No, Poverty is not the Cause

[First published April 27, 2005] It is a common myth that revolutionaries and terrorists are spawned by poverty, and thus have an understandable desire to overthrow the system or global order that they feel is responsible. Eradicate poverty, it is argued, and one furthers human welfare, peace, and good will.

Nice thoughts about poverty, and who doesn’t wish to help the very poor get a better life? But poverty is not the causative agent it is made out to be for revolution and terrorism. Not for war either, or collective violence. Empirical investigation shows that a country’s poverty has little correlation with its foreign and domestic violence. Moreover, a look at the biographies of leading revolutionaries and terrorists makes clear that they come from middle and upper class families, and are usually well educated.

Then what is the cause? In general, it is the socio-political structure of a society and its culture. Whether they are rich or poor, developed or underdeveloped, industrialized or not, democratic countries, with the resulting democratic culture, have a minimum of such violence. There is a clear relationship here. The less democratic a country, the more likely it will suffer from internal violence, including revolutionary violence and domestic terrorism of some kind.

The democratic peace even operates at this level.

As to what stimulates violence in nondemocracies, it is usually contextual, such as ethnic-racial violence aided and abetted by the government, protest demonstrations that turn into extreme violence over new regulations or repression, the assassination of a popular opposition leader, peasant uprisings over government controls, etc. Where the ruling government is always a “they” versus “us” on every major political or socio-economic issue, even minor demonstrations can turn into a countrywide conflict front that soon breaks into bloody rebellion and revolution.

Not incidentally, the cure for massive poverty is the same cure as for violent revolution and terrorism. It is democratic freedom.


Link of Note

”Understanding Terror Networks” (11/1/04) By Marc Sageman (Foreign Policy Research Institute)

Marc Sageman was a CIA case officer in Afghanistan between 1987–89 and is now a forensic psychiatrist. This essay is based on his book, Understanding Terror Networks.

The 400 terrorists on whom I’ve collected data were the ones who actually targeted the “far enemy,” the U.S., as opposed to their own governments. I wanted to limit myself for analytical purity to that group, to see if I could identify anything different from other terrorist movements, which were far more nationalistic.

Most people think that terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, weak minds susceptible to brainwashing—the sociopath, the criminals, the religious fanatic, or, in this country, some believe they’re just plain evil.

Taking these perceived root causes in turn, three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.


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