“We can't just stop with a single terrorist or a single terrorist organization; we have to go and root out the whole system. We have to go after poverty.”
-Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired 4-Star General of the U.S. Army
Every week, I teach an English lesson at a vocational school for war-affected youth in Northern Uganda. One day, as most of my students concentrated on answering their writing prompt, a new student asked if he could practice his English with me through conversation.
Otim began by telling me about himself. He shared about how the war in Northern Uganda had affected his family and how he was abducted by the LRA for two years. When he returned to his village, he found his father had been killed by the militia and his family was now too poor to pay his school fees.
When it came time for Otim to ask me questions, he began by inquiring about the Peace Club I lead at the center, a group he heard about from his friends. “What exactly do you do?” he asked. I explained that I aim to empower the youth with tools to help them create peace for themselves and their community, and I gave examples of the kinds of projects we undertake and skills we develop.
“Excuse me, Madame, I understand what you are saying, but you see, for me, I cannot have peace for myself until I know I can have a future. And I cannot know I will have a good future until I find a way to afford an education. Without an education, the children I will someday have will suffer just like I did. So how can you help me find peace?”
His inquiry was profound.
In a war-affected community where the economy was devastated by 20 years of insecurity, education suffers, and without education, the prospects for a productive peaceful, future are bleak.
How could I expect Otim to feel peace if he does not believe he stands a chance at making a livable income to afford his own needs and those of his dependents? If another terrorist militia swept through the North with promises of a better future for Acholis who chose to join, would Otim pick up a weapon?
When I co-founded Kids for Peace in 2006, I was highly influenced by my own upbringing during the period of fear following 9/11 and the wars against terrorism that followed. At 12 years old, I learned something that changed me, and which I still think of often today: many of the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks were war orphans or living in extreme poverty resulting from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Bhutta 2002). When war-affected populations—and in particular, children—are left with memories of violence and few chances for improving their circumstances, a culture conducive to terrorism, extremism, and violence can form.
For years, foreign policy leaders have recognized this connection, yet little has changed in the way we approach national security. We continue to spend a relatively minute portion of our federal budget on creating security abroad through development relative to defensive spending. In 2010, the United States federal budget allotted 19% of its total expenditures to the U.S. Department of Defense, while only 0.39% went to poverty-focused development assistance (Borgen Project). According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the federal budget for 2012 proposes the greatest spending on defence since World War II (Business Insider).
In the absence of strong government-led development efforts, NGOs have attempted to fill the gap, with many organizations working to empower violence-affected communities. One effort recently featured on Kristof's New York Times blog is led by Jake Harriman, a former US Naval Academy graduate who spent 7 years in the U.S. Marines. After two deployments to the frontlines of the War on Terror, Harriman decided to enroll in Stanford Business School to develop skills to enable him to create an organization aimed at combating terrorism through poverty alleviation.
Harriman’s story is moving and his efforts are worthwhile, but his impact will inevitably be restricted by the same limitations of capacity nearly all NGOs face. With limited time and resources, Harriman's organization, Nuru International, has chosen to focus its current efforts on the Kuria District in Kenya through an ambitious plan to create social change in that community. Other organizations with similar missions are chipping away at the problem of extreme poverty in other regions of the world, but the reality persists that NGOs simply lack the capacity to solve global poverty alone.
Campaigns for ending poverty like ONE and Make Poverty History have lobbied world leaders and created the economic case to demonstrate that the resources exist for improving the futures of the world’s poor if only the international will existed to make necessary changes that would allow them to do so.
Without a fundamental restructuring of the way powerful countries think about national security, poor communities will continue to breed the type of ignorance that serves as a barrier to peace and an incubator for insecurity. Without access to education for young men like Otim, warlords like Joseph Kony will continue to be able to indoctrinate militias in world views based upon irrationality and violence. Organizations like Nuru make an important step in the right direction, but for the kind of widespread change necessary to create cultures conducive to peace, foreign policies of the world's most powerful nations must adapt to offer greater assistance to the world's most poor.