuscated right-wing extremism for a long time and consequently caused damage in Central and Eastern Europe, where the anti-democratic and partly right-wing extremist fractions were delighted about the Islamism bias since it made it so much easier for them to ventilate their Islamophobic and anti-refugee populism.

For sure, no actual first-line practitioner would ever have made these kinds of mistakes. Now, looking for the root causes of all this “EU added damage”, I found a cross-institutional mechanism which I called the mechanism of “It-briefs-wellism”, for want of a better term, i.e. a pattern in which mostly those things are said and done which “brief well to” others, i.e. are liked and welcomed by colleagues, superiors, politicians, and other relevant third parties – regardless of what practitioners on the ground are saying and what the issue requires. “It-briefs-wellism” seems most developed is governmental and academic entities but also in larger business-like CSO organisations. Hence, it is very much a public-private partnership thing – and Cranky could go on forever about what he called “NPO capitalists” who run Non Profit Organisations, “talk about ethics and civil society all day long – and then hire business consultants, place their people in ministries, even in the RAN – and fight about funding and power!”

On top of everything else, the RAN also seems to have effectively alienated the Member States policy makers over the years, so that they felt they had to do something and create a new even bigger “mechanism” – a High-Level Commission Expert Group on Radicalisation (HLCEG-R) which at first glance seems even more top-down than the RAN already was.

Not to speak of the alienation of the “actual first-line practitioners” who usually operate on a 200 Euro day rate basis and over RAN years got sick and tired of realizing the RadarGroup consultants make day rates of 1200 and more with their original input, while, to make things even worse, soft-washing it through opportune It-briefs-wellisms.

I published my 50 page essay in the summer of 2018 on Cultures Interactive websites and was all hopeful that positive change will now happen, only to realize … that nothing happened – which is why I then added a one-pager with the title: “In times of fake news – how do critical news fare?” Because, most interestingly, nobody spoke to me anymore, at least officially; the EC and the RAN did not react in any way; my observations were not discussed on the steering committee, as far as I know; two consortia preparing their tenders for the RAN’s third 4year term severed the relationship to me; almost none of my networks forwarded the link to my essay, at least not officially – with two notable exceptions. Not a single comment was sent to the website. The roughly 1400 cliques of readers are purely organic – and remained totally silent.

The question that this may leave with us is: If my personal observations indeed point to significant aspects of how prevention and the prevent industry function – and we will only know with truly independent and intelligent research/ evaluation, what can and needs to be done about it? How can we more effectively and convincingly safeguard our democratic, liberal and human rights based societies – in times of worldwide neo-liberalism and violent extremism?

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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