Is poverty or governance the cause of terrorism?

Tuesday, 8 October 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Given the recent developments we see in Sri Lanka, it’s opportune to revisit the debate on whether it was poverty or governance that caused terrorism in Sri Lanka and what key strategies we need to develop to ensure that we do have a repeat of this phenomenon. Global research concludes that it is a combination of poverty and governance but let us see how things have unfolded in Sri Lanka. 1983 – Reality If one tracks back, in 1983, apparently Prabhakaran had only 12 cadres with 20 shotguns but due to the inaction of building peace with a combination of poverty eradication and governance issues by 2006, Prabhakaran was leading one of the strongest war related brand names called the LTTE with a product portfolio that included aircrafts, tanks, submarines, missiles, ships and global network linked to the world economy of logistics and supply chain development powered by a brigade of more than 45,000 highly skilled cadres that had earned a reputation for innovating the first human bomb and the most ruthless terror organisation globally. The million dollar question was poverty the cause of this or the governance issue that gave opportunity for the development of such a strong brand like the LTTE. 2004 – Reality Sri Lanka has been grappling with the issue of poverty for decades. Successive governments have been focusing on the top line where Sri Lanka had announced to the world, where from 1996 the poverty indicator stood at 24.3% and then it moved to 19.2% in 2002 and by 2007 it moved down to 15.2% and today as at 2013 Sri Lanka registers a single digit number at below 5%, which is commendable given that the South Asian countries are at loggerheads on how to manage poverty through pro-poor strategies, and in the recent past the mechanism of inclusive growth. Staying focused to the argument at hand if it was poverty or governance that cased the brand LTTE to hit global headlines, however, I am going back to what my early life business gurus told me: go behind the numbers and understand the insights. It’s only then that reality can be seen. As per the 2003/2004 Socio Economic indicators, the access to pipe borne water in the Northern Province was only 3.1% whilst in the Eastern Province it records 17.4%. The National average stood at a high 30.8%. In another key variable like the non access to toilets which is a stronger indicator on the quality of life of a household, the northern region registers 14.4% and the east a staggering at 29.2% whilst the national average stands at a respectable 5.6%, which gives us an idea of the disparity that exists at a regional level even though the top line reflects a healthy situation. If we move on to indicators which are related to income and health, as per the labour force survey of 2002 the labour force participation number was at 50.3% nationally whilst in the north it drops to 33.8% and 40.3% in the east, which can directly be reflective of the health gaps in these regions. 46% of the children below five years of age in the north east was underweight compared to the 29% of the rest of the country. The percentage of babies born underweight in the country is 18% but the reality is that in the north east it is as high as 26%. These figures are worse in Districts like Batticaloa and Vavuniya, where half of the children were reported to be underweight. On the area of connectivity through mobile and land phones, the numbers were at a low ebb of 10% in the north and 15% in the east as per the 2003/4 census, even though the penetration of electricity was at a high 64% of the households in the north east. One revelation was that in remote areas of Kilinochchi, Mannar and Mullaitivu, the non availability of power sometimes reached a dizzy high of 90%, which can give us an idea of the deprivation and isolation that exits and the opportunity for idolism to be indoctrinated. Hence one argument that is being pointed to is that one can easily coxed to extreme behaviour based on strong ideological principles like what LTTE did was due the deprived life conditions that the people of north-east were subject to. 2013 – Reality On the other hand in 2013, the contrast is that we see access to education, connectivity due to the infrastructure like roads and bridges not only on main roads but also the interior of the Northern and Eastern Province whilst livelihood development has been the thrust of the economy due to the agricultural sprout, increased land area post the clearance of landmines, the surge in tourism and the related economy which was strongly driven by the Government in power. But the reality was that change of hearts has not happened as almost 80% of the people did not vote for the Government, which could mean that just because poverty and health is corrected, it does not mean that a person is content. This justifies a statement by a Public Policy Professor of mine at Harvard Kennedy School of Government Alberto Abadie who advocated to us that development and poverty reduction relationship to reducing extreme behaviour like terrorism is yet in question. He went on to say that attention should be given to political freedom because it correlates with terrorism in a complicated way. Global theory Some of the global theories on poverty vs governance being the cause of terrorism, some argue that material conditions do not drive poverty but it is a person’s beliefs and values. However, other studies reveal that even a terrorist sleeps at night and it is the fundamentals that drive extreme behaviour. Russel Ackoff, an emeritus professor at Wharton School of Business, designed to promote private businesses role in combating terrorism, says: “The basic problem that spurs terrorism is misdistribution of wealth within a country. The challenge is that we don’t understand how to close that gap that makes matters worse. Post the 9/11 attack in the US, politicians and policy experts drew a quick correlation between terrorism and poverty. Much of the existing academic literature states that poverty drives conflicts and this can lead terrorism with the administrative system in play.” What next? Short term Whilst the accepted global theories may not be conclusive, the reality is Sri Lanka clearly reflects that winning the hearts of the people will not happen due to infrastructure development and alleviating poverty, which means that the true dividends of peace will not happen to Sri Lanka unless we can focus on the governance of the country so that with the new leadership in the north we can focus on the national agenda of making Sri Lanka a top 30 country globally as per the World Economic Forum report. I don’t want to go into the details of the steps of architecture of governance between the Central Government and the provinces as there are specialists in this sphere. But, if this is not done in the next couple of years, maybe we might have a brand stronger and more ruthless that the LTTE emerging in the country, which might not be manageable globally. [The author served the country as the Director Economic Affairs of the Government Peace Secretariat in the final phase of the war from 2007 to 2010 and has a Double Degree in Marketing and an MBA. He is currently reading for a doctoral degree in Business Administration. In 2012 he was selected as an Outstanding Business Leader by the Association of Business (Global) and World Education Congress. The thoughts are strictly his personal thoughts and not the views of the organisations he serves in Sri Lanka or overseas.]

Recent columns