With America and Europe divided, we can ill-afford to take policy decisions rooted in emotion and xenophobia. We need practical solutions to fight terrorism, argues Rupert Scofield.
With its march across the Middle East, and recruitment and nurturing of ‘lone wolves’ in Europe and the United States, ISIS has demonstrated that terrorism transcends borders. Populist leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have been carried to power on a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric, promising solutions to everything from unemployment to radicalisation. Ironically, their approach of excluding, marginalising and alienating immigrants could backfire and even exacerbate these problems. Taking steps to engage the disengaged before they become radicalised is a far more promising approach to tackling terrorism.
Across the world, and especially in developing countries, governments need to deliver a package of solutions focused on engaging those who feel removed from the rest of society. In countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, the promise of an AK-47 and a few hundred dollars a month constitutes a powerful ‘value proposition’ for a young, unemployed man or woman. Many suicide bombers are brainwashed as children in madrassas by radical Imams who source poor, uneducated kids delivered to them by impoverished parents who are unable to feed them.
To counter this tragic pipeline, new and more attractive economic opportunities must be stepped up immediately – beginning with supporting people of limited means to start their own businesses. Entrepreneurship is one of the greatest weapons in our armoury against poverty, and microfinance provides even the most poverty-stricken families with the means to start or grow an income-generating initiative.
Not all colleagues in the field of development economics subscribes to this view. I have been criticized previously for arguing that microfinance should be viewed as a tool to reduce the threat of terrorism. In 2015, an interview published in The Independent was seized upon by sceptics who dispute the effectiveness of microfinance in providing the poor with a pathway out of poverty; even though over 200 million families in developing countries make use of micro loans, a number that is growing at a double-digit rate annually.
An absence of economic opportunities was undoubtedly a factor in the rise of terror in Somalia, following its descent into a failed state after the collapse of the Barre regime. Mohamed Ali, a courageous young Somali social entrepreneur, understands how terrorist groups seek out and recruit uneducated, unemployed young people without prospects or opportunities. Ali also recognises the power of entrepreneurship as an antidote to the allure of terrorism. As Executive Director of the Iftiin Foundation (an organisation that builds and supports young entrepreneurs to encourage a culture of change and innovation in Somalia and other post-conflict countries), Ali – with very limited resources – is taking the path governments should follow.
Microfinance is not a silver bullet in the fight against terrorism. But there is no doubt that a lack of economic opportunity contributes to an environment in which radical sentiments emerge and ferment.
At a time of almost unparalleled political division in the US and Europe, we cannot afford to make ill-informed policy decisions rooted in emotion and based on xenophobia. We need practical solutions with substantial, far-reaching impact, and we need them fast.