Map of Burkina Faso and its bordering countries, Mali and Niger, a hotbed of Islamic terrorist activity and small villages.
Map of Burkina Faso and its bordering countries, including Mali and Niger. (

A New Study Shows How to Counter Violent Extremism Through “Social Cohesion”

The border region of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is home to violent extremist groups eager to recruit young men to their ranks. To counter the lure of groups like the Islamic State, officials have experimented with programs and projects that more deeply root young men to their communities and reduce inter-ethnic conflict. This kind of peace-building work to strengthen what is known as “social cohesion” often flies under the radar, at least compared to high profile military activities targeting terrorist groups, but there is growing evidence that such programs are effective.

In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Siaka Millogo who ran an experiment testing the impact of social cohesion programs in villages in rural Niger. He is the director for Burkina Faso and Niger for the aid group Mercy Corps. From 2019 through 2021, Mercy Corps and local partners identified 40 villages at risk of recruitment by violent extremist groups and undertook social cohesion programs in half of those; while the other half was a control group. And in our conversation we discuss how this experiment worked and what it can teach us about the value and impact of hyper local programs to combat violent extremism.

Apple Podcasts  | Google PodcastsSpotify  | Podcast Addict  |  Stitcher  | Radio Public 



Transcript lightly edited for context

What is the Tillabéri Region of Niger?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:01:00] Can I just have you describe the Tillabéri region of Niger for those unaware? Where is it and what’s the impact of violent extremism in this region?

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:02:57] Tillabéri is one of the eight regions of Niger, in northern Niger, and has also what we call the three borders, Burkina Faso and Mali. It is around these three borders that we have the highest number of terrorist attacks and also a great number of internally displaced people. So, regarding this situation, we developed and submitted to USAID to get this program to implement activities to prevent the impact of violent extremism.

Which terrorist groups are active in Niger and the Tillabéri region?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:37] Before we get into a discussion of your programs around peacebuilding and preventing violent extremism in the region, what are the groups that are active in this area and what do their attacks look like?

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:03:54] The group active in the Tillabéri region is in fact the Islamic group in the “Grise Sahel.” They are affecting some populations. They are asking them to provide some deal, some ration sometimes. And also, their operation model is, in fact, to focus on the government so that the way they are operating in this region is the same as the central Sahel area in general.

How does the program Preventing Violent Extremism Actions through Increased Social Cohesion Efforts work?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:25] So you have essentially an offshoot of the Islamic State that is active in this region, the Tillabéri region of Niger, which, as you said, is on the border of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. And it is in this region that you begin a project called Preventing Violent Extremism Actions through Increased Social Cohesion Efforts, which brilliantly invokes the acronym PEACE. How does this peace program work?

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:04:59] [The program exists] to combat all of these problems caused by the violent extremism and as an action to support the potential victims of these actions of terrorist groups and also to allow young people to be more involved in development of their communities. But we have developed this program and also negotiated funding with the USAID. So, the PEACE program was meant really to facilitate what we have to do with young people in terms of trying to involve them more in some activities that they can initiate that can help them to enhance their social cohesion. So doing some activities together that they themselves have identified. Also, we just provided them with the resources and also the capacities to be able to implement this program by themselves. They have been at the bottom line of identification of all these micro projects we have identified, which were linked in fact to social cohesion, to be together, gathering them around the same objective of belonging to their communities.

What is social cohesion?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:15] So what are some of the micro projects, as you described them, to encourage social cohesion in specific communities?

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:06:27] I would like to take this example of this community where they just have one traditional well, so where animals and human beings were both getting water. And that created, most of the time, a lot of conflict between the groups. And this project had been selected by themselves where they asked for some material to be able to dig this well better, to improve it. And that is a kind of project that we have been doing with them. It’s just one example.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:59] So building a well seems like a very straightforward community infrastructure project. Are there others you could explain as well? Just to give listeners a sense of what projects we’re talking about when we are discussing initiatives aimed at boosting social cohesion in potentially at-risk communities.

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:07:22] Yeah. You know, also in these communities, they used to have a somewhat traditional event, for example, that were gathering young people to share a common discussion around their story and also have courses, something like that. That is in their traditional way of living. They have these kinds of events in the past that used to gather them.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:45] Just like community or life cycle events.

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:07:48] Yes.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:49] Things like that.

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:07:50] Yes. So, they were no longer doing that, you know, and the project tried, in fact, to come back with that and to get young people and also their elders around the peace activities so that they can also take advantage of the presence of their elders to transfer some values of the communities that were, in fact maintaining social cohesion in the past. The fact that they were no longer doing that, meant the young people didn’t have all these opportunities to get to know each other and to be complementary to each other and also to be more tolerant to each other. So, these are something also that has some great impacts on the communities.

Do social cohesion activities encourage peace?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:30] So you’re supporting infrastructure building like wells, community building efforts like the events you just described all under the rubric of this PEACE program. So, using this program, you created a random trial in which some villages deemed at risk of violent extremism recruitment were exposed to the PEACE program, and some were excluded for a period of time to act as sort of a control group. Can you briefly describe your methodology and then we’ll get into your findings?

