Terrorism Fueled by Third World Poverty

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Two years ago today, enemies of modernity, progress and prosperity organized, funded and carried out an operation to fly two jumbo jets into the hub of the financial capital of the world -- the World Trade Center.

Coincidentally, exactly two years to the day of those attacks, diplomats from all over the globe will meet in Cancun, Mexico, today for the first day of talks at the World Trade Organization’s 2003 Ministerial Conference (search).

Two years ago today, the World Trade Center fell.  Today, world trade marches on.

And humanity is all the better for it.

As we take time today to remember the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, our political leaders would do well to remember that the best way to fight terrorism is not with guns, but with coins and dollars.  Commerce breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds friendship.  It’s bad business, after all, to hate your customers, your vendors or your suppliers.  It’s worse business to kill them.

Throughout human history, from the ancient Ionians (search), to China’s Sung dynasty, to the 17th-century Dutch, humanity’s most open, liberal, creative and commercial societies have also been its most productive, most prosperous and least prone to violence.

The story is no different today.

Terrorism (search) today finds its most fertile ground in those areas of the world most inward-looking, most isolated and most hostile to outside influences.  A 2002 United Nations study of the Arab world found that over the last 20 years, Arab countries (plus Iran) produced the second-lowest per-capita growth rate of any region on Earth.  Total productivity in the Arab world (search) actually declined between 1960 and 2000, a period that saw unprecedented growth nearly everywhere else.  The same report points out that the entire Arab world has translated about 100,000 non-Arabic books since the ninth century, equivalent to the number of books the country of Spain translates every year.

Perhaps the only area of the world more isolated and more desolate than the Arab world is Sub-Saharan Africa (search).  There too, we find hostility to trade, to Western influence and to commerce -- at least at the state level.  Consequently, there too we find abject poverty.  A study published by Surjit S. Ballah (search) of the Institute for International Studies found that 20 countries in Africa are poorer today than they were in 1990.  Amazingly, another 23 are poorer than they were in 1975.  This, while the rest of humanity embraced international trade, and leapt to a prosperity unparalleled in human history.

Be it because of theocratic regimes, thuggish dictators or sanctions and protectionist policies from the West, the last 25 years have seen the rest of the world leave both of these regions behind.  We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when the overwhelming majority of those who would do us harm come from Africa and Arabia.  When a country is too poor to produce anything of value to trade, antipathy, envy and anger become its biggest export; terrorism its proudest commodity.

But there’s room for optimism, and much of it can begin this week in Cancun.

A recent study by the Pew Research Foundation found that attitudes in the developing world toward globalization, trade, capitalism and Western corporations were overwhelmingly positive, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In countries like Uganda, where there’s already a significant Western presence and burgeoning exchange economy, attitudes were even more positive.  Pro-Western sentiment in Iran is nearing the boiling point, and it’s thanks in large part to the infiltration of Western ideas via the Internet.

There is a foundation, then, for capitalism to carve out new niches in corners of the globe it’s never reached before.  There is an opportunity for vast new swaths of humanity to part with hellish poverty, to reach subsistence, then comfort, and then, eventually, prosperity.  Through this, the developed world benefits, too.  We get new markets in which to sell our wares; new sources of labor, creativity and talent; and, not least important, a much smaller pool to fester the kind of destitution, dismay and hopelessness that gives rise to terrorism.

But we had better get our act together.

Currently, the United States, Europe and Japan have neglected their duty as world citizens.  They’ve decided it’s more important to protect politically important interest groups at home than to let people trade freely across international borders.  Worse, those industries most protected by the West are the very kinds of products most likely to come from the Third World -- products like textiles, sugar and produce.  Without access to Western markets, developing countries can’t begin to take those baby steps to modernity.

Just last year, President Bush signed a $246 billion farm subsidies bill (search), one that actually reinstated subsidies that were due to be phased out.  These subsidies enable huge American agro-firms to sell grain on the world market at a fraction of what it costs them to actually grow it.  This makes all of these products more expensive for American consumers, but more importantly, it proves to be absolutely devastating for Third World farmers (search), who simply can’t compete.  If an American farmer can sell a bushel of corn that cost him $1 to grow for 80 cents, thanks to subsidy checks, he can effectively price a Nigerian corn farmer right out of the market.

These of course are just subsidies. The United States also protects domestic industries with sanctions (search) and tariffs (search).  And bad as the U.S. is, Europe and Japan are even worse.

A big chunk of the developing world is ripe to grasp the fruits of capitalism (search).  The West, then, has an important decision to make.  We can stop protecting domestic industry, and let today’s Uganda become tomorrow’s Hong Kong.  Or we can continue to favor special interest groups with tariffs and subsidies, and watch today’s Uganda become tomorrow’s Iran.

Sponsors of terrorists, or partners in trade -- it’s our choice.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a Weblog at www.theagitator.com.

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