A few weeks ago the UN Development Program (UNDP) released one of the largest studies of its kind into violent extremism in Africa. Hundreds of young members of extremist groups told researchers that though poverty and marginalization played a part in their decision to turn to groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, it was the actions of African governments––specifically, government action aimed at countering terrorism––which was the ‘tipping point’. Africa’s population is set to double by 2050, that means almost a quarter of all the world’s young population will live on the continent. Handled properly this could present a great economic opportunity, however, left unmanaged this growth could trigger widespread migration and extremism. Africa is a place that is hugely close to my heart and the growing threat of extremism and violence within the continent troubles me on a daily basis.
In any industry or any sphere, prevention is better than cure. It is better to engage with the disengaged before their radicalization than introduce measures to tackle terrorism after the fact. The promise of an automatic weapon and a few hundred dollars each month is a powerful incentive for a young and unemployed man or woman in Nigeria for example. To prevent the forces of terror and radicalism from succeeding, a better “value proposition” must be made. In these vulnerable places, more attractive economic opportunities must be presented and a good start would be supporting people of limited means in their attempts to start a new business.
When I first bought microfinance to Africa in the 1990’s I was assured it would never work, that no one would pay me back, but they did and the movement flourished. Microfinance still has an important role to play in providing a better ‘value proposition’ to extremism in Africa. There are people who refute the claim that microfinance can and must be seen as something that can reduce the likelihood of people joining the forces of terror. I would remind those people that the absence of economic opportunities was a major reason for the rise of terror in failed-state Somalia post-Barre regime.
I am not claiming that microfinance by itself can eliminate terrorism, of course. But it is true that the absence of economic opportunity helps to first feed resentment and then radicalism, evidenced by the recent UN report. My hope is that real attention can be given by governments to support the efforts of microfinance institutions across Africa. It is only by working together that it will be possible to tackle the various social, economic and political challenges that hinder economic development within the continent. At the UNGA last week, the President of the 72nd session, Miroslav Lajčák, identified ‘making a difference in the lives of ordinary people’ as a key principle of the assembly and it is in these words that my hope for the continent rests. We must not make poor political decisions based on fear and misunderstanding. It is time for real, actionable solutions that will make a lasting impact to the people that need it most.