Confronting Poverty: Weak States and U.S. National Security

Confronting Poverty: Weak States and U.S. National Security


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Former Brookings Senior Fellow Susan E. Rice spearheads an investigation of the connections between poverty and fragile states and the implications for American security. Coedited by Rice and former Brookings colleagues Corinne Graff and Carlos Pascual, Confronting Poverty is a timely reminder that alleviating global poverty and shoring up weak states are not only humanitarian and economic imperatives, but key components of a more balanced and sustainable U.S. national security strategy.

Rice elucidates the relationship between poverty, state weakness, and transnational security threats, and Graff and Pascual offer policy recommendations. The book's overarching conclusions highlight the need to invest in poverty alleviation and capacity building in weak states in order to break the vicious cycle of poverty, fragility, and transnational threats.

Confronting Poverty grows out of a project on global poverty and U.S. national security that Rice directed at Brookings from 2002 through January 2009, before she became U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815703907
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 01/15/2010
Pages: 244
Sales rank: 788,360
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Susan E. Rice was a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution from 2002 to 2009. From 1997 to 2001, she was the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In 2009, she left Brookings to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Corinne Graff was a fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution. She holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

Carlos Pascual was vice president and director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Before joining Brookings he served on the National Security Council, as coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization at the State Department, and as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Since August 2009, he has been serving as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

Confronting Poverty

Weak States and U.S. National Security

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-0390-7

Chapter One

The National Security Implications of Global Poverty


On a deserted, dusty patch of dirt outside Gulu, in northern Uganda, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright held Charity, an angelic baby girl barely one month old. Charity had been left for dead in a ditch beside a rural road, trapped in the arms of her murdered mother and wedged between deceased family members. The brutal rebels of the Sudanese-backed Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) had raided Charity's village and slaughtered as many as they could. Miraculously, one of Charity's siblings, her five-year-old brother, survived the assault. He had been shielded by his mother, who threw him to the ground when the shooting started and covered his little body with her own. The boy played dead until the killers moved on and then wriggled free. Hearing his infant sister crying, he pried her loose from his mother's arms and, cradling her carefully, walked for miles to the safety of a World Vision compound in Gulu.

That was December 1997, when Gulu was ground zero for the LRA's reign of terror. As recently as 2006, children known as night commuters fled regularly every evening into Gulu from the bush to take refuge in ramshackle schools or hospitals. They sought safety in numbers and at least minimal protection from the Ugandan People's Defense Forces against marauding LRA rebels, who kidnapped children for conscripts and threatened them with death if they refused to kill their own. Today, millions who were displaced by the conflict remain haunted by the LRA's atrocities and vulnerable to yet more rounds of brutal violence.

Despite multiple failed efforts to achieve military and negotiated solutions over the past two decades, the ongoing conflict rooted in northern Uganda has claimed at least 100,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people. Charity and her brother were victims of senseless but routine atrocities committed by and against the Acholi people, an ethnic group based in northern Uganda. The LRA's campaign of indiscriminate killing began shortly after President Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986. To date, the government of Uganda has been unable to decisively defeat the LRA or negotiate an end to its insurgency of more than twenty years.

Though war-torn and landlocked between East and Central Africa, Uganda is no basket case. At times it has been heralded by the World Bank as a model of economic growth and proof of the potential for economic transformation even in the toughest parts of Africa. Under President Museveni, Uganda achieved not only impressive economic growth rates but also unusual success in slowing the tide of HIV/AIDS and luring foreign investors. It remains a large and favored recipient of U.S. and European foreign assistance and a reliable regional security partner of the United States.

Uganda illustrates the potential consequences for U.S. national security of states affected by poverty, corruption, and weak institutional capacity. In Uganda, as elsewhere, poverty has helped fuel civil conflicts like those that devastated the young lives of Charity and her brother. Uganda's gross national income (GNI) per capita in 2008 was just $420, the world's fifteenth lowest. The northern region, the epicenter of Uganda's civil war, has the country's highest poverty rate, highest population growth, and highest fertility levels.

Uganda's internal strife has spilled over its borders, drawing in the forces of neighboring countries and contributing to the destabilization of an entire resource-rich region. Ugandan government forces have frequently raided neighboring southern Sudan in hot pursuit of the LRA, which has operated freely there and received military backing and material support from the Sudanese government in Khartoum. For years, until the war in southern Sudan was halted in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Uganda provided military support to Sudanese People's Liberation Army/Movement forces in their generation-long battle for self-determination and against the religious and racial oppression of the Arab Islamist regime in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Meanwhile, the LRA remains active in Sudan as well as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic where it is regularly responsible for mass atrocities and has joined in illegal exploitation and trade of gems, gold, and ivory.

