Amy Cunningham is a senior advisor at the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), a Geneva-based public-private partnership and global fund working to support grassroots initiatives to prevent and counter violent extremism. A foreign policy professional who previously spent five years at a U.S. think tank working on issues related to human rights, security, and religious tolerance, Cunningham leads the fund’s private-sector engagement and supports its external relations and outreach.

She sat down with us to discuss how all stakeholders, particularly the private sector, can engage to provide positive alternatives that prevent vulnerable men, women, and youth from joining terrorist groups.  

Susan Winterberg: Why should business leaders focus on the issue of violent extremism?

Amy Cunningham: Violent extremism threatens not only the safety of citizens, but also economic development and investment. According to the 2016 Global Terrorism Index, the global economic impact of terrorism reached US$89.6 billion in 2015. Violent extremism affects business operations, disrupts markets and supply chains, depletes talent pools, inhibits investment, limits expansion, and curtails innovation. Additionally, it is important that the private sector take this issue seriously because, at times, their actions have inadvertently stoked community tensions or contributed to the ability of groups to perpetuate a violent narrative.

There is a misconception that violent extremism threatens only those companies with assets on the ground. In fact, violent extremism (including the presence of or threat from terrorist groups) prevents access to markets and hinders growth in all sectors. Certain industries have obvious interests in preventing violent extremism, such as extractives and agriculture, which are threatened by violence that erupts in the areas where they maintain personnel and property. For the tourism industry, revenues are twice as large (in terms of contributions to GDP) in countries where there have been no terrorist attacks. There are, however, many other industries that can play an important role in preventing violent extremism and that are also directly affected (food and beverage retailers, garment industry, construction, and technology, to name a few).

Winterberg: How is GCERF working with communities to promote inclusion as a means of preventing violent extremism?

Cunningham: From our work in Bangladesh, Kenya, Kosovo, Mali, and Nigeria, we know that political, social, economic, and other forms of marginalization can play a huge role in motivating a person toward adopting violent extremist narratives. For this reason, GCERF works diligently to promote inclusion and social harmony from the grassroots level upward.

Community cohesion is essential to strengthening resilience against violent extremism ("resilience" being the ability of community members to adapt and recover from violent extremist threats and attacks). For this reason, in each community we fund activities in, we prioritize raising awareness of the threat of violent extremism. To raise awareness, we support community dialogue programs that are inclusive of members of society who might otherwise not have the opportunity to engage with their peers and neighbors. For example, we fund network events for women and girls who might traditionally be excluded, interfaith dialogues to encourage peacebuilding, and gatherings to provide safe avenues for engagement and sharing of frustrations among civilians, law enforcement, and officials. An inclusive society, one where trust, transparency, and human dignity are prioritized, will prove more resilient—and, ideally, resistant—to the violent narratives and ideologies professed by terrorist groups.  

Winterberg: What opportunities are there for companies to become engaged in work on preventing violent extremism?

Cunningham: There is no shortage of opportunities for companies, large and small, to engage in preventing violent extremism. On the whole, the private sector is regarded as faster, more flexible, and more focused than the public sector and, therefore, has the potential to help stabilize at-risk communities, while simultaneously securing its own business operations. When encouraged and supported, enterprise can also take more risks, such as piloting ideas or innovating programs that might fail but still provide valuable lessons for all stakeholders.

We recognize that business can offer more than just financial resources. For example, companies have marketing and branding acumen that can help position and promote prevention of violent extremism objectives. Also, by virtue of working on the ground directly with—and within—local communities, they have intimate understanding of local contexts, cultures, and networks that governments and aid agencies may not. In our experience, some of the best private-sector engagement on this issue comes from communications, technology, and social media companies, which readily harness their internal expertise to produce or amplify content online that counters violent extremist narratives. Similarly, it is no secret that one way to curb the appeal of violent extremist groups is to provide positive, alternative opportunities to vulnerable individuals, such as job training and job creation—two things that the private sector has excelled in.

At GCERF, we frequently meet with dedicated and ethical business leaders who are genuinely committed to making a difference in the communities where they operate, but too often, their CSR objectives are nearsighted or lack a prevention of violent extremism “lens,” which is to say that they fail to appropriately consider fragile cultural contexts and the level of resilience within the community in advance of beginning programming. We are huge advocates for CSR, but we also think prevention of violent extremism should be considered when crafting core business strategies. After all, you can have security without development, but development without security won’t stand a chance.

To learn more about GCERF, visit the organization’s website, or download its annual report

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