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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 6:15 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, one of the minor tragedies of September 11th was that it led to much muddled thinking. This debate on terrorism and poverty is an example of such muddled thinking. Of course, we should all do everything to eliminate poverty; that is quite right. I may turn to some dubious statistics about poverty later, if I have time. But we should never eliminate poverty because if we do not people may terrorise us. That is the perfect incentive for everyone to pick up a brick and throw it. We cannot establish any sort of invariable link between poverty and terrorism. The noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, is a distinguished social scientist. He knows how difficult it is to establish correlation between anything in social science, so let us not go down that road.

We ought to think of eliminating third world poverty, but the connection lately made—since 11th September, as if there had been no terrorism before then—is misplaced. It leads us to fallacious thinking about globalisation, among another things. One statistic that has not been mentioned is that during the past 30 years more people have been brought out of poverty than at any time in human history. I do not deny that there is still a lot of poverty, but the spectacular growth rate in Asia, China, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and so on has brought perhaps—I am guessing—1 billion people out of poverty during the past 30 years. So let us not hear anything about globalisation increasing poverty and all that nonsense. There is no hard evidence for that. There is a lot of poverty; it is very bad; and we should do something about it.

If I may add a footnote, we are not going to give anyone any aid. Forget about it! If we do not even help our own poor, we are not going to help the Third World. But we can at least stop subsidising ourselves with 300 billion dollars of subsidy for our own agriculture. We can stop being protectionist, so that we keep out the goods of the Third World as if our jobs are so much more important than their jobs. Recent articles in the press depicting a plant in Romania as a great enemy of our jobs in Britain showed how close protectionism is to all our hearts. Any money given abroad is our enemy because we care only about our jobs, their jobs do not matter. So the first thing that we ought to do is to stop being protectionist, stop subsidising ourselves and stop polluting the world. The poor will then take care of themselves and get themselves out of poverty. We should get out of the way rather than hinder them.

I have two minutes left in which to say something about terrorism. One root cause of terrorism is nationalism. There are lots of nationalist struggles—struggles that arise from injustices felt by nationalists against colonial or other oppressors—which lead to terrorism. Terrorism played a part in the creation of the state of Israel. It was born because its people had a grievance against an occupying power and took to terrorism. I have said before in your Lordships' House that the history of our Commonwealth has been one of terrorists becoming Prime Ministers. So, the new-fashioned idea that terrorism is all bad and that, therefore, we ought to do something about it is very dubious. It is bad thinking.

When we consider Northern Ireland, Palestine, Kashmir or Sri Lanka, we see that many struggles arise from the ills of nationalism—nationalism frustrated or denied and people not given as much territory as they thought they should have had. That is why people rise in revolution. It used to be said during the Cold War that if the first world did not give aid to the third world everyone there would become a communist. Well, we did not give them aid, and they did not become communists. Simplicities such as the belief that if we do not relieve poverty there will be more terrorism will not do.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said, it is important that we settle the major problems of injustice, and they are political injustices. It does not require money to solve the problem of Palestine or the problem of Kashmir. In Sri Lanka, which is an exemplary country in terms of human development, they have been killing each other for 20 years. They have been killing each other not because there is no clean water but because there is a nationalist struggle between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

We should do lots of things about terrorism and lots of things about poverty, but we should not mix the two up.