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:09:08] Yes. So, we have a control group and also contact group. Both groups have been informed on the objective of the PEACE program, so they know what they have to do. Also, we provided capacity building to the contact group and all of these activities we are talking about — gathering the youth and also involving them in the identification of the micro project and the implementation. Even in the joint evaluation, we have capacity building that we’re giving to them. So, at the end of the day, in the joint evaluation phase, we noticed that this group, contact group, they have this willingness to do things together. So that was very high. And we have also some anecdotal feedback from young people. In one place they were in fact entertaining some conflict, but they couldn’t even explain why this community and this one was in conflict. Young people were entertaining that because the elders had told them okay between us and these communities, we are in conflict, but no one knows why, what had been the reason of this conflict? So, when we tried to put together a peace community with young people from the two communities to gather around a social event, and they have been able to know each other, even the elders, who went saw that the young people from the two communities where in fact dealing together, they come back said, okay, we can’t even explain why we were in conflict. And the young people told them, this is no longer our problem because we know that today all the young people in the two communities, they are facing the same reality. So, they need to be together and to face this similar reality to find a solution. So that has been in fact a great success because we had two communities that had been in conflict for a long time, and the young population said we don’t understand well the origin of this and that is not really our problem. All our communities, we have the same problems; we have to deal with these problems together, find common solutions. And that is thanks to this program because we have trained them; we have discussed it with them on why it is important that they be together to face the same issue of their communities.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:38] So that’s anecdotal evidence suggesting that conflict between two different communities were reduced through this program. But you also conducted a very large survey — I think the sample size was like 1800 participants — and based on that survey, is there any statistical evidence to suggest that communities that participated in the peace program were indeed less likely to be susceptible to recruitment by violent extremist groups?

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:12:19] Yes, because, in fact, when we conducted this evaluation, with all the activities we have conducted with the communities, at least 70% of young people there, now have something to do and they have this feeling of belonging. You know, that is very important when you have the feeling that you belong to the community, you are in fact sensitive. You are contributing to these communities in terms of economics and also in social activities. So, this is very, very important for young people. We gave them some confidence on themselves and also, we have been able to break this misunderstanding with the elders because they have brought them together with the elders to be able to transfer to them all of these values. So that has been something great.

Do peacekeeping efforts help communities trust their government more?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:12] And the objective of an organization like the Islamic State, they conduct recruitment activities in order to pursue some broader agenda against government authorities. Does your evidence suggest that communities which received the PEACE program were more trustworthy or more willing to support authorities? Or did it have any meaningful impact one way or the other?

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:13:41] You know, in the course of implementation of this program, we have involved the government bodies in charge of social cohesion. So, from the bottom line to the upper level — because in Niger, for example, we have what we call the high commission in charge of social cohesion. They have been involved in all the phases of the program, meaning that we have created the right environment and opportunity for these young people to talk directly to the government, you know, on social cohesion and also for the government to explain their vision on social cohesion for these young people. So, I think that the opportunity has been great for them because they understood more what is going on, because sometimes people don’t have the opportunity to interact directly with the government. And the PEACE program has been the opportunity, in fact, for the young people to interact more with the government on this specific question of social cohesion and related to youth and also women. The most important thing also is within the communities we have seen some bad governance aspects and we have created what we call Community Action Committees, which we have composed of all these sensitivities in the communities, so that we’re able, in fact, to reduce the frustration created by the government.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:20] So I wanted to speak with you because having covered these issues for so long, it’s my impression that very local, hyperlocal peacebuilding efforts, like the one you describe and the one that you have created, tend to be both the most impactful, but also tend to fly under the radar. They don’t get a lot of attention. Whereas on the other hand, military operations against the Islamic State and against bad actors, they get the money and the attention. I’m curious to learn from you what implications your findings have for the international community in general and maybe donors in particular.

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:16:12] You know, the finding for us is if we involve communities in all the actions, we are undertaking for them starting from the design phase and through all the phases, we get a better result and better involvement. The other thing also I would like to underline is this kind of program, this short-term program, can have some impacts, but we have clearly noticed that the duration was one of the limiting factors. It is about a behavior change which is not something that we can see in two years significantly. The other thing is, in fact, the additional program component that we should be having. These terrorist actions are continuous, and in the program, we didn’t add the humanitarian assistance part of it. So, what the international community needs to know from this finding is in fact that it’s good for program to think holistically to add some humanitarian assistance there while also dealing with the root causes of the conflict through the social cohesion activities and also thinking about the fact that we are not going to feed people. We need also to add some development activities so that they can be resilient. If we have added some development programs to this program that mean that we should have been always with these communities. The fact that we didn’t have that and just had social cohesion programs, it was like a standalone program, without humanitarian assistance or development was a limiting factor. So, the takeaway is that: just think holistically to hope to have the most impactful social cohesion programming.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:19] And it seems that part of thinking holistically is understanding that programs aimed at boosting social cohesion, at boosting individuals’ commitment to their own communities, is also a way of building resilience if those communities are hit by food shortages or conflict. It seems to be at root of how one builds resilient communities and thriving communities.

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:18:50] Absolutely agree with that, so that is where we need to go especially for the case of the Sahel, where we have this dynamic and we need also to add to all of that the research component because the situation is so dynamic that we need also at any moment to have some relevant and pertinent information on the situation, to anticipate the action we need to undertake. We need to add also continuing pressures on the situation to be able to provide good information, relevant information, pertinent information for anticipated decision making, because we need to anticipate the evolving context.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:34] Dr. Siaka, thank you so much for your time and for your work.

Dr. Siaka Millogo [00:19:39] It is my pleasure.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:48] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.