Youth, COVID-19 and Violent Extremism: Let’s Be Proactive

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Adolescents and Youth
Preventing Violent Extremism

This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 crisis provides governments with an opportunity to simultaneously transform youth-state relations and minimize the appeal of violent extremist organizations. Here’s how.

Courtesy of Marc SommersOriginal article published on 2 April 2020.

Violent extremism remains a prominent concern in Africa and much of Asia. Most countries in those regions have youth-dominated populations. While COVID-19 begins to expand across Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, it’s also the case that youth and violent extremist organizations (VEOs) do not stand still.

There is a way to proactively respond to the impending COVID-19 crisis in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere – and in a way that positively engages with youth and begins to undermine VEOs. And it just might yield surprising outcomes. More on this below.

But first, here are 5 issues to consider:

  1. Online activity: Social distancing invites increased online activity. VEOs may respond by enhancing online recruitment efforts to youth. This could allow them to reach higher proportions of youth.
  2.  Weakening states: If states weaken significantly and cannot provide sufficient health and education services to hard-hit citizens – and if people begin to go hungry – then the credibility of states and top leaders could take a big hit. If VEOs can respond with provisions of food and health services, it may open up a competitive advantage.
  3. State repression: What if states respond to a coronavirus crisis with increased repression? This would play to an existing VEO-related challenge: when state repression increases, so do the activities of VEOs. If states follow up lockdowns with attacks on youth, then the resulting disaffection could enhance the credibility of VEOs.
  4. State collapse: VEOs are known to thrive in power vacuums. State collapse, or a severe weakening of state operations due to conditions resulting from a COVID-19 crisis, would create new opportunities for VEOs.
  5. Youth migration: If states weaken, increase repression, or collapse, then youth migration is likely to expand: from cities, refugee and IDP camps, areas without food or health services, areas with exploding numbers of COVID-19 cases, etc. Where youth head, and what they do when they get there, is hard to figure right now. Something important to watch.

What is the way ahead? In much of the world, health systems are fragile, and there are massive shortages of health workers and necessary supplies. Addressing these needs remains urgent.

But the COVID-19 crisis also provides governments with an opportunity to simultaneously transform youth-state relations and minimize the appeal of VEOs.

Here’s how:

  • Governments could engage youth as frontline COVID-19 National Responders. With the help of international agencies, governments could train youth on what COVID-19 is, how to avoid it and what to do if symptoms arise. This should not be difficult to get started: there already are specially-developed, WHO-recognized short training courses that can be delivered via mobile devices.
  • Once trained, youth should promote these lessons with every citizen living in the rural villages and urban neighborhoods where they live. Their work should align with and support community health workers and relevant NGOs and religious organizations. The youthful COVID-19 National Responders should be inclusive of youth of all kinds: rural and urban, elite and non-elite, male and female.
  • International actors should advocate with governments to view COVID-19 as an opportunity to change the dynamic with their youthful citizens and thus reduce violent extremist threats. Since repressing citizens and practicing corruption plays into the hands of their violent extremist competitors, governments should be proactive: use the COVID-19 threat to work alongside youth to fight the coronavirus together.

While this is not a normal CVE or PVE response, international actors should engage in this work because it promises to yield three important results: much-needed boosts in the credibility of states and positive engagement with youth – while undermining of the appeal of VEOs. Failing to act just might invite the reverse.


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.