Terrorism, Economic Development and Political Openness, edited by Philip Keefer and Norman Loayza.
Cross-national evidence identifies a nuanced role for economic development in reducing terrorist activity. Chapters by Blomberg and Hess support policy maker conclusions that poverty drives terrorism, finding that higher incomes impede terrorist activity. Krueger and Laitin, on the other hand, find little economic foundation for terrorist origins. Why the different conclusions? Krueger and Laitin investigate the overall effects of income across all countries. In “From (No) Guns to Butter,” Blomberg and Hess argue that the effects may differ between richer and poorer countries. Looking at these two groups of countries separately, they find that higher incomes significantly reduce the threat of terrorism in poorer countries, while the opposite holds in richer countries. Pooling all countries, the two effects would cancel out. The aggregate result may then mask the important role of economic development to offset terrorist threats to poorer countries. Because of methodological and data challenges, however, we must recognize that the issue is not yet resolved.
In contrast to the lack of conclusive evidence on whether the poverty of nations is a determinant of terrorism, the evidence is more uniform that individual poverty does not make people more likely to support or participate in terrorist activity. In a survey of 6,000 Muslims from 14 countries, the poorest respondents were the least sympathetic to terrorism (Fair and Haqqani 2006). Krueger and Laitin, Laitin and Shapiro, and Llussá and Tavares, in this volume, review evidence showing that individual terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated.
The second question of concern to this volume’s contributors is whether weak governance and closed political systems foment terrorism. Results in Krueger and Laitin and Blomberg and Hess, though using substantially different approaches, coincide in finding that terrorism is more likely to originate in countries that exhibit closed political systems. Their findings lend strong support to policy maker assertions that good governance and political responsiveness to citizens are fundamental deterrents of terrorism.
Krueger and Laitin and Blomberg and Hess also agree that the economic characteristics of countries affect whether they will be the target of terrorist activity. This leads to a provocative dichotomy. The origins of terrorism seem to be in countries that suffer from political oppression; the targets are countries that enjoy economic success....
The conclusion that terrorists are driven not by personal poverty, but by the political and economic climate of the countries from which they come raises new questions. Why should the social environment be more important than individual income? Why are terrorist organizations more common in countries with difficult political climates? In their chapter, Laitin and Shapiro provide reason to believe that the answer lies in the challenges of constructing a terrorist organization. Even though terrorism is not a purely ideological phenomenon, terrorist organizations depend on ideologically motivated, educated recruits. Unlike, for example, trench warfare, terrorism requires individual initiative and the exercise of judgment. Close monitoring by terrorist leaders of their “employees” is not possible. Ideological commitment helps solve part of this contracting problem. So also does an emphasis on recruiting well-educated individuals, who are most likely to come from more prosperous families.
Laitin and Shapiro emphasize that terrorism is not simply the direct outcome of irrational behavior. Terrorism is a complex strategy to achieve economic and political goals, having roots in distinct cultural and religious differences and using ideological commitment to sharpen its organization. Their conclusion is not surprising and could extend to the role of cultural and religious factors in social conflict throughout history. The One Hundred Years War is just one example of prolonged conflict in the West in which religious motivations were intertwined with other serious economic and political differences.
Their argument explains why terrorists themselves are rarely poor and why terrorist organizations are most likely to emerge in politically closed countries. On the one hand, terrorist organization is difficult and requires individuals with substantial human capital, which is more prevalent in families rich enough to educate their children well. On the other hand, to persuade such well-educated, relatively prosperous individuals to join a terrorist organization in democratic countries is difficult: the ideological payoffs are fewer and peaceful alternatives to terrorist methods are more abundant and effective. This also explains the paradox that individual poverty is less associated with terrorist activities than national poverty. National incomes and the political responsiveness of national governments are closely related: political environments that are repressive enough to facilitate terrorist recruitment are less likely to attract substantial investment and entrepreneurial activity.
The Riddle of Terrorism
Economics and Terrorism: What We Know, What We Should Know and the Data We Need
Terrorism and Civil War
Kto Kogo?: A Cross-Country Study of the Origins and Targets of Terrorism