Conversation with Daniel Aldrich on Radio in Reducing Violent Extremism

UNESCO is pleased to make the audio and text of this interview available copy-right free for the celebration of World Radio Day 2019. Radio stations are especially encouraged to broadcast the interview, either in its totality or by exacting the answers and announcing the questions themselves.

UNESCO spoke to Dr. Daniel P. Aldrich, Director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program and Professor in political science and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston. Aldrich has published five books, more than 45 peer-reviewed articles, and written op-eds for the New York Times, CNN, and many other media outlets. He has spent more than 5 years in India, Japan, and Africa carrying out fieldwork and his work has been funded by the Fulbright Foundation, the Abe Foundation, and the Japan Foundation, among other institutions. He Tweets at @danielpaldrich.

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Q. Thank you for being with us today, Daniel. Your research has given you an insight into how radio can be used to counter violent extremist organizations. Can you tell us a little about your work and what radio can do to promote dialogue and peaceful coexistence?

Yes, I’ve been very lucky to do field work with the USAID and other US government agencies who are trying to reduce violent extremism in the Sahel and other areas in Africa. I think that the results of our research are very positive. We see that radio programming and radios are not a silver bullet, they don’t solve every problem, but they have measurable impact in reducing a number of the factors that we believe might encourage individuals to support violent extremist acts or terror groups. We found especially because radio themselves are a widely available technology and because radio waves and radio programming are also relatively accessible across the area.

We believe broadly that this can be a powerful policy tool used by people around the world, whether in developed or developing countries, to further peace building and conflict reparation.

Q. And compared to other media, what is the distinctive feature of radio that contributes to peace building?

Well, several things about radio. First of all, unlike other attempts at, for example, at reconciliation, face-to-face work or focus groups, radio doesn’t require the individuals participating to be in the same location. Especially for areas unserved by government that don’t have infrastructure or strong roads, radio can reach populations in very remote areas. For example, women who may not be allowed by cultural norms or local institutions to leave their home can get access to radio. In fact, a number of communities we worked in had women’s’ listening groups that they developed to help broaden their audience there among a group of individuals who otherwise would not be capable to go, for example, to a local NGO or a local school. So a powerful way to reach them, so quite powerful because it doesn’t matter if the population to which you are speaking is literate or illiterate. While a lot of materials being developed in this field of peace building and conflict resolution does require some level of education, radio programming does not. As long as the individuals in the community are being spoken to in the language they understand, it doesn’t require them to have education beforehand.

And more broadly, we think radio itself and the informal nature of radio listening allows the program to be more powerful, people can listen, have multiple broadcasts that can be at different times, it is also quite cost effective. We think those reasons together make it a very strong medium to use.

Q. From your experience, how can radio initiatives better tackle violent extremism in the future?

So a lot of things that we need to do – one is to make sure that the programming is done by experts in the field. This might be an imam, in a community that is served by a Muslim religious group, it might be in places that might be more right-wing extremism, it might be a priest or a monk, someone who is trusted by the area. So that’s one aspect of the process; that we need to have voices on the radio that are listened to, and of course speaking in the local language. But we found that these kind of broadcast really do, especially over a period of 6 months to a year, alter the norms and attitudes of the people who are listening to a degree that broader support for terrorist activities, support for violence in the name of religion, those kind of powerful indicators can be mollified by this kind of programming. We have also found that local NGOs can do this by themselves. They do not have to have International Organizations helping them, they know quite well which messages will resonate with local communities and what local challenges are, which violent extremist groups, for example, might be most popular or most likely to recruit individuals or find support among them. We strongly encourage this radio programming to be a local bottom-up process where communities themselves develop their own forms of radio communication or programs their own base on this broader model.

Q. And during your research, are there any components related to gender-specific issues that come to your mind?

There are a number of gender-specific components that we have seen. First of all, we know that in some communities in Africa, women are often married to, for example, members of a violent extremist group. The violent extremist organization will approach local families and provide some sort of funds in exchange for marriage into that family and that will create a bond between them and the families in the area, making it more difficult for authorities to reduce that group’s presence in the area. We know already that women can be used by violent extremist groups to solidify their social ties to communities. More broadly, women are often the ones who notice radicalization in children first, whether at home or in the school or anywhere else in the community, often times women are often more perceptive of changes in behaviour and attitudes. They can in a sense work as a bell waiter and be the first person to warn either the authorities or their children or to talk to local authorities or religious leaders about that question.

More broadly, especially since many societies we worked in, women themselves can be recruited, not just married into a group. And their participation is really critical in these kind of groups. So, in that sense alone, it is very important that NGOs and USAID groups think clearly about how they can engage women and gender groups in this process.

Q. This year’s World Radio Day is celebrating the theme of “Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace”. What would your World Radio Day message?

Radio programming has a tremendous potential across the world in developed and developing countries to reduce support and participation in violent extremist groups, whether on the right or on the left. I think the growing body of research is showing how important it is to adopt what we call these softer developmental approaches to counter violent extremism rather than envisioning that our only policy tools available in this field might, for example, be ballistic tactics using battlefield strikes or drone strikes. We think that this is a great way to assist communities to develop a broad set of skills in radio programming, among which would be the reduction of support for these violent extremist groups.


Thank you very much for being with us today, Daniel.


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