Global Power for Local Communities — GCERF

Dr. Khalid Koser, Executive Director of GCERF (© GCERF)

Dr. Koser, you’re the Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF). What’s the fund about? What are its goals?

Khalid Koser: The easiest way to answer that question is by looking at why GCERF exists. GCERF is a fund working on violent extremism established two years ago for three main reasons.

First, local knowledge is probably more important than the knowledge that our think tanks and our universities and policymakers generate. We can sit at Brookings or Chatham House or the University of Zurich and we can try to understand why people are making what appears to be a crazy decision to join violent extremist groups or turn to violence, but we don’t know. So we at GCERF think there is more value in speaking to the local communities. Let’s ask the mothers, the brothers and the church leaders and the sports coaches–the people who really are on the front line. Maybe they have a better understanding as to why this is happening, what’s going on and what the solutions might be. We believe it’s so important that we place the focus on the local community in our name.

The second reason is the recognition of a funding gap. Local communities might have good ideas, but they haven’t got the money to launch these ideas. Over the last two years, we have spoken to many local communities about it and we’ve proven this is true. They may just need a few thousand dollars, but they have no access to money.

Maybe they have no access because they’re illiterate, or they don’t know how to fill in budgets or there are political reasons such as a lack of trust in governments or donors. It’s a mixture.

So these two assumptions led to the third reason for GCERF’s existence. It was the acknowledgment that it needs a multilateral funding mechanism to fill that gap. And that mechanism is GCERF.

What’s a multilateral funding mechanism?

KK: The idea is that many countries together can achieve more than one government by itself. We have greater reach and greater impact than any country acting by itself. So rather than Switzerland doing something by itself, and the U.K. and Australia, you come together and put money in a central funding body, and then that body provides the funding.

But we’re not just stronger together when it comes to money. We’re also stronger when it comes, for example, to access. For some donor countries–not necessarily for Switzerland because you have a strong reputation– it might become difficult to get access to local communities because there is a trust deficit between them and the recipient, for instance, because of past experiences, for example, when it comes to countering terrorism.

So using a multilateral funding mechanism neutralizes the money.
 But GCERF can also develop the technical expertise, monitoring evaluation and do the comparative learning that no country by itself can do.

Another important reason to establish a multilateral funding mechanism is to share risk. GCERF is taking on risks — providing small grants to local communities in a politically sensitive area where it is difficult to prove immediate results — that few donors can bear alone.

What role does Switzerland play in GCERF? What about the United States?

KK: The United States and Switzerland were deeply involved in the establishment of GCERF from the very first steps. Switzerland has been extremely supportive and engaged with GCERF from the very beginning and has provided significant funding, is still a strong donor today and made an effort to make sure our offices are based in International Geneva, which I think has great value. Federal Councillor Burkhalter himself has been very personally engaged; I meet him fairly frequently. He and Ambassador Dahinden are great personal champions of our fund, helping us and attracting funding, talking about GCERF in their keynote speeches and creating awareness.

“The United States and Switzerland were deeply involved in the establishment of GCERF from the very first steps.”

The United States has also been a supporter of GCERF from the very beginning. The whole agenda on preventing violent extremism (PVE) really came from the U.S., the State Department, and President Obama. And I certainly hope that the U.S. will maintain its leadership on the PVE agenda. I certainly hope that the U.S. will continue to be a donor to GCERF, too.

But there is not one country that is more important than another. We have 13 government donors, 12 countries plus the European Union. For perception reasons, it’s very important for the fund to be not too closely aligned with one specific country: it’s a 13-country initiative. We treat all our donor countries equally; they all have the same representation on the board and the same level of importance.

But as Executive Director, I can say it’s very helpful to have champions you know you can go to.

We’ve raised about $35 million so far, which is pretty good after two years in action.
 That’s also why I visited Washington, D.C., on the occasion of Swiss Day at the Wilson Center this fall. Swiss Day was not just about Switzerland, but also about our partner country, the United States of America, and the great opportunity to meet both countries on that occasion and have an exchange about the ongoing process of preventing violent extremism.

What role does the private sector play in countering violent extremism? How do you engage with the private sector?

KK: The private sector has a clear business interest in preventing violent extremism.

What does violent extremism do? It means that young talented people are not available because they’re being taken away. It means supply chains are disrupted. If you want to grow tomatoes in Northern Nigeria, it’s pretty hard to at the moment because the place is in chaos.

It means you can’t safely invest in certain countries. It means that if you’re a tourism company you lose a lot of opportunities in places like Egypt or Tunisia, where you used to make lots of money, because no one’s going there on vacation anymore because people are frightened. The list goes on. 
 Of course, this interest isn’t as big in every sector. But, for example, in tourism, in extractive industries like the mining sector, we have found it very easy to make this business case for helping to prevent violent extremism.

The other set of companies that is important is in the area of social media. Because, of course, a lot of the recruitment takes places online, on websites and social platforms. So for us it’s crucial to work with companies like Google to try to counter those messages.

At the same time, this is a very politically sensitive issue. Lots of companies would find it difficult to go to their board and say we are now working directly on violent extremism, so I think we have to find different entry points. Maybe you’re working on women’s empowerment, or education or on strengthening community resilience–for different companies you have to have different sorts of language. But we found it clear that the private sector is interested and they are involved in a variety of ways. For instance, at the board level of GCERF together with governments and civil society, the private sector is as important as a country; we’re really giving them a seat at the table to make a difference.

