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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:42 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative 5:42 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, for initiating this important debate. A terrorist is defined as one who favours or uses terror, whether in governing or in coercing a government or community. Just such effects can be seen in the Sudan, Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam (for a long period after the Vietnam War), Iraq, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and today there are the very different but almost equally menacing situations in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. I saw state terrorism for myself in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. For once I shall say nothing about our own home-grown terrorists.

However, I do not believe that terrorists spring from the poor and the oppressed, although poverty has necessarily been enhanced and prolonged by terrorist activity. Osama bin Laden and his followers are not poor, nor do they profess any mission to help the poor, but only to destroy what they hate in society, whether in the US or in some rich Arab state. Like the Baader-Meinhof gang, like Carlos the Jackal who was harboured by the Sudan, like Patty Hearst in the US, many are angry, spoilt, power-seeking children of the rich and privileged who want to destroy, not build.

Unfortunately there is a potent extra ingredient in the make-up of Al'Qaeda and that is the religious fanaticism that attracts some young men who lack purpose in their lives. To some extent that is our fault as we offer them nothing satisfying in which to believe. So far as I know, Al'Qaeda has never claimed that it wishes to redress poverty or to help the poor. Its members want to impose their particular brand of fanaticism.

Indeed there was a time when, in Latin America, extreme poverty and anger was a breeding ground for revolution and for ideologically inspired violence, which was understandable. However, today the very poor in Africa—the continent that I know best—are astonishingly patient, courageous and ready to try to make things work. They are not destroyers. Changing continents, my cook in Hanoi had one modest ambition: that his daughter should be a teacher. That is not much to ask. Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone are two examples of the fundamental, solid decency and sanity of people under attack, whether from state terrorism or violent men.

If the events of 11th September have given the world a wake-up call so that we may act more effectively to help to relieve world poverty that is good. I hope that all those Tokyo pledges will be kept. However, I do not believe that those events happened in the name of the poor.

It is nearly half a century since the colonial era in Africa ended. In that time the African formula for power residing, if not with one leader then at least with one powerful group, whether tribal or military, still effectively obtains in many countries. As Lumumba once explained to me, to tolerate an opposition is to demonstrate weakness not strength. Therefore, we are dealing with small, privileged groups.

It often puzzles me that the British are ashamed of their colonial past, which left a relatively sound administrative and economic infrastructure, the English language and the rule of law in a continent ruled and fragmented until then on tribal lines, wholly unadapted to the modern world. Yet we deliberately leave action on Zimbabwe to the EU on the grounds that, unlike us, it has no colonial overtones. The EU contains such brutal and incompetent so-called colonisers as the Belgians, the Germans, the Spaniards and the Portuguese and even, to some degree, the French.

NEPAD is now the "in" thing. The concept is admirable, although because of the African power structure I have doubts about how far any economic wealth will trickle down to the people. However, if we are rightly bent on treating African states as we would treat any other economic partner, we must recognise, as the World Bank does not, that Uganda does not yet enjoy the sophisticated infrastructure of Switzerland. En revanche, the African leaders must no longer be allowed to manipulate us by rejecting constructive criticism as colonialist, as has happened in the past, in regard to many of our best aid programmes. Colonialism has been dead a long time. It survives only in the minds of some politically correct gurus who believe it to be a credible reason for failure or, worse, inaction.

What is needed, and soon, is energetic measures to help each country to strengthen its infrastructure; for instance, through extensive training courses for administrators. It was the total absence of that that was Belgium's criminal legacy to the Congo, which should have been prosperous. Finally we must begin by reinforcing strength where it exists. Such countries as Zimbabwe, and to some extent Uganda, can be regional hubs of success. Let us build on that. Prosperity and law and order for the ordinary people will be one of the best, although slowest, ways of countering terrorism.

I have two further points. It is time we ended the proliferation of increasingly useless new organisations and made the existing international bodies, such as the UN and the Commonwealth, more effective. The Harare declaration has proved to be a hollow joke. The real test of the Commonwealth now will be the report of the observers of the Zimbabwe election. I am deeply grateful to the Government for the further injection of money that was announced yesterday. Nevertheless, once we have the result of that election, the Commonwealth will have to take some action.

My last point is that we should be seen to believe more in ourselves. Sierra Leone wanted us back because the colonial experience for them—surprise, surprise—was good. Every important black leader in anglophone Africa whom I have known had at least one loved and admired colonial service friend and mentor. They respect us when we respect ourselves. We should believe in ourselves more.

Touring round Africa with the French, who have a different agenda, and incidentally who were responsible for much of the violence and tragedy of the Great Lakes region, may do us good in the EU, but in Africa we should and could stand on our own decent record and act fearlessly.