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Poverty and Violent Extremism
Addressing violent extremism requires going beyond a strictly military approach to address the root causes of radicalization. While many have argued that poverty is a leading factor behind radicalization, the relationship between poverty and violent extremism is complex. Poverty by itself does not necessarily lead to a rise in violent extremism. However, societal exclusion and marginalization, which poverty links to, have a significant capacity to propel people to violence.

Government Failure

A more accurate way of determining the relationship between poverty and violent extremism is to examine not just individual cases of poverty, but entire structures that lead to deprivation and exclusion. A variety of societal factors can drive people to extremism. Firstly, a failure of state governments to provide social services not only results in poverty but allows extremist groups to fill the service gap. Secondly, distinct economic inequality between social groups can lead to grievances and disillusionment which makes extremist viewpoints more attractive. Connected to this form of inequality is social exclusion, in which society relegates one group to its outskirts. Without an ability to fully participate in the community and take part in the political process, people may become desperate for a sense of belonging and empowerment, two things which extremist groups promise.

Feelings of abandonment and resentment are prone to occur in weak states which are unable to provide their citizens with security and basic services. This not only heightens inequality, but it also means that impoverished people may come to rely on terrorist groups to provide services. By filling this role of a social service provider, extremist groups can ingratiate themselves with the community and gradually recruit. Multiple terrorist groups have succeeded in proliferating through this welfare terrorism strategy.

Hezbollah, for instance, has established schools, medical centers and agricultural programs among Shiite populations in Lebanon, while Hamas has made similar investments in education, health and cultural establishments in the West Bank. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have both established religious schools which are sometimes the only educational option available in poor regions, leaving parents with little choice but to send their children to schools that can teach violent ideologies. The failure of governments to provide education, health and social services aids this phenomenon. When terrorist groups provide these services, it not only encourages the population to accept extremists into their community, it also delegitimizes the state and political system.

Inequality and Discrimination

Additionally, it is necessary to evaluate poverty in context within a country in order to determine its relationship to violent extremism. Relative poverty tends to be more of a factor than absolute poverty in radicalizing someone towards violence. In other words, while poverty on an individual level is unlikely to prompt someone to become an extremist, the existence of societal poverty or marked inequality between social groups, can have that effect. People know inequality between groups, in which one group has privilege over the other, as horizontal inequality and it is particularly likely to lead to grievances and the perception of injustice.

One can find an example of horizontal inequality in Syria, where significant disparities have existed for decades between Sunni and Shia Arabs. Under the Al-Assad regime, Sunnis, who make up the majority of the population, have faced economic hardship and discrimination in favor of Alawite elites. Syria is one of the most economically unequal countries in the region with a GINI coefficient of 38.8, and regions of the country have experienced development in a very uneven way. Terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda have been able to exploit Sunni anger at the state to recruit in Syria.

Social Exclusion

Social exclusion is also a crucial factor in driving people towards violent extremism. The U.N. defines social exclusion as a “lack of participation in decision-making processes in civil, socio-economic and cultural life” and the institutionalized withholding of rights which make it impossible to fully integrate with the broader community. When whole social groups receive systematic alienation, group members can become desperate for a sense of belonging and autonomy. This makes them ripe targets for recruitment into terrorist groups, which offer a sense of inclusion and identity.

As one young man in Kenya describes it, “poverty feeds terrorism by eroding a basic human need: the need to belong… Poor people have no stake in nations and economies that ignore them.”As he points out, a lack of economic resources means people are denied the chance to fully participate in and contribute to society. Instead, they spend all their time merely trying to survive. When young people are unable to find productive work and feelings of alienation and deprivation overwhelm them, it can tempt them to join gangs and terrorist networks. These provide not only money but a sense of belonging and utility. Additionally, an inability to enact change through undemocratic political systems may prompt people to turn to violence as an attempt to restore justice.

Activists in marginalized communities have worked to combat this problem through programs which provide not just economic assistance, but a sense of community. For instance, Shining Hope for New Communities (SHOFCO), works in Kibera and Mathare. The organization runs a school for girls that provides tuition-free learning as well as free nutrition and health services for students and their families. The organization also issues microloans which allow people to start small businesses and gain financial stability. Crucially, SHOFCO also works to provide a sense of community for residents through theater, soccer programs and employment advice sessions.

