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Is Terrorism's Cause Poverty?

Surprisingly, No

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It seems almost intuitive to explain terrorism—especially suicide bombing--in terms of poverty and lack of education. Who, but someone desperate, without more fruitful opportunities before them, would so willingly relinquish their own life?

This claim can frequently be heard by policy makers or others seeking to influence international aid and development policy in a way that will also positively affect counterterrorism efforts. Russell Ackoff, emeritus professor at the Wharton School of Business, put forth this view at a conference designed to promote private business' role in combating terrorism:

The basic problem that spurs terrorism is misdistribution of wealth within the U.S. and around the world. “Awareness of this inequality is widespread because of communications,” [Ackoff has] noted. “We don’t understand how to close the gap, and the IMF and the World Bank often make matters worse.”

Gary Becker, a professor at the University of Chicago Business School, has also argued there is a connection between wealth and terrorism, based on the observation that "nations or regions that are experiencing rapid growth appear to have lower incidences of terrorism." Becker posits that political activism, including violent activity, is less appealing to individuals when their economic opportunities expand. So, even if it were the case that poverty does not directly cause terrorism, it could still be true that economic growth reduces terrorism.

Either of these possibilities suggests that counterterrorism policy, and international aid and development policies, should be forged together and should complement each other. But what if there is simply no connection at all between either poverty or rising economic opportunity and terrorism?

Terrorists have higher educations and incomes than expected Although study is still limited, the evidence that there is no simple, direct line from poverty to terrorism is persuasive. Analyses of terrorist activities in the last two decades consistently reveal that individuals who support and commit terrorist acts are likely to be more highly educated and have higher incomes than others in their society.

Harvard public policy professor Alberto Abadie concluded poor countries do not experience more terrorism than wealthy countries, after he studied wealth, political liberty and other variables in relation to terrorism. He also concluded that political liberty is a better indicator than poverty of terrorist activity.

Similarly, Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova have proposed that : "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."

Krueger and Maleckova draw their conclusions from a variety of sources. Their examination of a December 2001 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey research (PCPSR), public opinion poll revealed little economic or educational class difference among Palestinians who support for armed activity against Israeli targets, and those who don't.

Kreuger and Mileckova also speculate on evidence provided by Nasra Hassan about would-be Palestinian suicide bombers between 1996 and 1999. Hassan, now the Director of the United Nations Information Service in Vienna, has written about the fact that there are many more volunteers for "martyrdom operations" carried out by the Palestinian group Hamas, than there are planned operations: "Many were middle class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs . . . Two were the sons of millionaires."

Kreuger and Mileckova suggest that higher levels of education may improve a candidate's chance of being selected to carry out work as a "human bomb," since he is likely to be able to articulate his commitment more effectively than someone with less education, acting from desperation.

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