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Maybe poverty doesn’t breed terrorism

One counterrorism strategy that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama agree on — not to mention Desmond Tutu, Colin Powell, Kofi Annan and many more — is that there’s a link between extreme poverty and support for violent extremism. But some new data from Pakistan complicates this picture somewhat.  Analyzing a 6,000 person survey, ...

One counterrorism strategy that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama agree on — not to mention Desmond Tutu, Colin Powell, Kofi Annan and many more — is that there’s a link between extreme poverty and support for violent extremism. But some new data from Pakistan complicates this picture somewhat. 

Analyzing a 6,000 person survey, researchers Graeme Blair, Christine Fair, Neil Malhotra, and Jacob N. Shapiro found little connection between wealth and support for terrorism:

 

Using this approach, we find first that poor individuals hold militants in lower regard than middle-class Pakistanis, even after controlling for a wide range of potentially confounding factors. We further find no evidence that those living in poorer areas are more supportive of militants than others, and the relationship between support and individual-level poverty does not change when we control for community-level income measures. Rather, the contextual factor that matters appears to be exposure to the externalities of militant violence. Leveraging a new dataset of violent incidents, we find first that violence is heavily concentrated in urban areas and second that dislike of militant groups is nearly three times stronger among the urban poor living in districts that have experienced violence than among the poor living in nonviolent districts. 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.

Depressingly, the data seems to show that the main factor reducing support for terrorism is more terrorism. 

Christine Fair also discussed the "poverty breeds terrorism" assertion in a "Think Again" article for FP — co-authored with former ambassador Husain Haqqani — back in 2006.

Hat tip: Chris Blattman

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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