Does Poverty Fuel Terrorism?

Nov 17, 2017|Martha Sambe

The Oxford Dictionary defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”.

Terrorism dates back several hundred years but terrorism in the 21st Century is defined by 9/11. The attacks which have followed and the “war on terror” in response, have made terrorism a defining phenomenon of our time. And it is a phenomenon Nigeria has been subject to as it deals with Boko Haram.

Terrorism is often linked to poverty, with an assertion that should poverty be eradicated, terrorism would eventually die. A Time article from 2015 claimed that policymakers more consistently espoused the idea that poverty breeds terrorism, and in an analysis of the topic, the Yale Review of International Studies quoted both Presidents Bush and Obama alluding to the same idea.

Nevertheless, the relationship between terrorism and poverty is not that straightforward. 


Poverty = Terrorism?

A literature review on the causes of terrorism points out that violent conflicts, including terrorism, occur more frequently in poor states. In addition, more open economies that experienced sustained economic growth also witnessed fewer violent conflicts than their poorer counterparts. The authors explained that was due to higher economic costs in wealthier countries – incentives for participating in insurrections are often higher in poorer countries. 

Closely linked to this is the inability to provide welfare. The lack of welfare allowed for an environment where social and civil unrest could thrive, and perhaps even influenced violence. A prime example of this is the Niger Delta crisis where inhabitants live in conditions of squalor.

It seems like if states got richer and provided adequate welfare to their citizens, terrorism would reduce. 

But, some evidence suggests otherwise. 


Correlation is Not Causation 

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing simple about the relationship between poverty and terrorism. 

The preceding evidence makes a case for how poverty can create an environment where terrorism thrives.  However, the 2015 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report found no correlation between extreme poverty and terrorism.

Instead, the report suggested that regions experiencing some level of political instability and conflict were more prone to suffering from terrorist activities. At the same time, areas which were not experiencing political instability or conflict were not exempt from terrorist activities; the primary causes of terrorist activities here were socioeconomic factors such as a lack of faith in democracy, drug crime and social attitudes.

The implication here is that terrorism is not only common in poor economies. The link between poverty and terrorism is further weakened when you consider that, according to the GTI report, the socioeconomic factors which allowed for terrorism to thrive were predominant in the OECD, a group of the world's wealthiest nations. 

Perhaps a more powerful driver of terrorism is political rights

Political rights (or freedom) refer not only to civil liberties but include the degree of national autonomy. Research shows a significant negative correlation between the presence of political rights and the prevalence of terrorism across countries. In addition, analysis of the data (including per capita income, political rights, and geography) revealed that the risk of terrorism was not significantly higher for poorer countries once political rights are taken into account. 

Unsurprisingly, low levels of political rights often coincide with high poverty rates. The data presented here shows the ‘worst of the worst’ for civil liberties and political freedom. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, most of the countries with low levels of civil liberties also struggle economically. This complicates efforts to ascertain what exactly drives terrorism, though it is reasonable to believe that both poverty and political rights play their individual roles. 


Governance and Economy: Two sides of the Coin

Other influential factors lean towards politics and governance.  GTI reports that factors such as political instability and religious violence all correlate strongly with high levels of terrorism.

So, as tempting as it may be to reduce terrorism to a single cause (poverty), we cannot because other factors come into play. 

Moreover, the fact that governance and economy are nearly inseparable complicates things. Similarly, looking at terrorism homogenously is futile. All terrorist organisations do not exist to serve a uniform purpose, so what influences them varies.  

For instance, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) does not have the same goals as Boko Haram. It is necessary that efforts to deal with both take this into account. It is likely that the factors discussed here matter to different degrees.

The neglect of the Niger Delta offers an example of the enduring influence of poverty on terrorist activity, but the role of economics is less pronounced in groups as varied as Boko Haram. Understanding the extent to which influencing factors differ is a better route to finding sustainable solutions.   


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