Poverty: A Root of Extremism

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by Angelika Lauber

If the media is to be believed, the West is facing an apocalyptic threat from extremist groups, especially from the Middle East. The picture we get portrays extremism as an organic evil that has grown like a weed in a flower bed, which needs to be destroyed by force. Even the U.S. President Barack Obama, a Noble Peace Laureate, vowed to “degrade and destroy” the “Islamic State” at the September 2014 NATO Conference in Wales. These were words reminiscent of the declarations of President George W. Bush that, “[the War on Terror] will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

However, despite the many military interventions since then, the mushrooming of new extremist movements continues. The roots of extremism, stemming from religious zeal, non-Western cultural values, ethnic antagonisms or historical wrongs make the battle against it highly complex. The extent to which the West can eradicate its sources is arguably limited, and military force has not proven to be an effective tool.

What could make a difference is an assault on poverty, a frequently forgotten root of extremism and arguably a far more effective focus for Western efforts. Robert Kaplan pinpoints the most significant difference between “the West and the rest” in his 2002 book The Coming Anarchy: only a small percentage of the world lives in relative calm. The rest is exposed to a much harsher, Hobbesian world, dominated by continual fear and danger.

Put simply, the majority of the world is poor. This is hardly news, nor is the link between economic deprivation and radicalization, widely written about by political scientists and sociologists, like Ted Robert Gurr, Atle Mesøy or Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. They explain that extremism finds support in environments characterized by hardship, frustration, feelings of injustice, relative deprivation or having nothing to lose.  According to Brian J. Attwood, a diplomat and former Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, “a strong correlation exists between conditions of underdevelopment and the various forms of conflict.”

An incident that demonstrates this is the recent attack on Western volunteers fighting against Ebola in West Africa. In Guinea, a medical center was attacked in early April. The attackers, carrying knives, murdered eight persons including doctors and journalists in an affected village in September. The bodies were discovered in the village latrine, government spokesman Damantang Albert Camara told Reuters. Three of them had their throats slit. These murders are only a singular instance, yet they show how easily people are pushed towards extreme actions due to catastrophic circumstances.

As perceived injustices increase and as all channgels of crectifiation are barred, the probability of encountering organized extremism in under-developed regions of the world increases. Economic issues may indeed foster frustrations, which eventually make people easier prey for extremists. If the main focus of analysis is solely on already existing, large movements, the first sprouts of radical ideologies can be overseen or considered as insignificant eccentricity.

One such peculiarity is the upsurge of evangelical movements in a number of poor African countries. Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar, in their study on “Religion and Politics in sub-Saharan Africa,” came across Reverend Ernest Pianim, the leading administrator of a dominant Christian movement in Ghana. Pianim has issued a booklet in which he predicts the re-emergence of Ghana from its current woes after the reign of the Antichrist. Oddly, he identifies the European Union as the Antichrist. While some believe the facts of Pianim’s account, the support for Pianim might also be interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction with the EU countries’ activities in Africa. The future consequences of such a radical view of the EU are not clear, but the seeds of antagonism and extremism are certainly sown.

It would be interesting to know whether Pianim could attract many followers in a counterfactual scenario, in which the Ghanaian population enjoy Western living standards and social safety nets. If they enjoyed the thriving economy of a developed country, would the population be as susceptible to the demonization of the EU? Intuitively, one could conclude that a perceived injustice or threatening behavior of another country would lead to support for its demonization.

In some cases, the Western individuals and institutions became a scapegoat and the target of aggressions. Nevertheless, an alternate cause may explain the various kinds of extremism – one that is rarely publicly discussed in the West, as it does not fit with the Western self-perception of being the liberal “saviors.”

Dr. April Biccum, researcher at the Australian National University, argues that our conception of developing countries features a lack of interconnectedness between the First and Third Worlds. Five hundred years of colonial history have culminated in today’s capitalist, exploitative practices and lopsided commercial relations. These have been entirely ignored. For instance, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has resisted rectifying discriminatory tariff practices. This debilitates the promising prospect of great economic growth and development by the Cotton-4 African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mali.

Resentment against the Janus-headed Western behavior is thus unsurprising. No matter at whom the aggression is (justly or unjustly) directed, if the West wants to reduce the fertile ground for extremism, it should start where it could truly effect change – with itself.

Poverty is only one factor among many fostering extremism and is not created simply from Western crippling economic practices. Therefore, its reformation will not be a panacea. Nevertheless, it might be a step in the right direction. With an improvement in living standards and a sense of remedied injustice, people may become less susceptible to extremist doctrines.

The analogy of extremism as a weed remains a surprisingly accurate one: in order to sprout and grow, the seeds of extremism need fertile ground to sink their roots into. Thus, to do away with extremism means to deprive it of fertile ground. One factor fostering susceptibility to extremism is poverty. The West can alleviate this by reversing its crippling economic practices. The threat posed by extremism might finally create sufficient mo-tivation for the West to set right a persistent global imbalance.

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