You might think that poverty breeds terrorism. It’s a fairly intuitive view, and it has been trumpeted by some major figures. Here’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for instance: “You can never win a war against terror as long as there are conditions in the world that make people desperate — poverty, disease, ignorance.” And here’s Colin Powell: “We can’t just stop with a single terrorist or a single terrorist organization; we have to go and root out the whole system. We have to go after poverty.”
God knows, there are far, far worse outlets for the energy that has hummed and crackled around the issue of terrorism since 9/11. But here’s the thing: the more research from the field rolls in, the less it looks like poverty actually breeds terrorism. At least not in anything like a straightforward way.
A new paper in the American Journal of Political Science details some on-the-ground evidence from Pakistan. The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 6,000 people, asking them how they felt towards four different militant groups. Controlling for a bunch of confounding factors, the researchers found that, in fact, poor Pakistanis generally hold militants in lower esteem than middle class folk do.
It is not that people are vulnerable to militants’ appeals because they are poor and dissatisfied. Instead, it appears that the urban poor suffer most from militants’ violent activities and so most intensely dislike them.
This doesn’t come out of the blue. A few years ago, the Harvard economist Alberto Abadie found — looking across different countries — that per-capita national income was not a great indicator of likely terrorism one way or another. Political rights, however, were.
But even there, the relationship wasn’t what you might think: countries with the most freedoms were, as you would guess, not at the greatest risk of spawning terrorism; but nor were those with the most severe and restrictive authoritarian regimes! It was the countries in the middle range that had the most potential for emerging militancy. “Intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions,” writes Abadie. “When governments are weak, political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism.” Which may explain why we saw official Western reactions like these after the Arab Spring. (h/t to Chris Blattman.)