Salil Tripathi: Debunking the Poverty-Causes-Terrorism Myth (WSJ)

Salil Tripathi, in the WSJ (2-23-05):

Some bad ideas refuse to die. Like the apparent causal link between poverty and terror. In the elevated mood of the World Economic Forum, the French President Jacques Chirac -- who could not reach there due to bad weather -- attempted to sound statesmanlike in a live, televised address. Embracing several popular causes, he called on the world's richest nations -- and people, given his audience -- to give billions of dollars in aid to poor countries. Doing so was in their own interest, he said, because in our interdependent world, political unrest, uncontrolled migration, and extremism are "breeding grounds of terrorism," and removing poverty would help resolve those problems.

The big assumption here is that there is a causal link between removing poverty and eliminating terrorism. President Chirac is hardly the first world leader to confuse a good cause -- removing poverty -- with a weapon to fight terror. Last December, Pakistan's leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, suggested in a television interview in Britain that terrorism's root causes lay in social inequality, illiteracy and poverty. "We are fighting [terror] in the immediate context, but . . . not . . . in its strategic, long term context. What gives rise to a young man or woman to give up her or his life?" Gen Musharraf asked, adding that "illiteracy and poverty," which he called "breeding grounds of extremism and terrorism," need to be resolved.

The general has had to walk a tightrope in supporting the war on terror, given the sympathy for the Taliban and al Qaeda among many Pakistanis. If only for domestic political reasons, he has to appear "to understand" the extremists' views. But by acknowledging that poverty may cause terror, he gives that nihilistic idea -- terrorism -- the semblance of rationality it does not deserve.

Why blame them alone? Think of James Wolfensohn, the outgoing president of the World Bank, who claimed that the war on terrorism "will not be won until we have come to grips with the problem of poverty and thus the sources of discontent." In March 2002, President George W. Bush succumbed to this seemingly seductive logic, arguing at a global anti-poverty conference in Monterey: "We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize."...

A bad idea, repeated often by authoritative people, can appear good; it is therefore time to debunk the bogus link between poverty and terror.

Some development experts assert that if only more money were spent to alleviate poverty, terrorism would disappear. Poverty breeds a sense of deprivation among the poor, and because in their view the current economic system perpetuates inequality, it would compel the poor -- driven to desperation because of social injustices -- to turn to terror. This is reductive revolutionary rhetoric masquerading as an explanation. What's surprising is not the vacuity of this idea, but its resilience. It plays on collective guilt, seeking to rationalize the unjustifiable.

Think of the millions of poor people who live in abject conditions in Africa and Asia. They suffer from widespread diseases and persistent malnutrition. Parents can't assume that their children will have a better future than their own. Many of these countries have experienced strife and violence. But the poor there do not routinely blow up buses or turn their bodies into bombs. To suggest that the poor will become terrorists unless their plight is addressed is gratuitous; worse, it insults them -- most poor lead dignified lives, trying heroically to improve their lives when they have little control over their destinies. The poor value life -- their own, of their families, and of their neighbors and others around them.

Terrorists don't. Consider that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks were from one of the wealthiest countries in the world (Saudi Arabia), and were from middle class, if not rich families; their leader, Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi billionaire. They didn't lack material wealth; they lacked the sensitivity to value human life.

It is possible to break the casual, not causal, link between terror and poverty. In a lucidly argued paper, "Education, Poverty, Political Violence, and Terrorism: Is there a Causal Connection?" (National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2002), economists Alan Kruger of Princeton University in the U.S. and Jitka Maleckova of Charles University in Prague conclude that any connection between poverty, education, and terrorism is, at best, indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak....

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