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Poverty breeds terrorism? Think again

February 26, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

Part of the conventional wisdom maintains that poverty, deprivation and lack of education offer a breeding ground for terrorism. It follows that development projects are much needed to eliminate terrorism. This wisdom is epitomized by Nicholas Kristoff on the New York Time where he presents microfinance as one of the best tools to fight terrorism in Pakistan. In his words:

“The toolkit to fight terrorism includes not only missiles but also microfinance and economic opportunity.”

But is it really the case that conditions of extreme poverty foster extremism and terrorism amongst the population? NO. An article on the Economist provides the details:

  1. There is no evidence that poor and badly educated people are more likely to become terrorists. By contrast, evidence shows that terrorists are less poor and better educated when compared to the average population of their country.
  2. There is no evidence that terrorists find sympathizers in the poor population. Surveys in fact show that consensus of terrorists attack increase with the level of education.
  3. Another argument often made is that richer citizens in developing countries will join the terrorist because they cannot stand the sight of so many poor people in their respective societies. But if one looks at the link between GDP per head and propensity to produce terrorists, as Krueger at Princeton does, one finds that “the poorest countries, those with low literacy, or those whose economies were relatively stagnant did not produce more terrorists.”
  4. Creating employment in developing countries could make terrorism less effective as more skilled and talented individuals will be more likely to find meaningful employment and therefore less likely to be recruited by terrorist organization.

To say that poverty is not strictly associated with terrorism is not to say that are no reasons to invest in development projects or that microfinance in Pakistan is not worth it. Rather it is to criticize an argument that is often used to underpin a dangerous recent trend: the securitization of development (read Easterly’s post about the risk to integrate development with diplomacy and defense). Global security and development are very different objectives and the absence of a link between poverty and terrorism can help to reinforce this distinction.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rida H B permalink
    February 26, 2011 6:35 pm

    This post brings up some interesting points and also raises some pertinent questions. I won’t generalize and can’t speak for other countries but in the case of Pakistan, I would agree that it’s not poverty per se that breeds terrorism – it’s too simplistic an explanation. One dimension to look at would be income inequality and class conflict, which in Pakistan has polarized segments of the society. While this does not fully account for why people become terrorists, they can offer partial explanations.

    It’s a fact that terrorism is a transnational activity and while of course the socio-economic conditions in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen may account for why such countries become breeding grounds for such activities, one cannot ignore the influence of geo-politics and foreign policy objectives as well.


  1. The “Indecisive Terrorist” and the Link Between Poverty, Education and Terrorism « Do No Harm

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