TCS Daily

Poverty, Aid and Terror

By Don D'Cruz - October 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Does poverty cause terrorism? The United Nations seems to think so. Or, at least that's what a recently released report -- The Inequality Predicament: Report on the World Social Situation 2005 -- says.

According to the report, the growing violence associated with "national and international acts of terrorism" is the result of stark economic and social inequalities and competition over scarce resources.

It also points an accusatory finger at the allegedly harmful effects of market and trade liberalisations, privatisation and private enterprise.

As an antidote to this, the United Nations predictably prescribes more foreign aid -- unsurprising, since a great deal of foreign aid passes through its own coffers.

Curiously, the report can't actually point to any research that supports its claim. This, too, is not surprising, since the literature seems to point in the opposite direction. Summarising this research in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, terrorism expert Walter Laqueur wrote that "it is not too difficult to examine whether there is such a correlation between poverty and terrorism, and all the investigations have shown that this is not the case".

Perhaps the most commonly cited research is that conducted by Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger and Middle Eastern expert Jitka Maleckova of Prague's Charles University. Krueger and Maleckova looked at the backgrounds of terrorists from various parts of the world and compared them to average members of the terrorists' own societies. What they discovered was that the terrorists tended to be more affluent and better educated than the average citizen. In addition, they also found that support for terrorism did not rise as poverty increased. In fact, affluent Palestinians were more likely to support suicide bombings than poor Palestinians.

Krueger and Maleckova have argued that terrorism is more like a "violent form of political engagement" than property crime. According to the researchers, the "more-educated people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in politics, probably in part because political involvement requires some minimum level of interest [and] expertise ... all of which are more likely if people are educated enough and prosperous enough to concern themselves with more than economic subsistence".

Even the University of Chicago's Robert Pape, who has been attracting some publicity with his controversial new book "Dying to Win," found that 42% of all suicide bombers had post-secondary education.

A cynic might even argue that it is affluence, not poverty, that is a more directly linked to terrorism.

But just because terrorism and poverty are not linked, this does not mean that foreign aid can't play a role (albeit a fairly limited one) in the war on terror. For example, more foreign aid could be earmarked for frontline states in the war against terrorism. Countries like Afghanistan are desperately in need of infrastructure after decades of war. Foreign aid, if used to build basic capacity structures -- like roads, bridges, sanitation and power plants; the type of things that we in the developed world take for granted -- would greatly assist in stabilising a country like Afghanistan.

While the causal connection between poverty and terrorism doesn't exist according to the current literature, that isn't the same as saying that foreign aid can't have a small but useful role in the war against terror.

Don D'Cruz is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.


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