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Broke and dangerous? Poor logic
Combating militant violence, particularly within South Asia and the Middle East, stands at the top of the international security agenda, but policymakers still struggle to identify its root causes and develop sensible programs to address them. Economic development aid has emerged as a central tool, with the thought that poverty is one of those root causes. Poorer people, the logic goes, are more susceptible to the appeals of violent groups or are more likely to perpetrate violence themselves.
Barack Obama, arguing in favor of more development aid to poor countries, said in 2010 that "extremely poor societies" provide "optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism, and conflict". His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, declared economic development to be "an integral part of America's national security policy".
Yet there is little evidence of any such connection between poverty and militant violence.
The international consensus that poverty motivates support for and participation in Islamist militancy stands in disagreement with nearly the entire corpus of research on terrorism to date. Studies have found that the perpetrators of militant violence are predominantly from the middle class or wealthy families, and that income and education levels do not correlate with support for suicide bombing or other militant tactics. The evidence on the relationship between unemployment (and other indicators of poverty) and criminal violence, insurgency, and terrorism is distinctly mixed.
The stakes for this argument are particularly high in Pakistan, both because it exports terrorism and because it is itself the victim of an insurgency that has killed or injured some 35, 000 Pakistanis since 2004. The Western government and aid donor agenda aimed at ending the insurgency and reducing militancy is dominated by programmes to alleviate poverty. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill in the US Senate, for example, proposes spending $7. 5 billion on economic development aid to Pakistan, with the express aim of "combatting militant extremism."
The theory behind these policies rests on the notion that poor people are more susceptible to militants' appeals. We conducted a survey to test the claim that development will diminish support for militant groups.
The 6,000-person, nationally representative survey of Pakistanis measured attitudes toward four important militant organisations: al-Qaida, the Afghan Taliban, the so-called Kashmiri groups, and sectarian groups. The survey, conducted in 2009, was much larger than prior efforts, allowing us to examine variation in support for the groups across districts and provinces in the country. It also overcame important problems in earlier surveys, which asked Pakistanis directly about militant groups. The direct questioning led many respondents not to respond at all, probably because they felt answering would put them at risk. Similar concerns may have led some to obscure their true beliefs.
We measured attitudes towards the groups using an indirect questioning technique called an "endorsement experiment" that both protected the safety of survey respondents by making it impossible to identify any individual's response, and allowed our interviewers to travel with the survey documents in difficult security environments including Kyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Respondents knew they were being protected by this technique, and shared views of the violent groups at dramatically higher rates than in previous surveys.
Respondents were presented with a set of four policy issues, including WHO polio vaccinations and the redefinition of the Durand Line separating Pakistan from Afghanistan, and asked how much they supported each. In one group, respondents were first told that one of the four militant groups supported the policy. Comparing the support for each policy between those who were told a militant group supported the policy with those who were not provides us with a measure of support for the group.
Our study using these data revealed four findings that undermine that common wisdom about support for militancy in Pakistan.
First, respondents were negatively inclined toward all four militant organisations. Contrary to some popular accounts, Pakistanis do not have a taste for militant violence.
Second, respondents living in violent parts of the country strongly disliked these groups. We suspect this is because these Pakistanis pay the price for militant violence, regardless of their views about the groups' goals. Those from comparatively peaceful areas do not bear the full costs of militant action.
Third, poor Pakistanis disliked the militant groups more than middle-class citizens. Much of Pakistan's violence is concentrated in poorer areas and in the bazaars where less affluent people sell goods, shop, and pray at mosques. As a result, the poor appear to be more at risk of income loss from attacks, and those losses are more consequential for them. Wealthier people often have servants run their errands and when they do personal shopping they are likely to do so in upscale stores in their own neighborhoods, which are safer.
Fourth, people who live in urban areas dislike the militant groups more than those in rural areas, and this dislike is strongest among poor urban residents. This reinforces the idea that the dislike of the groups is driven by greater exposure to their attacks, which are concentrated in urban areas.
The regrettable facts seem to suggest that popular, if bromidic, arguments that seek to tie support for violent political organisations to individuals' economic prospects, and the resulting policy recommendations, require substantial revision.
The stakes are high: most governments are still reeling from the global recession and looking to make budget cuts where possible. We are not suggesting, however, that investments to alleviate poverty should be stopped. Over the last two decades Pakistan witnessed important improvements in life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality rates, and literacy rates. Investments to spur further gains should be made, but with the objective of serving development goals rather than folded into popular strategies to mitigate violence and dampen insurgency.
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