Geo-Economics and Politics

How companies can help defuse violent extremism

Espen Barth Eide
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Government of Norway
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There is no clear-cut “victory” over violent extremism. Our victory will be over the causes of extremism and radicalization, when we partner to build more inclusive, more just, tolerant and open societies.

Security is not just an absence of conflict. For many years, the World Economic Forum has explored a broader interpretation of security – one that includes policy frameworks that allow economic opportunities and social inclusion to be achieved.

A key security risk facing the world today is the weakening of social cohesion. In many countries, a lack of opportunities for youth and adults, weak institutions, low-quality jobs, historical grievances, intolerance (and the frustration and hopelessness they engender) have bred fighters willing to engage in new levels of violence, in their own communities and abroad. It has become increasingly apparent just how powerful these factors can be in forming and motivating potential terrorists.

A question left unanswered at the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos this January, was whether or not we can win a war against violent extremism. What would a “battle victory” against fundamentalist groups look like, and at what cost would it come? When we consider the challenge ahead of us and the options for such a fight, it’s clear that victory can only come via preventing others from joining extremist groups, from winning young people back to their communities and from shaping a better, more meaningful environment for them to grow up in.

We should not underestimate the economic aspect of creating secure and just societies, and that is why the private sector is so critical in this discussion. Companies are in a unique position to partner with governments and civil society in a long-term effort to address the conditions that underlie the spread of extremist ideologies and recruitment.

Companies know that violence and terrorism are bad for business. Insecurity raises costs all around: it lowers productivity, stifles human potential, reduces consumer confidence, increases the price of risk and destroys infrastructure. Across the private sector, there is greater awareness of these costs than ever before, and also greater willingness to partner in security-related dialogue and solutions.

What is less obvious is how businesses can become involved. Companies today often need to operate in risky locations, or in places where there is no or very limited government. Their wealth of experience in building resilience is invaluable, yet they are not normally involved in the formulation of security strategies.

A first step would be to bring companies to the table as key players in the development of approaches and solutions. When it comes to violent extremism, dialogue and trust between the private sector, governments and civil society is crucial if a shared understanding is to be built.

Companies have a natural, and essential, role to play in reducing the drivers of extremism, and this is to create jobs. But it’s not about any kind of job. Society expects decent employment opportunities, and companies can provide these given the right conditions. Education, skills development and employment policies matter for social inclusion, youth development and perceptions of justice. To that end, the Forum has hosted a dialogue with the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which reframes youth unemployment as a system of interlocking structural challenges requiring greater public-private cooperation.

In terms of migration, the effective integration of migrants in their host cities leads to a greater sense of belonging and more harmonious relationships between cultural groups. Here companies can play a leading role. The workplace is one of the first points of contact with a host society, providing migrants with the contexts, social skills and networks to help them find their way. The Forum is working with employers to raise awareness of their role in ensuring migrant employees are given the opportunity to become fully productive in their host economy, and to provide an essential counter-narrative to the negative stereotyping that fuels xenophobia and racism.

Counter-narratives are another area where companies can take the lead in strategies to fight extremism. While ISIS grabs headlines, beaming their atrocities via social media, who is driving the counter-narrative? Governments and the private sector must cooperate so that a different story can reach people around the world, whether it’s about religion, migration or youth. For many years, the Forum has used its public platform to transmit ideas about how migration, faith, youth and freedom of speech can be forces for development and peace, most recently at our Annual Meeting 2015.

The Forum’s Faith Leaders Community promotes constructive interfaith dialogue on religion and conflict. The network of Global Shapers, designed for leaders younger than 30 years of age, empowers young people to make positive contributions to their communities and, in several cases, to tackle extremism head on. Shapers Hubs in Abuja and Bamako, for example, are actively working to resolve tensions among young people in troubled regions.

And finally, businesses must continue to be an unrelenting constituency against corruption, weak institutions and injustice, factors that add fuel to the fires of violent extremism. Companies are uniquely placed to hold governments to account and support the development of better public institutions. They can also implement policies for integrity within their own ranks. The cooperation of the business sector is essential if we are to tackle the illicit cash flows and money laundering that finance extremist groups.

Today, many companies realize that it is not only about being in compliance with national and international regulations, it is a question of driving the anti-corruption and law-and-order agenda forward. Not solely as a public good, but also because it is increasingly evident that a level playing field with clear rules of the game is actually also good for business in the long run.

It is possible to achieve victory against violent extremism, but first we must articulate clearly which battle we are fighting. Immediate strategies attacking the symptoms are clearly necessary, and the world needs to cooperate better in that respect. Still, it is not sufficient. Success depends on long-term public-private partnerships that create the conditions for more cohesive societies; societies that are capable of providing meaningful opportunities for their citizens.

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Author: Espen Barth Eide is a Norwegian political scientist and managing director at the World Economic Forum. Isabel de Sola is an Associate Director, Geopolitcs and International Security, at the World Economic Forum.

Image: Commuters cast their shadows as they arrive to the Central Business District at the morning rush hour in Sydney July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

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