When Americans see televised images of bone-thin African or Asian kids with distended bellies, what do we think? We think of helping. For all the right reasons, our humanitarian instincts tend to take over. But when we look at UNICEF footage or a Save the Children solicitation, does it also occur to us that we are seeing a symptom of a threat that could destroy our way of life? Rarely. In fact, global poverty is far more than solely a humanitarian concern. In real ways, over the long term, it can threaten U.S. national security.Poverty fundamentally erodes state capacity — by fueling conflict, sapping human capital, hollowing out our impeding the development of effective state institutions, and creating especially conducive environments for corrupt governance. So why does this matter for American national security?
When states fail to meet the basic needs of their citizens — for food, clean water, health care or education — other groups move in to fill the void. Sometimes help comes from multilateral aid agencies or secular NGOs, but in Africa, South Asia and parts of the Middle East, many times these services are provided by foreign-funded religious NGOs, Christian missionaries or mosques — sometimes with theological, even extremist, strings attached. Hezbollah and Hamas have been quite successful in filling these voids at a large scale — effectively supplanting government and becoming “states within states.”
Recent academic research also demonstrates that countries with low income per capita are at increased risk of civil conflict. According to the OECD, in 2002 “more that two-thirds of the poorest countries in the world [were] in conflict.” These conflicts in turn can be sink holes that destabilize entire regions, as did Liberia and Congo in the 1990’s, and as the crisis in Darfur is threatening to do today.
These conflict zones have been exploited by terrorists to lure foot soldiers and train new cadres — as in Bosnia, the Philippines and Central Asia. It was in conflict ridden Sudan and Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda first established training camps, breeding approximately 20,000 militants who now operate in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
Today, grinding poverty is the lot of half of the world’s population. Three billion human beings subsist on less than $2 per day — $730 per year — the equivalent of seven pairs of quality sneakers in the United States. Efforts to illuminate the complex relationship between poverty and insecurity may be unwelcome to those who want assurance that global poverty and U.S. national security are unrelated. Yet, we ignore or obscure the implications of global poverty for global security at our peril.