In each country where we work, we set up a local committee; we call it a country support mechanism. That helps us to identify where the challenges are, which projects to fund and so on and so forth. And the private sector is always represented there as well. We haven’t received direct cash from the private sector, but we got in-kind contributions and support from the private sector, such as host events for us and the like. It will take some time until we get cash support, but I’m sure that will come.

What makes it so difficult to counter violent extremism?

KK: First of all, there is still no clear definition of what violent extremism is. The UN hasn’t defined it, GCERF hasn’t yet defined it. You could argue that it’s pretty hard to combat something when you don’t know what it is. I think we need to develop some sort of political consensus around defining what exactly we’re concerned about. This especially regards the question as to where to draw the line–how far does violent extremism go? For example: Are we concerned about people who are extreme but not violent?

A second reason is that violent extremism is contextually very specific and demands different approaches and actions. There is no simple answer, no universal operating manual on how to prevent or counter violent extremism. Because violent extremism can have many faces and it always depends on the context. The reason for it can lie in poverty or in religious beliefs or something completely different. There again it comes down to the local setting–and that’s why GCERF wants to take action there on the local level.

But there are so many different aspects involved that no single organization or country can solve it alone. It needs a multilateral perspective and the knowledge and understanding of multiple cultures, beliefs and conceptions of history. Thus I’m always saying “GCERF alone is not the answer, but there’s no answer without GCERF.”

“GCERF alone is not the answer, but there’s no answer without GCERF.”

I see lots of talking and panel discussions about the topic, but not many that actually do something about it. GCERF believes in the bottom-up process of identifying locally what’s needed to prevent violent extremism, which then will have an effect on the global scale. And I am proud that GCERF actually does something, takes action on local levels and tries to respond to that challenge. The last thing we need is another year of summits and debates about the topic. We’ve got to move.

GCERF identified countries and their communities that are most at risk. And since our focus is on prevention, we sometimes work in areas where it hasn’t yet gone over the edge, but if we intervene now we can make a difference.

What are the challenges in orchestrating this fight globally?

KK: Violent extremism is a growing challenge; the Global Terrorism Index, which was just published, demonstrates that there are more deaths, more money lost, more disruption and bigger obstacles to overcome in developing goals.

And in addition, we tend to be reactive in this area. Once there‘s an attack, we react. But if we were to invest and now focus on prevention, not only a huge number of lives could be saved, but also energy, money, and efforts invested in countering it. So there’s a clear economic model, but it’s quite hard to convince people.

For GCERF, the biggest challenge is to demonstrate that we make a difference and we make it quickly.

Why is that?

KK: Prevention is a long-term goal. You won’t see results right away. But lots of our donors would like to see immediate results. As it is hard to prove in the first place that something didn’t happen because of GCERF, so proving the counterfactual. Of course, we can show that GCERF’s funding has helped to educate a certain number of children, but how can we prove that this stopped some of them from becoming terrorists?

What can one individual alone or a local community do to prevent and fight extremism?

KK: Most important: Every individual can make a difference. Let’s never forget the power of the individual. For example, Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls in Nigeria and kind of transformed the world. So I am asking why can’t we educate 200 girls in Nigeria and equally transform the world. We cannot let our opponents have power over individuals.

“Most important: Every individual can make a difference.”

Women in Nigeria probably know well what’s going on and have good ideas about it, but can’t talk because they may be in patriarchal societies that don’t allow them to. So GCERF is funding projects on the local level in order to allow women to come together in a safe space and talk and magnify their thoughts. Giving individuals a voice is immensely important and exactly what GCERF does. At the same time, the security of our recipients is a top priority to us. There again for the safety of these people GCERF has the advantage of carrying less political baggage than countries.

There are three categories of projects funded by GCERF. Projects which

  1. raise awareness (for example, speak to and train preachers in mosques about what violent extremism can look like)
  2. mobilize action (for example, give women the opportunity to talk)
  3. create alternatives (for example, jobs, education)

What brought you to this position?

KK: I know that as an individual you also have to be modest about what change you can achieve. But I genuinely believe that violent extremism is one of our biggest challenges and it’s going to stand in the way of development; it’s hijacking some of the principles our societies are built on such as human rights and democracy. And I honestly don’t want to bring up my children in a society where this hate is tolerated. So I’ve got my personal passion for the topic.

Three reasons I took this job:
1. For me, it’s quite a new field. My background is migration and refugees.

2. It’s a new sort of institution. I’ve worked with governments, think tanks and NGOs. A fund is still quite a rare type of institution.

3. It’s a startup. Two years ago I came to an empty office in Geneva which didn’t have a coffee machine. Now we have 25 people working in our secretariat; $35 million from 12 countries and the EU, and we’re reaching hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

I am very happy with my job because I think after two years we’ve proved that the concept works. We’ve attracted quite a lot of money; we are now working in a series of countries. Now it’s time to realize our potential.

I really enjoyed starting back in 2014 and seeing where we are now and, of course, there’s lots more to do for us!

GCERF’s Beneficiary Countries at the moment: Bangladesh, Mali, Nigeria, Myanmar, Kenya and Kosovo. More will follow since Tunisia will probably be added to the list next year.

More about GCERF here.

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