Education to Prevent Violent Extremism: How do we know it’s working?


On 14 November, 2019, UNESCO gathered practitioners and experts in preventing violent extremism (PVE) at its 40th General Conference at a round table discussion examining which interventions work best.

In her opening address, the Assistant Director-General for Education, Stefania Giannini took us back to 2015 when UNESCO member states voted to capitalise on the organization’s long-standing experience in Peace Education as a means of tackling violent extremism. The United Nations has pointed out the lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of PVE activities, which prompted UNESCO to commission a study on this topic with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. This research, however only uncovers the tip of the iceberg. Deeper assessment is needed, as underlined by Ms Giannini, in order to ‘make sure learners and their families are not stigmatized – that learners don’t lose trust in institutions, that every single child can express freely his or her ideas and concerns in an open and safe environment.’

In her presentation of the main findings of the study, the keynote speaker, UNESCO Programme Specialist, Lydia Ruprecht, cautioned that unless evidence that soft power approaches like education really work is produced, there is a real risk governments would pursue hard power strategies alone. This would be a harmful strategy as it would not address the many drivers of violent extremism such as unresolved conflicts, social injustice, discrimination and inequality.

The UNESCO study was intended to help governments around the world make informed decisions on their spending priorities, as they relate to preventing the spread of violent extremist ideologies.

Positive outcomes

It revealed 45 positive outcomes of PVE-E activities that directly address the drivers of violent extremism, as defined by the UN Secretary-General in his plan of action to prevent violent extremism.It was found that individuals who had participated in these activities were less likely to support violence, and were more open-minded about gender, and towards different cultures and religion. Within communities, there was greater trust between government and civil society when tackling violent extremist issues. These activities also managed to increase capacities of organizations’ in this area.

The activities, which worked best, involved peer-to-peer learning, and learning-by-doing, coupled with interventions stimulating critical reflection, as well as designing targeted measures for learners at risk. However, Ms. Ruprecht observed that although the research proved that education could help PVE, more research was urgently needed on which teaching methods work best, and, critically, which activities can cause damage.

In the round table discussion on gaps in PVE-E work, Vivek Venkatesh, co-holder of the UNESCO Chair on Preventing Violent Extremism in Canada highlighted the need for teachers to develop their own critical thinking skills, before trying to build these skills in the classroom. He also stressed that PVE-E experts must work hand-in-hand with partners on the ground, who can help them tailor activities to the local context. 

Matthew Lawrence, Executive Director of the Tony Blair Institute, flagged up the broad gulf between government policy on PVE-E and implementation, and then observed that more training was needed to equip teachers to understand the complex issue of violent extremism. He went on to unveil his institute’s advocacy of a Global Commitment on Global Citizenship Education and the Prevention of Violent Extremism.

Next, Hanneen Thabet, Project Coordinator, Al Qantara Center for Human Resources Development described how Media Information Literacy clubs in Jordan provided a vital space for both students and teachers to express themselves, to learn debating skills and to develop awareness of when they are stereotyping others.

Guissou Jangiri of the International Federation for Human Rights & Executive Director of OPEN ASIA/Armanshahr Foundation urged Governments to reflect womens’ and girls’ voices in policy-making, and to create space for dialogue around incidences of conflict in the nation’s shared history, saying: ‘We need to talk about war more. Colonization, war, invasion and segregation have not been addressed.’

Hate speech - a recurring theme

There was consensus among the participants that education policies should promote pluralism, and that youth should be involved in taking policy decisions, and not merely consulted.  Hate speech was a recurring theme - education to counter it is deemed vital, but all agreed that freedom of speech and other human rights are not to be infringed.

In summing up, Cecilia Barbieri, Chief of Section of Global Citizenship and Peace Education at UNESCO, restated the importance of placing women & girls at the centre of PVE efforts, and of protecting the democratic space for debate within society. Violent extremism, she said, can only be rooted out through a whole-of-society approach, which is why UNESCO builds bridges between research, policy and practice, working closely with other UN agencies, and fostering dialogue.