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Higher Education Programs Counter Violent Extremism

Higher Education Programs Counter Violent Extremism


New research from Mercy Corps and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice finds that access to secondary education reduces support for violent extremist groups.

In the News:

“With the United States currently escalating its military presence in Somalia, a major question for the Somali government, U.S. forces and others actors on the ground is how to counter the appeal of violent groups among young people — their common recruits. This is also a vital question for governments engaged in conflict zones around the world. Some, including Somalia’s leaders, see increasing access to education as a way to address disaffected youth’s frustrations with the status quo and steer them away from armed groups like al-Shabab.”

Researchers from the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice and Mercy Corps designed a study to help understand how secondary education affects young people’s support for political violence. We focused on the Somali Youth Learners Initiative (SYLI), a USAID-funded program implemented by Mercy Corps and other partners.

“Across Somalia, the program improved access to secondary education, reaching almost 25,000 young people. SYLI also worked with youth in and outside of school to develop leadership skills and facilitate opportunities to improve their communities through civic engagement activities. In a new report, we describe how the program — both by itself and in combination with civic engagement activities — changed young people’s attitudes toward opposition groups like al-Shabab. We focused on areas of Somalia previously under the control of armed groups and al-Shabab.”

The research team surveyed 1,220 Somali youth and conducting in-depth interviews with another 40 young people in 2017, comparing students in SYLI-supported schools to out-of-school youth to understand how the program influenced their willingness to support or aid armed opposition groups. They found that secondary education through SYLI significantly reduced support for violence. “In-school youth were half as likely (48.2 percent) to support armed groups as out-of-school youth. Further, the combination of SYLI-supported secondary education and civic engagement activities like advocacy campaigns and community service projects had an even greater effect on reducing support for violence. Our results show students offered civic engagement opportunities were 64.8 percent less likely to support political violence than non-engaged youth.”

Insight from Peace Science:

  • In resource-scarce countries, low attendance levels in higher education contribute to violent conflict.
  • In resource-scarce countries, high attendance levels in higher education decrease the likelihood of violent conflict.

Agricultural dependence, poverty, and low attendance of higher education (i.e. universities, colleges, trade or technical training) are strong indicators for violent conflict. Comparably, agricultural independence and increased attendance in higher education are strong indicators that a resource-scarce country will not experience violent conflict.


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