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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Conservative 6:01 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, on his choice of debate. I congratulate him on his success in the ballot.

One of the consequences of the terrible events of September 11th was the establishment of a consensus; not only for a global coalition against international terrorism, but also for a global coalition against poverty. Nations and institutions alike agreed that action to alleviate poverty worldwide was needed to prevent a repeat of those atrocities.

We can only eliminate terrorism if the fertile conditions which breed it, such as poverty and marginalisation, are removed. I have fears that the political will for this view is likely to be difficult to sustain in the long term. It may become a poor relation to the more specific coalition against international terrorism. As the noble Lord, Lord Rea, has stated, poverty reduction is a long-term mission. There are no easy short cuts nor quick fixes.

The only way to eliminate the terrorist threat permanently is to understand and to treat its causes. Healing its symptoms can only ever be a temporary cure—neutralising the threat perhaps, but not removing it. The international coalition against terrorism has more easily measurable goals and is capable of more rapid successes—witness the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the reduction of poverty and inequality is perhaps our most potent long-range weapon against terrorism.

Poverty and terrorism are often two sides of the same coin and our response must continue to be a twin-track one. One track is the uprooting and destruction of the Al'Qaeda network and its allies around the world. Parallel to that runs the equally important track of rendering infertile the soils of poverty, suffering and resentment in which the seeds of terror grow.

There is a minority school of thought which disputes the linkage between terrorism and poverty. Its advocates argue against a connection between socio-economic indicators and involvement in terrorist activities and suicide attacks in particular. Some even lean towards a darker view of humanity altogether, in which the evil of terrorism is part and parcel of the human condition—the tainted countenance of human nature.

Those who dispute the linkage between poverty and terrorism argue that the common stereotype of terrorists as uneducated, impoverished, disenfranchised unfortunates is no more than a myth. Some of the evidence supports that position. Osama bin Laden, born into wealth and privilege in Saudi Arabia, is held up as proof that it is not poverty which causes terrorism. It is often pointed out that the perpetrators of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks did not fall into the category of the poor and the hopeless, but were college-educated men, from middle-class Saudi Arabian and Emirate families.

That has led to a search for other reasons to explain the lure of terrorism. Some believe that the lack of democracy and the state-centred systems of government in countries such as Saudi Arabia, which allow their young subjects no official outlets for dissent or opposition, are to blame.

Terrorism is a many-headed hydra. Sometimes terrorism has a coherent political agenda; and sometimes it is used in a less focused way, to express rage and protest, or to advance an extreme and fanatic religious agenda, or even for more obscure pathological reasons. In all cases, terrorism makes no distinctions in its choice of victims. The young and the old, the rich and the poor, the politician and the bystander, are all legitimate targets to the terrorist. The power of modern communication to project the horror of terrorism has made it a devastating weapon. The ancient Chinese strategist, Hsun Tzu, defined terrorism as:

"Kill one, frighten ten thousand".

With the communications revolution and the power of television, many more today are frightened, but the principle is the same. While the aims and objectives of individual terrorists groups may differ, there is common ground to be found in the root causes of terrorism. Kim Dae-jung, the Nobel Peace Prize winner stated the matter well:

"At the bottom of terrorism is poverty. That is the main cause. Then there are other religious, national and ideological differences".

I do not say that there is always a direct linear route between poverty alone and the extremism or fanaticism which is so often the driving force behind terrorism. Nor does all terrorism have its roots in poverty, but when its origins lie elsewhere terrorism's adherents have tended to operate on the margins of society. But where terrorism finds resonance and support in the mainstream of a society, where it is perceived as a genuinely viable option, in those cases, poverty and despair will be found cheek by jowl with violence and fear.

I have said before that I do not believe there would have been the same level of popular support among so many in Pakistan for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden if Pakistan was not one of the world's poorest, most illiterate, most malnourished and least gender-sensitive regions in the world. Forty per cent of Pakistan's population lives below the poverty line; 36 million of its inhabitants live in absolute poverty; over two-thirds of Pakistan's adult population is illiterate; and half of all child deaths each year are linked to malnutrition.

Likewise, and I agree with the right reverend Prelate, I believe that the poverty of the Palestinians has nurtured their support of terrorism against Israel. Their standard of living has fallen by some 40 per cent since the signing of the Oslo accords, while unemployment rates are between 20 to 30 per cent in the West Bank.

A life lived in poverty, a life of hardship and a life devoid of hope, is one where terrorism may find the support it needs to succeed and where those who feel that they have nothing to lose and all to gain are willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives. This is one of the most important challenges of our time.