Seeing Eye to Eye: Countering the ‘illusion of inclusion’ in P/CVE multistakeholder initiatives

By Hirah Azhar

The Seeing Eye to Eye: Developing Sustainable Multistakeholder Communities (SE2E) project was developed and funded through the 2022 Terrorism and Social Media (TASM) Conference sandpit event. The project aim is conducting empirical research into how various stakeholders view and experience multistakeholderism in countering terrorism and violent extremism online (TVE) as part of the larger umbrella of “preventing and countering violent extremism,” or P/CVE. A primary animating question of the sandpit team as we developed the project was: “How can a shared responsibility framework for robust cross sector work be developed?” Read the firstsecond, and third blog posts in the series.

Immense sums of money have been pumped into the Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) industry in the two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with a disproportionate portion going into lucrative contracts to various stakeholders in the Global North. Not only has this firmly entrenched Global North approaches within P/CVE discourse and activities, it has also incentivised both the creation and redirection of similar actors and programmes. This is despite data from the latest Global Terrorism Index revealing that countries in the Global South continued to bear the brunt of terrorist attacks in 2023, with sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia accounting for over 90 percent of all deaths from terrorism. Even considering the surge in far-right extremism in the Global North, extremismis still a fundamentally global issue, spilling across borders with the ease afforded by technology platforms. Problematically, the P/CVE industry has been largely unsuccessful in providing stakeholders in the Global South the same access to funding, opportunities, and place within the conversation, as those in the Global North. In part, this is because the P/CVE industry hasn’t yet escaped the conceptual shackles of its predecessor, the terrorism industry, which has had a Global North bias from the onset, built as it was by institutions in the Global North to protect their geopolitical interests. As the P/CVE industry has evolved, it has adopted a ‘whole-of-society’ approach that can no longer rely on multilateral institutions and their top-down decision-making for effective counter extremism initiatives, and requires collaborative problem-solving by multiple stakeholders globally.

Obstacles to Global South participation

This disconnect also comes from broader problems with the multistakeholder model, which has historically seen minimal participation from states in the Global South across various facets of UN-led operations including food, housing, clean water, health, and climate change. In fact, structural problems within the model make it difficult to create the sort of transnational policy coherence that can facilitate P/CVE initiatives. Multistakeholder efforts are designed to close the ‘participation gap’, but implementing them is often more challenging than expected. In practice, such initiatives often demonstrate superficial attempts to include Global South stakeholders, resulting in initiatives that project the ‘illusion of inclusion’, according to one SE2E workshop participant, and subsequently legitimise existing power asymmetries. One only has to observe technology platforms’ inadequate, and often discriminatory, application of content moderation policies in the Global South and their reinforcing of existing inequalities, to see this in play. So whether it is excluding southern stakeholders from prominent leadership and decision-making roles and only bringing them in to implement pre-conceptualised projects, or using English in all foundational documents and operations – which ‘reproduces the dominant groups’ assumptions, schemas, and ideas’ – many multistakeholder initiatives consistently demonstrate a lack of commitment to closing the participation gap.

This has also resulted in inequitable access to funding, with funding for local stakeholders being tied to development aid or channelled as a returnable corporate investment. Lack of political will is another obstacle, with stakeholders in the Global South often unwilling or unable to participate in initiatives that address some of the most serious drivers of extremism, because there is no political advantage to implementing the sort of widespread political, social, or economic reforms needed. And Global North stakeholders are deeply reluctant to develop or fund such initiatives for fear of damage to their bilateral relations, especially with countries with known human rights violations. ‘Political realities shrink the space CVE practitioners can work in’, so a broadly palatable compromise has emerged in the shape of multistakeholder initiatives that deal with unproblematic – but not significantly effective – issues, such as educational programmes (e.g. digital literacy) or strategic communications campaigns that push ineffectual counter-messaging around loosely-defined values (e.g. “tolerance” and “moderation”) that are too vague to have any resonance. Similarly, in contrast to the broad application of counter terrorism laws and regulations, legislating violent extremism has also been much more difficult due to the lack of a universal or even broadly-applicable definition of extremism and in certain states, the misuse of anti-extremism legislation for political objectives.

Creating equitable participation and access

There is growing acknowledgment that lagging Global South participation in multistakeholder P/CVE initiatives needs to be addressed in intentional and tangible terms, as VOX-Pol’s support for the SE2E project indicates. Central to this is the recognition that most drivers of violent extremism are universal and impact local populations everywhere, making global multistakeholder initiatives the most effective counter extremism strategy. Some multistakeholder P/CVE initiatives have increasingly made efforts to be more inclusive and address some of the more industry-specific challenges. The Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), for example, addresses structural funding issues by providing ‘blended funds’ – from both states and private entities, pooled under GCERF – to local stakeholders. Funded almost entirely by Western state donors,  the GCERF is an imperfect solution, but it is a step in the right direction. At this point in time, academic and practitioner networks are where the most tangible progress can be seen. The RESOLVE Network, for instance, spearheads locally-driven research on extremism, with current projects spanning from Sub-Saharan Africa to South East Asia and the Western Balkans. The Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET), similarly, partners with stakeholders across the world and in a singularly helpful move, offers select research publications in several different languages, such as Arabic.


The multistakeholder model offers crucial improvements to the P/CVE industry compared to previous arrangements, the most important of which is breaking down systemic hierarchies by facilitating the wider and more intentional inclusion of Global South stakeholders, who bring much needed expertise, accountability, and legitimacy to the table. Failing to address the systemic exclusion of southern partners, whether due to structural problems within the multistakeholder model itself or the more intentional power structures within the P/CVE industry, result in more waste and bloat, while strengthening existing power asymmetries that inevitably contribute to some of the very drivers of extremism. P/CVE stakeholders in the Global North are particularly well placed to resolve the latter obstacles, by remodelling existing funding mechanisms or establishing multilateral oversight so that the commitment from various stakeholders is better mandated.

Hirah Azhar is a PhD candidate with the University of Southampton and the Imperial War Museum on an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. Her research examines Islamic State photo-propaganda and MoD collections at the IWM to study how visual military influence shapes public perceptions in the digital space. On Twitter: @herazhar

Image Credit: FREEPIK

Want to submit a blog post? Click here.