John Edwards, today:
And I believe we can begin by leading in areas that – at first glance – might not seem directly related to our self-interest. I’m talking about global poverty, primary education. But I believe if you look closely, it’s clear that these areas are in fact directly related to our present and future national security.
We know that terrorists thrive in failed states, and in states torn apart by internal conflict and poverty.
And we know that in many African and Muslim countries today, extreme poverty and civil wars have gutted government educational systems.
So what’s taking their place? The answer is troubling – but filled with opportunity if we have the courage to seize it.
A great portion of a generation is being educated in madrassas run by militant extremists rather than in public schools. And as a result, thousands and thousands of young people who might once have aspired to be educated in America are being taught to hate America.
When you understand that, it suddenly becomes clear: global poverty is not just a moral issue for the United States – it is a national security issue for the United States. If we tackle it, we will be doing a good and moral thing by helping to improve the lives of billions of people around the world who live on less than $2 per day – but we will also begin to create a world in which the ideologies of radical terrorism are overwhelmed by the ideologies of education, democracy, and opportunity. If we tackle it, we have the chance to change a generation of potential enemies into a generation of friends. Now that would be transformational.
Unfortunately, Edwards’ confident assertion that we can prevent foreigners from becoming terrorists by increasing their quality of life runs afoul of just about all of the serious public policy research on this topic. Let’s start with Harvard professor Alberto Abadie:
In Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism (NBER Working Paper No. 10859) Alberto Abadie explores this link in greater detail and finds that the risk of terrorism is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once other country-specific characteristics are considered. In particular, Abadie finds that a country’s level of political freedom better explains the presence of terrorism.
Unlike other recent studies on the causes of terrorism, Abadie’s work explores not only transnational instances of terrorism but also domestic ones. This difference is telling: In 2003, the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base reported only 240 cases of transnational terrorism compared to 1,536 instances of domestic terrorism. Furthermore, Abadie suggests that the determinants of transnational and domestic terrorism may differ. “Much of modern-day transnational terrorism seems to generate from grievances against rich countries,” he writes. “In addition, in some cases terrorist groups may decide to attack property or nationals of rich countries in order to gain international publicity. As a result, transnational terrorism may predominantly affect rich countries. The same is not necessarily true for domestic terrorism.”
While many studies have relied on measures of terrorism-related casualties or terrorist incidences as a proxy for the risk of terrorism, Abadie uses country-level ratings on terrorist risk from the Gglobal Tterrorism Iindex of the World Market Research Center, an international risk-rating agency. The index assesses terrorism risk in 186 countries and territories. In order to measure poverty, Abadie uses World Bank data on per capita gross domestic product as well as the United Nations Human Development Index and or the Gini coefficient (a measure of country-level income inequality). He also uses Freedom House’s political rights index as a measure of country-level political freedom and employs measures of linguistic, ethnic, and religious fractionalization. Finally, he includes data on climate and geography, since it is well known that certain geographic characteristics — such as being land-locked or in an area that is difficult to access — may offer safe haven to terrorist groups and facilitate training.
After controlling for the level of political rights, fractionalization, and geography, Abadie concludes that per capita national income is not significantly associated with terrorism. He finds, though, that lower levels of political rights are linked to higher levels of terrorism countries with the highest levels of political rights are also the countries that suffer the lowest levels of terrorism.
From research by Alan B. Krueger is Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Jitka Maleckova is associate professor at the Institute for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Charles University in Prague:
But a careful review of the evidence provides little reason for optimism that a reduction in poverty or an increase in educational attainment would, by themselves, meaningfully reduce international terrorism. Any connection between poverty, education, and terrorism is indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak. Instead of viewing terrorism as a direct response to low market opportunities or lack of education, we suggest it is more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration (perceived or real) that have little to do with economics.
Even research going further back:
The same patterns apply outside of the Middle East. For example, a study by Charles Russell and Bowman Miller (reprinted in the 1983 book Perspectives on Terrorism) considered 18 revolutionary groups, including the Japanese Red Army, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, and Italy’s Red Brigades. The authors found that “the vast majority of those individuals involved in terrorist activities as cadres or leaders is quite well-educated. In fact, approximately two-thirds of those identified terrorists are persons with some university training, [and] well over two-thirds of these individuals came from the middle or upper classes in their respective nations or areas.”
And leave it to a blogger to lay out the obvious:
Honestly, anyone spouting gibberish about poverty causing terrorism really ought to be called out as a bigot. I’ve known lots of poor people in my time, and I’ve never seen any evidence that being poor makes them violent killers.
In fact, if you look at terrorists, they usually have one thing in common. Whether it’s an anarchist like Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, a communist like Che Guevara, or a religio-fascist like Osama bin Laden, all seem to share a common background:
They grew up as spoiled brats in very comfortable, pampered, well-off households.
Other than that, only hate is their unifying trait.
But let’s face it. The belief that “poverty causes terrorism” makes us feel good, because we feel like if we can just increase the per capita income in these countries, then terrorist attacks will stop; the ability to influence others’ behavior is in our hands, we just have to use it. But looking at past experience, it really isn’t.