‘PREVEX addresses one of the most pressing issues today – how to prevent violent extremism in fragile states in the Middle East and North Africa and in the tense and volatile political environments of the Balkans’, explains NUPI Research Professor Morten Bøås.

He is the project initiator of the NUPI-coordinated Horizon 2020-project Preventing Violent Extremism in the Balkans and the MENA: Strengthening Resilience in Enabling Environments (PREVEX). Being granted funding for research projects under the EU’s H2020 research programme is quite an achievement, as international competition is very tough.

'Strengthens our position'

‘PREVEX is the result of hard work from great colleagues. It’s a testimony to the academic quality of our researchers and shows that we can be successful in international competition. Coordinating H2020 projects and hosting ERC scholars is of great importance to NUPI, and further strengthens our position as a prominent research institute’, says NUPI’s Director Ulf Sverdrup.

Alongside Bøås, Research Professor Pernille Rieker, Senior Research Fellow Kari Osland, Research Fellow Henriette U. Erstad, Research Assistant Bård Drange (now a PhD Fellow at PRIO) and Advisor Andrea Myhrbraaten of NUPI’s Research Administration Unit have been instrumental in the success of the project application. Osland will manage one of the project’s work packages and contribute to the work package on the Balkans and the Sahel, and Rieker will contribute to the work package on EU and prevention strategies. Senior Research Fellows Tine Gade and Kjetil Selvik will contribute to the work package on the Middle East.

‘We at NUPI aim to combine academic excellence with high relevance and societal impact, and PREVEX corresponds very well with that strategy’, adds Sverdrup.

'Will undoubtedly help policy-makers' 

PREVEX will focus on how various drivers of violent extremism operate.

‘To this end, the project will employ a bottom–up approach to local–global dynamics, combined with institutionalist analyses of the responses of the EU, its member states and third countries’, explains Bøås.

In many ways, PREVEX is a continuation of the work conducted under NUPI’s EUNPACK project  on EU responses to conflict and crises, also funded by H2020, and finalized in april 2019.

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‘We are very proud that our colleagues have been awarded funding for the PREVEX project. It takes on a key challenge with academic rigor, and will undoubtedly help policymakers to make better-informed decisions’, says NUPI’s Research Director Ole Jacob Sending.

How to explain why violent extremism does not occur?

The project’s analytical framework has a threefold focus: decisive moments; occurrence/ non-occurrence of violent extremism; and the effect of preventive measures.

‘A key innovative aspect of our analytical approach is the emphasis on the non-occurrence of violent extremism in otherwise “enabling environments”. This allows us to proceed beyond the state-of-the-art through a highly specific, and effective, approach to not only why violent extremism occurs, but also why it does not occur,’ explains project manager Bøås.

Focusing on the broader MENA region and the Balkans, context-sensitive, in-depth case studies of the occurrence and non-occurrence of violent extremism will be conducted and then brought together in a regional comparison.

The research consortium will construct a methodological framework that is inter-disciplinary, informed by well-grounded theory and utilizing a mixed-methods approach. Empirical data will be collected at the individual, community, national and regional levels, using qualitative, participatory research methods and lab-in-field experiments, as well as quantitative mapping and surveys. 

‘The novelty that this approach represents steered us through the eye of the H2020 needle. Our proposal stood out as innovative: we argued that prevention isn’t possible without a better understanding of the phenomenon of violent extremism, and why it manifests itself in some areas but not in others that may share most background factors. This understanding led us to focus on decisive moments, enabling environments, and cases of occurrence and non-occurrence’, Bøås explains.

A winning recipe

‘To carry a project like PREVEX from its infancy to the state where it gets funded by H2020, you need not only a strong idea’, Bøås continues, ‘but also a dedicated core project group that includes, right from the beginning, a research administration staff member, plus a robust international network that can be brought into the consortium – and firm leadership.’

He offers a few insights into their winning recipe:

‘It is the core project group that must be prepared to write almost the entire proposal. Inputs from partners and others are necessary, but to achieve a coherent proposal the drafting must be done in-house among a small select group. In our experience, from EUNPACK and now PREVEX, we see the ideal as being a core team of three experienced researchers who know each other quite well and can work together, one staff member from the research administration department, and two dedicated research assistants.’

Many researchers who have been involved the process of drafting project proposals are probably familiar with Bøås’ description of the intense teamwork effort that characterizes the final days before the application deadline:

‘This group must be prepared to work hard, particularly during that final week before the proposal is submitted, where we often stay in the office late into the night, not stopping until 3 in the morning, starting up again 9 a few hours later. That’s is how we’ve worked – and we must be doing something right, as we haven’t heard about many other who have succeeded in being awarded two major H2020 projects in a row.’