• Print

Poverty & Terrorism

In response to:

The War on Terror vs. the War on Poverty from the November 24, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

William Easterly argues that terrorism doesn’t flow from poverty, and by throwing aid money at “fragile” states with bad governments, Western donors only encourage and perpetuate bad governance, deepening the very poverty they seek to end [“The War on Terror vs. the War on Poverty,” NYR, November 24, 2016].

It is true that much foreign aid has been used for political ends and commercial advantage, working against its stated purpose. This does not mean, however, that poverty doesn’t exist or that it isn’t a staging ground for all manner of trouble with broad international implications: health pandemics, environmental degradation, refugees. And in societies where people are hungry, some—angry young men mostly—are prone to join groups fighting against perceived oppressors. This is not new: the Bourbons and the Romanovs learned this lesson as they toppled into their graves.

Easterly argues that those “who want to support Western humanitarian efforts should make clear [their] political independence from [their] own governments’ national security programs.” This sounds too much like walking away from a larger responsibility and a more proactive possibility. Why not insist instead that government aid be clearly and demonstrably delinked from national security and commercial interests, that it be spent—as advertised—on poverty reduction, human rights, and good governance, and that it be made openly accountable to those who pay for it—taxpayers?

That, of course, would require something more than misery-based fund-raising and a hunt for government contracts on the part of those “who want to support Western humanitarian efforts.” It would require an effort—especially by NGOs—to explain some of this to taxpayers, treating them as responsible adults rather than passive milch cows. It would require an acknowledgment that there is indeed great peril in poverty and ignorance, but that with care it can be addressed in ways that don’t fall into the traps that Easterly describes so well.

Ian Smillie
President, Canadian Association for the Study of International Development
Ottawa, Canada

William Easterly replies:

Mr. Smillie wants to dispute my summary of the academic literature that evidence is lacking for a link from poverty to terrorism. He correctly points out that lots of bad things do indeed go with poverty. But his one attempt at evidence that does link poverty to terrorism is to anecdotally mention the French and Russian revolutions, whose progenitors were also not from the poorest classes.

Mr. Smillie also wants to limit any rebellion against our own governments’ policies that support autocratic allies in the “war on terror.” These policies are bad for both democracy and development, but Mr. Smillie thinks such a rebellion would be “walking away from a larger responsibility.” He is right to bring up the long-standing conflict in social change efforts between (A) working within the system and (B) protesting against the system. He has some good ideas for option A, many of which he himself is already doing very well. Indeed the vast majority of those who work in global anti-poverty efforts have already, like him, chosen option A. Couldn’t Mr. Smillie let a few of us choose option B?