The War on Terror vs. the War on Poverty

A worker stacking bags of grain at the World Food Programme warehouses in Juba, South Sudan, March 2016
Matt Black/Magnum Photos
A worker stacking bags of grain at the World Food Programme warehouses in Juba, South Sudan, March 2016

Those of us who fight global poverty share a guilty secret: our cause got more attention and resources after September 11, 2001. It soon became clear that there would be an alliance between the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Terror.”

But this boost for the cause of the world’s poor came at a price for the values of global humanitarian efforts—the loose alliance of private charities, international organizations, and government aid agencies that give aid to poor countries. The connection between the wars on poverty and terror had two unintentional negative consequences that are becoming more evident as time passes. First, it deepened negative stereotypes about the poor that contribute to the current wave of xenophobia against refugees and immigrants in the US and Europe—attitudes suggested by the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump and other far-right leaders. Second, in justifying support for dictatorial regimes, the connection discredited Western advocacy of the ideals of democracy worldwide. We have Trump expressing admiration for authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin and in some ways aspiring to be an autocrat himself.

The negative stereotypes about the world’s poor got worse during the War on Terror because it was alleged that poverty was the principal cause of terrorism. When he spoke to an international aid conference in March 2002, George W. Bush said that “we fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” In July 2005, after the terrorist attack on the London Underground, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said:

Ultimately what we now know, if we did not before, is that where there is extremism, fanaticism or acute and appalling forms of poverty in one continent, the consequences no longer stay fixed in that continent.

The association of “wars” on terror with those on poverty persisted through changes in leaders and parties. In 2014, John Kerry said that “we have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism.”

As a result the US and UK governments have increased foreign aid to fight the poverty that was allegedly the root of terrorism. The same aid cemented alliances of the US and UK with frontline states in the War on Terror. The unintentional effect was to encourage a stereotype of poor people as terrorists. One well-known economist advising US and UK policy was Paul Collier, whose book The Bottom Billion (2007) conveyed what has become typical of the image of poor countries: “The countries at the bottom coexist with the twenty-first century, but their reality is the fourteenth century: civil war, plague, ignorance.”

There was…



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