The Role of Foreign Aid to Reduce Violent Extremism

Beyond programs like these, foreign aid has significant potential to reduce the circumstances which can drive people to violent extremism. It is important that aid goes beyond economic assistance to address the sources of grievances which can lead to radicalization. Multiple studies have found that high levels of civil liberties and a strong rule of law correlate with a low number of domestic terrorist attacks. Repression and weak rule of law not only delegitimize the state, but they also deny citizens appropriate channels for addressing grievances through the political system, leading some to take up violent means. With this in mind, foreign aid which focuses on good governance and promoting civil society has the potential to reduce extremism.

One study which examined the number of terrorist attacks in countries from 1997 to 2020 found that governance and civil society assistance results in fewer terrorist attacks in countries that were not experiencing a civil war. As this study shows, investment in foreign aid has the ability to reduce violent extremism, which is one of the key priorities of U.S. national security policy. If U.S. policymakers want to stop the spread of violent extremism, they should support programs that promote providing people with basic needs, economic equality and give people a stake in their community.

Clarissa Cooney
Photo: Flickr

Poverty and Terrorism in Africa

On March 22, the Trump administration repeated its assertion that ISIS had been defeated in Syria. For the past two decades, Americans have focused exclusively on the Middle East when it comes to strategic counter-terrorism efforts. Since September 11, the U.S. military has involved itself in the affairs of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries in order to stamp out terrorism. However, poverty and terrorism in Africa are going unchecked.

These military campaigns and several other military operations took place during the contentious “War on Terror.” Now, nearly eighteen years after the attacks, the American public is ready to lessen its intervention in the Middle East. By announcing ISIS’ defeat and pulling the military out, the President is suggesting that the U.S.’s role in the Middle East is nearing its end.

Violent Extremists Organizations

Though leaders of terror groups, like Osama Bin Laden, can be stopped, ideologies on terrorism still hold critical importance. Professor Paul Holman of the University of Maine has been an expert and educator on terrorism and politics for nearly four decades. He did not agree that ISIS had been “defeated” in Syria. This comes down to the root of what terrorism actually is.

In correspondence with the Borgen Project, Professor Holman defines terrorism as “violence against innocent civilians for political reasons.” He notes that both governments and violent extremist organizations (VEOs), like ISIS, use terrorism to further their ideals. Though Syria is no longer under its control, ISIS is more than a national movement.

ISIS is not simply trying to seize and hold territory in Syria and Iraq. Instead, Holman notes, ISIS is a transnational movement based upon extreme religious views, which exist in many other countries. Now that the United States military has weakened many VEOs in the Middle East, where do these organizations go next? Poverty and terrorism in Africa reveal the influence of these VEOs.

The Democratic Republic of Congo

In April, Congolese President Tshisekedi discussed the future of terrorist violence in Africa: “It is easy to see how the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq could lead to a situation where these groups are now going to come into Africa and take advantage of the pervasive poverty and also the situation of chaos that we have, for example, in Beni and Butembo, to set up their caliphate.” Beni and Butembo are northeastern cities in the DRC that have faced a substantial amount of violence.

No doubt, ISIS and other VEOs are capitalizing on the extreme poverty and the chaos of certain regions in Africa. In fact, on April 16, ISIS claimed its first attack on the DRC, killing eight soldiers. A statement made by Islamic State propagandists, to take responsibility for the attack, described Congo as the “Central Africa Province of the Caliphate.” Though these attacks by extremist groups in Africa are not new, American’s realization of their strengths seems to be.

Extemists Groups Gaining Power

As poverty and instability lead to upticks in violence by VEOs, regions in Africa are becoming more susceptible to extremist attacks. For the past ten years, Islamist militant groups have been gaining ground in Africa. In 2015, in the poverty-stricken region of northern Nigeria (the largest nation within Africa), Boko Haram became “the world’s deadliest terror group” while at the same time pledging allegiance to ISIS. Though several African militaries, with aid from France and other Western countries, decimated the land control of Boko Haram, the group still maintains a strong influence within Northern Africa.

With African militaries and other nations are fighting against its influence, Boko Haram focused on the Lake Chad region that borders Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Lake Chad is not only one of the poorest regions in the world but a region that remained largely ungoverned. In 2016, Boko Haram split into two, the new group being the Islamic State of West Africa. The Islamic State of West Africa is offering protection to locals from Boko Haram in exchange for economic reimbursement.

Other extremist groups are adopting the strategy of exploiting extreme poverty as well as profiting off of regional and tribal conflicts while diseases spread. According to the Global Hunger Index, some of the hungriest places on Earth are in Africa as are also some of the least peaceful countries. Northern and Central Africa have similar scores in hunger and peace rankings to those of Syria and Iraq where extremist groups have thrived in the past.

