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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:12 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat 7:12 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, we have had a most interesting and expert debate. I hesitate to add to much of what has been said. Most of all, in the opening speech of my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf, I was fascinated by the subtlety of his argument about the relationship between poverty and terrorism, and the way in which he stressed that terrorism is at least as much a disease of modernisation as it is a disease of absolute poverty. I very much agree with him and wish to take that argument further. After all, we have had the same experience in Europe over the past 200 years; namely, that fundamentalism was part of the disease of modernisation and of the immense dislocation of society and of values as a result of the shift from the village to the town and the city and the shift from traditional assumptions about life to bourgeois education and all the different matters that accompany it.

Due to the speed of transition in Saudi Arabia, people in one generation have gone from traditional villages where they lived in wooden houses and moved around by way of donkeys right through to seeing universities being built in new towns, and engineering being provided as a subject for a university degree. Indeed, that has meant a huge dislocation. The younger generation find themselves arriving in a different world into which they are not entirely accepted, in which they do not feel entirely at home, and from which many feel themselves alienated and excluded.

We had the same experience in 19th-century Europe. This country had the tremendous advantage of being the first to go through the Industrial Revolution and the population explosion. We went through that process more slowly than those who followed. After all, it was Germany that went through that revolution most rapidly and, therefore, found it most dislocating. Thereafter, it was the turn of northern Italy and the countries of what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. Outside Europe it was Japan. Some years ago I can remember hearing a very elderly Japanese person talking about going up to visit a village that was still effectively living in the Middle Ages, and then moving into a city that was going through the Industrial Revolution.

Fundamentalist movements in Europe were often forms of secular fundamentalism, anarchism, faschism and communism. However, they brought with them the same pressures—rapid population growth and urbanisation—which are now afflicting societies across North Africa and Asia. As a number of noble Lords have said, those pressures are made more acute in that area by the immediacy of global communications and by the rich world's attempted blockage of the safety value of outward migration that was there for 19th-century Europe. These people have images of the forbidden promised land, the sense of exclusion from the rich but foreign world. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that those who were directly involved in the events of 11th September were very often people who had been educated in the West but were not in any sense assimilated into it.

The problems in Africa south of the Sahara are in many ways different. With respect, I believe that our Prime Minister exaggerates the link between poverty and terrorism in trying to justify NEPAD as a defence against terrorists. There are many other ways to justify the development of Africa, but, at present, there is no threat of terrorism exported from Africa south of the Sahara. There are many other threats that face us from the many weak and failed states across Africa; namely, uncontrolled migration, desperate refugees fleeing from corrupt governments and internal conflict, disease spilling out from societies where traditional structures have collapsed, and trans-national crime and illegal trade in drugs, diamonds, timber, and so on.

The latter are also threats to our comfortable, rich world. It is in our long-term self-interest to respond to them. However, there are some dangers in attaching the label of "terrorism" to all the problems of the third world. The problems that developing countries face are much more complex and deserve a broader and more modulated response. But what should our response be? Of course we have to respond to terrorism, but that requires good intelligence and co-operation among police forces more than investment in heavy weapons. It requires a long-term response, not the drawing up of the sort of posse that is being called for in the United States.

I recommend the article by James Woolsey in last Friday's Wall Street Journal to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. The article compares the current situation to the film "High Noon": the United States is, indeed, the sheriff standing up to the evil men as they return to town, and the Europeans are the wimps who are finding excuses to slip away. It is a most unfortunate image. We must recognise just how far the current European consensus on what our response should be is from the current consensus within policy-making circles in the United States. We have to talk about nation building not only in Africa but also, as my noble friend said, in Bosnia and in Turkey. After all, Turkey is going through a huge population explosion, with all the dislocations that follow, as well as experiencing problems of urbanisation. We do have a stake in demonstrating that a secular state can grow successfully and democratically out of Islamic roots.

We also have similar long-term problems across west and central Asia; that is, in building a civil society, in building institutions that arouse the trust of the community, and in building a more liberal approach to education. It is a long haul and this will pre-occupy the rich West for more than a generation. We also have to keep the door open to migration—not a popular statement to make when standing for election in this country, or in many others—to allow the élite of those countries, the desperate, to come and join our societies and to begin to feel that they are not excluded by the West.

We must also recognise that adjustments have to be made in the North in our patterns of conspicuous consumption and, in particular, in our consumption of energy resources. Nothing depresses me more about the current response from the United States than the denial that US consumption of energy is part of what is seen as the arrogance of the West and that the US drive for security of energy has biased American policy towards the Middle East for the past 30 or 40 years. There are some enormous problems with the widening gap between American and European understandings of how to respond.

The events of September 11th and their aftermath were a shock to the United States. I am struck and depressed by the extent to which Americans believe that the situation is entirely different from any terrorist threat that European states have had to face in the past 30 or 40 years. I am also struck and depressed by their faith in a military response to the exclusion of other areas and the denigration that one faces when arguing for the European emphasis on the social underpinnings of fundamentalism and anti-westernism and of the importance of assisting in social and economic development.

There is also a denial that the American image is at stake. The Israeli-Palestine conflict is clearly linked to what is happening in the Middle East, but the perception in central and western Asia that the United States does not care about social and economic development outside Israel is very much part of the enormous problem. The sadness that Israel is now destroying the Palestinian economy and thus creating a much more fertile basis for future Palestinian terrorism is part of where we now find ourselves.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, said, not only does poverty breed terrorism, but terrorism and corrupt and weak states lead to poverty. Sadly, we are now seeing that in Zimbabwe and we have to an extent seen it from the relatively weak state of Pakistan. It will not be easy for the West to take on and maintain the delicate task of promoting good and less corrupt government across the world. We face the very hard task of explaining to our comfortable citizens that they cannot shut out the problems of the developing world or the frustrations of the newly educated and that we have to invest in their development and adjust some of our most cherished patterns of consumption to the requirements of creating a more balanced global community.