We often hear that the root cause of terrorism is poverty, even from such places as the Vatican and Pope John Paul II himself. The context is usually that we shouldn’t approach the problem with military solutions, but humanitarian ones addressing people’s physical needs or that we just need to be more understanding of their situation or somesuch.
But the reality, according to a Harvard University researcher is that poverty does not cause terrorism, lack of freedom does.
Associate Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie examined data on terrorism and variables such as wealth, political freedom, geography, and ethnic fractionalization for nations that have been targets of terrorist attacks.
... Before analyzing the data, Abadie believed it was a reasonable assumption that terrorism has its roots in poverty, especially since studies have linked civil war to economic factors. However, once the data was corrected for the influence of other factors studied, Abadie said he found no significant relationship between a nation’s wealth and the level of terrorism it experiences.
“In the past, we heard people refer to the strong link between terrorism and poverty, but in fact when you look at the data, it’s not there. This is true not only for events of international terrorism, as previous studies have shown, but perhaps more surprisingly also for the overall level of terrorism, both of domestic and of foreign origin,” Abadie said.
Instead, Abadie detected a peculiar relationship between the levels of political freedom a nation affords and the severity of terrorism. Though terrorism declined among nations with high levels of political freedom, it was the intermediate nations that seemed most vulnerable.
So the reality is that in order to address terrorism, it’s not poverty we need to look at, but freedom. Abadie’s results suggest that in truly free countries there is little terrorism. Not surprisingly, autocratic, tightly controlled countries also have little terrorism, but as Christians I think we prefer free countries to autocratic ones.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about poverty, but that when speaking about terrorism and what to do about it, we should be talking about bringing freedom and democracy to nations, not just food and water. (And incidentally, truly free and democratic nations generally don’t have as much trouble feeding their people as repressive and corrupt ones.)