Letter from Kenya: Give young people what extremists can’t – an inclusive society

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I sit in a former no-go area in Kenya’s second largest city, Mombasa. It is prayer time, and the streets are empty. A respected Imam hurries along a dirt road to greet me. We are meeting near a “radical” mosque, which was previously at the centre of Al Shabaab recruitment allegations.

We sit drinking tea. He emphasises that it is injustice, not ideology that shapes radicalisation. When there is a vacuum – no job, income, opportunity, or voice – people become angry. Extremism is a simple way out.

Radicals don’t wake up one day and join Isis or Al Shabaab. Extremism fills a gap; preying on people who feel lost, confused and excluded from society.

For some without hope, extremism can offer something different: a future of freedom, adventure and purpose. It also provides food, clothing and protection.

The story is the same all over the world: conflict and extremism fuelled by perceptions of exclusion and injustice.

In Mombasa and along the coast, people feel marginalised by their government. It is home to Kenya’s largest port, but revenue is directly transferred to the national government. Public services and schools are limited and unemployment is more than double the national average at a staggering 44 per cent. Many ethnic groups on the coast do feel marginalised and under-represented. This has fuelled a small separatist movement, and radicalisation.

My new friend – Salim Ahmed – wants to send a very simple message: weapons cannot win this war. Those trying to stop violent religious extremism need to change their approach. We need to support representative political systems, strengthen governance, invest in building economies that are fair and sustainable, and work with vulnerable young people to show them that a different life is possible. Only then, can we improve security.

Downstairs, Khadija tells me she left school years ago because her family could not afford the fees. After wasting her teenage years, she has received training from the Kuza Project and has now formed a partnership with a friend and they make and sell lunchtime snacks. “I had no confidence, no hope” she tells me. Now they are planning to expand their business and purchase space for a shop.

We must recognise the importance of soft power to address hard-hitting issues. Military action will not alone stop radicalisation, but well targeted development aid and investment can. In Mombasa, I met several Muslim youth who are supported by the Department for International Development (Dfid) and Adam Smith International to enter the job market.

Through the Kuza project, they work with local mosques and recruit top quality young leaders to assess, organise, train and mentor school “drop-outs”. This project is helping the newly devolved local government in Mombasa to reform the youth labour market; assisting over 4,000 young people to create jobs and find work – an example of aid driven change making a lasting difference.

Fatima the henna painter, Ahmed the stall holder, Mohammed the delivery man, Jackson the motorcycle taxi driver, Joyce the beauty salon owner: all self-employed, entrepreneurial and now potential job creators, not job seekers.

This is not rocket science. We may be able to contain Al Shabaab or Isis by military action, but we can only win the war if these young people and others in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Mali and Yemen have hope, opportunity and a fair society in which to become adults. I welcomed the British government’s decision to increase spending on conflict-affected and fragile states to 50 per cent of the development budget, but that must not be an opportunity to transfer spending from the defence budget to Dfid. It has to be a genuine long-term investment in peacebuilding and transformation.

And of course these young people don’t just live in Mombasa. They are all over the world. They don’t just attend mosques either. They are geographically and culturally diverse. But they have one thing in common: they are a million miles from the wealthy elites who dominate Christian, Muslim and other societies across our world. And they know it.

An entire generation is at risk of turning against society. It is not difficult to see why: we have created a superficial religious divide and a severe and demoralising economic divide. In a world with large anti-Islam sentiment and dangerous misrepresentation, it is easy for a handful of radicals to mobilise a generation of angry, young people. We are part of the problem, so we must be part of the solution. And the solution is certainly not the futile war that Isis is desperate to fight. Let’s give the youth something the extremists can’t: a meaningful place in a global, inclusive society.

Lord Jack McConnell was First Minister of Scotland in 2001-07, and a UK Peacebuilding Envoy 2008-2010. He chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Sustainable Development Goals.