Does Poverty Fuel Extremism?


I saw an interesting article recently entitled, “Driven to extremes: How poverty fuels extremism, and how to help Africa’s youth.” The title immediately caught my attention, not least because of the October attacks in Somalia. For the past three years I’ve been wondering how strong the connection is between poverty and the increased activity of extremist groups - Al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and of course, the longer standing Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Hamas - sadly, the list goes on. To find an article from a reputable source (Siddharth Chatterjee, the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya) connecting these issues was really helpful.

Of course, terrorism is a multi-faceted, complex issue that I wouldn’t dare to pretend to fully understand. In his 2015 article, “Don’t Dismiss Poverty’s Role in Terrorism Yet,” David Sterman begins by outlining the popular arguments against poverty as a root cause of extremism, primarily that (1) there are millions of poor people who are never radicalized, (2) many terrorist organizations recruit upper and middle class members, and (3) some studies show little to no connection between the two.

Photo courtesy AllAfrica.com
While Sterman acknowledges the strengths of these arguments, he goes on to challenge the assumption that they dismiss any connection between poverty and extremism altogether. Highlighting studies that do point toward poverty as a key motivator for young people to join certain extremist groups, he cautions pundits and journalists against making sweeping generalizations about terrorist organizations. All factors must be weighed individually, and in context.

For example, Sterman points out that “American Somalis - 82 percent of whom live near or below the poverty line according to a 2008 Census Bureau study - are the source of the largest groups travelling to fight with jihadist groups abroad.” That’s a connection that can’t be ignored. In the end, Sterman calls for more concrete data on the topic, as well as for a commitment to interpreting that data in its context - we can’t continue to paint all terrorist groups with the same religious fanaticism brush. It’s just too complex of an issue.

So, three years after David Sterman published his cautionary article, I’m reading a key UN official’s plea for the world to take poverty more seriously as we struggle to implement global security. And his plea is based on that new data Sterman called for. The more I read, the more I’m concerned that the world isn’t listening.

According to a 2017 report by the UNDP (and contrary to public perception), many extremists in developing countries in Africa are not motivated by religious ideology. In a survey of 500 members of African extremist groups the vast majority cited lack of employment, healthcare, education, security, and housing as the primary reasons they joined these violent groups.

It turns out, terrorism is a poverty issue, after all.

While terrorist groups can be motivated by history, ethnicity, personal disenfranchisement, power, and yes, sometimes religion, in Africa they seem to be primarily motivated by poverty.

And I think that’s actually good news.

Because poverty is an issue we can do something about.

Youth in Africa need shelter. They need healthcare. They need education. They need stable homes. And a lot of that boils down to the economy - their parents need jobs and the youth need a future to hope for.

We shouldn't be surprised when youth raised in refugee camps with no hope of exiting those camps turn to extremism.

We shouldn't be surprised when youth raised in cities with no job prospects turn to extremism.

Youth who watch their siblings die of preventable illnesses, youth who see their family’s crops fail without adequate rainfall, youth whose hopes for education are dashed because of a need for child labour - these youth are made extremely vulnerable to radicalization. And one of the major culprits is poverty.

If we want to get serious about ending terrorism we need to get serious about ending poverty.

Development isn’t a silver bullet solution to extremism. The complexity and unique makeup of individual terrorist groups is not going to magically disappear if we show up with clean water and education. But the world must start taking poverty seriously as a major contributing factor to our collective, global insecurity, and committing to do something about it.

About Eryn Austin Bergen: Raised in West Africa, Eryn has a keen interest in issues of development and poverty, and how those intersect with God's message of justice and hope for all peoples. She enjoys poetry, preaching on occasion, and pumpkins. Eryn has worked as the Creative Copywriter at Food for the Hungry Canada since 2014.




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Food for the Hungry: Does Poverty Fuel Extremism?
Does Poverty Fuel Extremism?
Food for the Hungry
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