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Terror, Poverty and Pragmatism: a perspective on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (Oct 17, 2002)

By Noel Preston - posted Tuesday, 15 October 2002

In the wake of the Bali horror, strong action against the evil of terrorism, and sympathetic support for the victims are clearly priorities. However, this Sunday's National Day of Mourning invites us through grief and justifiable anger to a deeper analysis of the complex causes of terrorism.

In the long run, prudence requires not only vigilance and counter-force but dispassionate and compassionate reflection, "an inner response", as Australian sociologist, John Carroll, called it in Terror, his profound meditation on the meaning of September 11.

Significantly, the Day of Mourning follows the UN decreed International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. While no simple, causal connection may be made between poverty and terrorism, there can be no doubt that (in parts of Africa, the Middle East, the sub-continent, and South East Asia) the struggle for survival, in a world where a few have plenty and most have little, breeds desperation and resentment, the fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.


The undeniable fact of life confronting us on this planet is that there is gross and growing inequality. 1.2 billion human beings live in absolute poverty described by former World Bank President, Robert McNamara, as "a condition of life so limited by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human dignity".

In such critical conditions, people do terrible things to survive. Not only do they comb the garbage heaps for sustenance, they sometimes resort to violence and respond to extreme ideologies.

Poverty is not just about access to housing, clothing and food but also about a sense of political and economic impotence which spawns generations of terror.

Ultimately, the use of force in a world unjustly divided between the haves and the have-nots is not safe for any of us. Pragmatism and enlightened self-interest suggest that another way based on compassion and generosity is needed.

In a globalised world Australia needs to be a more active partner in the international coalition to eradicate poverty. The challenge is to re-establish our role as a good global citizen not only in the necessary eradication of terrorism, but also in the long-term quest for global justice.

One measure of the response of the affluent world to poverty is levels of overseas aid. Thirty years ago the wealthy nations adopted 0.7 percent of GDP as the target for overseas aid. It has never been reached by most OECD countries while Australia's current level is only 0.27percent.


Another measure is the plight of the more than 20 million displaced persons across the world - refugees. Mostly they wait in camps in poor countries like Sudan or Indonesia or Pakistan.

Poverty is both a contributor to, and a consequence of, the ecological crisis which affects rich and poor alike. That's why Australia's official response at the recent Earth Summit was disappointing, especially our self-interested intransigence over the Kyoto protocol.

Of course there are no simple solutions to poverty. In some instances, freer trade may help economies raise standards of living. In other instances the corruption and despotism internal to some countries must be removed.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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