VEOs in Nigeria and Sudan

Professor Holman identified a few African nations that are of higher risk of violent attacks by extremist groups, such as Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria. “The country [Nigeria] is polarized between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, suffering from endemic corruption as well as ethnic rivalries and religious differences.” Libya has been in a civil war since the Ghadaffi regime was overthrown. Sudan has had political turmoil both before and after Bashir’s regime was ousted, and Somalia has a weak government.

It is clear that these terrorist groups thrive in poverty-stricken countries fraught with political strife. Therefore, it is essential that poverty and terrorism in Africa be combatted. Governments and organizations must ensure that the innocent civilians have the education, food, water and financial stability needed to secure themselves from violent extremist groups that prey on the poor and the weak. Foreign aid along with maintaining diplomatic relationships with governments from African nations will be a huge part of that. This fosters strong governments that are able to coordinate a defense from extremist groups.

– Kurt Thiele
Photo: Flickr

soft_power
Many people view foreign aid programs as acts of charity. However, through “soft power” and preventative measures, international assistance can play an important role in national security as well.

Poverty Reduction as Soft Power

Influential political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1990 to describe the ability of one nation to influence another without resorting to force. It’s the alternative to “hard power,” which includes military force and economic sanctions.

Cultural influence and moral authority are important aspects of soft power. When a country is seen as being morally upstanding by the world community, it achieves greater influence. For instance, if a country is strongly democratic, it can influence others by promoting democracy abroad.

In a similar way, soft power can improve national security. In a world that is increasingly democratic and interconnected, national reputation has grown in importance. Through soft power, a country can seek to influence world opinion to prevent acts of aggression or terrorism.

Foreign assistance is an important tool to improve national reputation. When a country takes the lead in humanitarian relief or international development, it improves its standing and influence. It makes cooperation more likely and conflict less so.

Poverty Reduction as a Preventative Measure

It’s no secret that violent extremism tends to flourish in desperate places. Poverty grinds down civil society and weakens government institutions. Without strong governance, many people turn to armed rebel groups for services. For instance, during the civil wars in Afghanistan, many turned to extremist schools for education and to the Taliban for protection.

The U.S. Department of Defense has long recognized this reality. Robert Gates, former defense secretary, viewed international development as a way to prevent conflicts from starting.

“The way you do that is through development. Development creates stability, it contributes to better governance,” Gates said in 2010. “If you are able to do those things, if you are able to do it in a focused and sustainable way, then it may be unnecessary to send soldiers.”

Global poverty causes conflict and perpetuates it. While the United States has the strongest military in the world, it can only react to dangers as they arise. Increased spending for foreign assistance would improve national security by reducing the likelihood of conflict and unrest.

That’s a sentiment that President Obama agrees with as well. In a recent interview with Vox.com, the president conveyed his view of foreign aid as a “tool in our national security portfolio, as opposed to charity.” The president proposed strategic investments in key countries to reduce the need to deploy the U.S. military abroad. “We would be in a better position,” he stated, “to work with other countries to stamp out violent extremism.”

– Kevin McLaughlin

Sources: Department of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Vox.com
Photo: Flickr

marginalized
Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour sat down with United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea. The Secretary General spoke with Woodruff about violent extremism and conflict around the globe, and explained how helping the marginalized could potentially reduce conflict and global poverty.

Violent extremism is perhaps the greatest present threat to world stability because terrorism has no borders; it is a global crisis. There is no definitive solution to violent extremism, which has recently caused thousands to move from their homes and even cost them their lives.

Conflict and global poverty are connected, and the more people are marginalized, the farther conflict will spread. People become marginalized when they are pushed to the edge of society instead of finding a place within it. An EQ Review article states that “some [people] can become skeptical, embittered or violent, and they often model and raise children to think and act similarly.” Violence and conflict become a way of life and a solution to unstable societies and difficult upbringings. The desperation for a “better” life pushes people to drastic measures, increasing marginalization, poverty and violent extremism.

According to an EQ Review article, “political and social turmoil in [many regions] has resulted in the abduction and recruitment of young soldiers, extensive socio-economic and cultural upheaval, and extreme poverty.” The Borgen Project notes “that investments, non-military tools of development, and diplomacy…strengthen our allies and fights the spread of poverty, disease, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.” Halting the spread of conflict is vital in a new era of technology and transnational terrorism.

But there is hope. By educating the youth of impoverished nations, security and opportunities are both created. Ban Ki-moon states in the interview that the United Nations is doing everything it can to find a solution that will affect global politics as well as global poverty.

– Alaina Grote

Sources: PBS,  USAID,  The Borgen Project
Photo: Yemen Fox