gypsy in geneva

Geneva is the Mecca of the serious development worker, finding her place in the international aid architecture. I wasn’t sure if I ever quite fit that description, as my professional choices were not crafted to guarantee a place for me in a world of impossibly impressive acronyms.

So, en route Geneva to attend a Round Table on “The Role of Education and Youth in Preventing Urban Violence and Countering Violent Extremism,” I had Many Feelings. First and foremost was gratitude – I had the utmost respect for the work of the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), and its publications stand out on my essential-resource shelf.


essential resource shelf

There was also a sense of incredulity – I knew I had, somehow, obtained a pass to a room full of the giants within this particular community of practice and research. On the other hand, there was the strange feeling of transporting voices from “the gypsy life” in Pakistan to an entirely different setting. I hoped I would be able to preserve their authenticity, when attempting to translate the lessons they taught into macro-level language.

Session notes

The first person to be address us (from a Skype screen) was a young Norwegian Muslim, who had turned his own life around more than once. Yousef Bartho Assidiq spoke with refreshing honesty about his past – his conversion to Islam, the sense of isolation that followed, his drifting towards radicalization, and the “thin line” between joining a violent movement and going a different way.

One of the most powerful aspects of his story was, of course, geography – Yousef was in Norway, which has for years been ranked as “the happiest country in the world”. The narrative of destitution feeding violent expression of marginalization, therefore, didn’t apply. At the back of my mind, Yousef’s narrative corroborated Burton’s theory that basic human needs go beyond the physical, and include recognition, autonomy, dignity – and bonding. Yousef needed his choice to be recognized and accepted by those around him, and for his mother to eventually extend her silent support. The last was what made it a story of success to be amplified; Yousef proved to how it is possible to change one’s trajectory, and how alternate paths MATTER.

For a room full of educationists, this was truly reassuring.

from twitter

from twitter

The framing sessions were the ones prompting questions. And I realized how important it is to fill a room with thoughtful people who all care, but may not all agree. That’s when you can really start unpacking the abbreviations.

Consider the terms, VE and CVE.

It makes sense to take care when handling the theme of “Violent Extremism,” and to step around stereotypes. That much was instantly agreed upon. “CVE”, on the other hand, raised some eyebrows.

“Countering Violent Extremism” sounds like an important job today, in a world where the “middle ground” is shrinking. But it looks different from the strategic security lens, and quite different from the perspective of those concerned with human security. With the cerebral input of academics, it was a time for practitioners to seriously consider the implications of conflating agendas. Is it really the role of education to be “amplifying” select narratives, or “creating” new ones? Should the aspiration not be to empower young people with the tools to assess and critique narratives, and choose to create their own?

Then, there were UV and VU.

“Urban violence” and “violent urbanism” are relatively new terms in the development vernacular. For me, of course, this was one reason why the event had particular appeal – it acknowledged the urban space as unique, meriting separate consideration as a context to live and work in.

However, it became clear after a while that it is not so simple to draw boundaries around terms like “civic conflict,” and to actually carve out the urban space as an isolated one. While in some places, the gang culture and economy run on their own, without aiming for state control, in others the cities do suffer from the spillover effects of state-level conflict. Especially in a world with so much movement, there are a plethora of political (and politico-religious) groups that establish their influence in cities, muddying the definition of “civic conflict.”

Having the acronyms up on the white board in our breakout group, we realized that

Violent Extremism can be Urban

Urban Violence (and Violent Urbanism) can have multiple roots, some of them in Extreme ideologies

What then?

While it’s problematic to put UV and VE in the same sentence, it’s not so easy to disentangle them. For members of the INEE, the priority is, of course, to determine how the different forms of conflict and violence affect young people – and how they respond.

If the school is kept at the centre of discussions, the discourse becomes a little different. It is no longer about UV or VE – although those distinctions have value. The core concern becomes, once more, the individual child, and how he or she can navigate safely through a violent world.

It’s a tough one. But the surprising beauty of Geneva was that it seemed to be filled with people who care about things much bigger than themselves, and still believe in change.

So all right, then. We come back, and keep trying.


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