As terrorist networks around the world continue to intensify their activeness in places like Mali, Nigeria, South Sudan and Pakistan, it is worth analyzing the impact that foreign aid might have on reducing extremism.

It is no secret that despite decades and billions of dollars in foreign aid influx into these countries, extremist groups have continuously exploited security gaps and endemic corruption to further their activities. This has allowed for illicit traffic of weapons and the expansion of extremist ideologies across borders.

For instance, in the case of Mali, despite a decade of US assistance, in 2012 it went from a fairly stable democracy to the explosive stage of long simmering insurrections. Also, in Nigeria recent kidnappings and insurgencies by Boko Haram have greatly destabilized the country and brought into question the Nigerian government’s ability to contain the situation. Also, heightened activity by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan not only remains a threat to locals, but a constant threat to US national security.

Since major attacks by the Al-Qaeda network began in the late 1980s, the US has invested billions of dollars to combat the threat of terrorism. Policymakers at the time converged in the belief that economic development was key to ending terrorism. This is because poorer people are more susceptible to extremist ideas and the appeal of violent groups. Therefore, raising incomes through economic development was the key to diminishing support for militant activities.

Yet, according to a survey by Blair, there is no strong evidence to support this argument. According to the finding, the link between support for militancy activities and socioeconomic status is weak at best, and the policies that derive from such assumption should be revised. This study is supported by extensive scholarship. For instance, a number of scholars have found that people who join terrorist groups predominantly come from middle-income families. Also, a study of extremism in Iraq has found that large-scale development programs do not necessarily impact the level of militant activities. But small-scale programs implemented with active local participation actually do.

The stakes are extremely and understanding the relation between poverty and terrorism is a pressing issue. This does not mean that assistance aimed at poverty alleviation should be stopped or reduced until we know more. There are plenty of development needs to be met such as education, health aid and economic growth, among others.

Perhaps, in order to increase the effectiveness of counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency related foreign assistance, it is necessary to rethink international and regional programs beyond a simple linkage between poverty and extremism.

Read more about poverty and national security.

Sahar Abi Hassan

Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Institute,  Foreign Affairs
Photo: Africatime