In 1998 Uganda joined neighboring Rwanda in invading the DRC, purportedly to halt uprisings from the Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo who took refuge there after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and from the LRA and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), another Ugandan rebel group that was active from 1996 to 1999 and terrorized foreign tourists and Ugandans. These rebels benefited from the acquiescence, if not the active backing, of the Kinshasa government in the DRC. Once in the DRC, Uganda, like Rwanda, found the lure of lucrative minerals too great to abandon and occupied a substantial swath of that vast country for five years. In 2007 oil was discovered in the Lake Albert Basin along the border between Uganda and the DRC, which further strained ties between the two countries. Since early 2009, relations have begun to improve between Congo and both Uganda and Rwanda.

Like its neighbors, Uganda must contend with terrorism by Islamic extremists. On August 7, 1998, when nearly simultaneous bombs destroyed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, al Qaeda intended to hit a third target-the U.S. embassy in Kampala. Only good luck in the form of alert border guards prevented another explosive-laden vehicle from reaching its target.

In addition, Uganda's poverty exacerbates its vulnerability to climate change and deadly disease. Although Uganda is not a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of global climate change could increase the risk of future instability. Climatic changes that are consistent with scientific predictions of global warming-including rising temperatures, more intense rains and storms, more frequent droughts, and more erratic rainfall patterns-are already apparent in Uganda. In 2007 severe floods and water logging destroyed up to 90 percent of crops in some parts of the country, leading to widespread food insecurity. Coffee, a major Ugandan export crop that employs over 500,000, is especially vulnerable to climate variations. Coffee beans could become unsuitable for export from Uganda if average annual temperatures rise by as little as 2 degrees, causing massive unemployment and intense hardship among Uganda's small-scale coffee producers. A sharp reduction in coffee production could also intensify latent tensions in Uganda and stoke further conflict as well as extremism.

The 2007 rainfalls not only felled the coffee crop; they also contaminated protected water sources and destroyed latrines, posing a significant health risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a massive increase in malaria and dysentery that year, while a new strain of the deadly Ebola virus was also discovered in December 2007.

In short, the experiences of Uganda reflect the deadly consequences of poverty and strife in the world's poorest and most fragile states. They also emphasize that poverty and state weakness in faraway countries can ultimately have implications for the security of Americans.


Throughout the cold war period, successive U.S. administrations defined the vital national security interests of the United States in narrow strategic and geographic terms. Their aim was clear: to avert the existential threat of nuclear annihilation through deterrence and containment, and to counter Soviet and communist influences in key regions-chiefly Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Only to the extent that superpower competition spread to more distant battlefields did the United States evince much strategic interest in parts of Africa and Latin America. Major threats were those that risked the very survival of the country, and such threats emanated almost exclusively from other states: the Soviet Union and its communist proxies. The post-cold war world is fundamentally different, and so is the nature of the threats Americans face. The Soviet Union is gone. The cold war proxy wars fought across the globe have ended. The risk of nuclear annihilation is reduced, though by no means eliminated. The world is in this regard a much safer place.

Yet it is still a dangerous world. It is more complex and less predictable. Real threats persist, but their origins and consequences are more diffuse. Fewer of the principal threats to U.S. national security today are existential in the cold war sense, with the crucial exception of nuclear terrorism. Furthermore, fewer derive primarily from nation-states.

In today's world, risks to U.S. national security extend well beyond a handful of hostile states. Foremost among them are transnational security threats that, by definition, are not limited to any individual state. They include terrorism, weapons proliferation, the global economic crisis, conflict, infectious disease, international crime and narcotics flows, climate change, and environmental degradation. These transnational phenomena can threaten U.S. national security because they have the potential to kill significant numbers of Americans-whether swiftly or over an extended period of time.

With the advent of globalization and the rapid international movement of people, goods, funds, and information, transnational security threats can arise from and spread with dangerous speed to any part of the planet. They can emerge from remote regions and poor, weak states, turning them into potentially high-risk zones that may eventually, often indirectly, pose significant risks to distant peoples. In 2008 alone, more than 900 million travelers crossed an international border each day. Over the past four decades, total seaborne trade more than quadrupled, reaching in excess of 8 billion tons in 2007. The risk that weak states will inadvertently function as incubators of transnational security threats to their own people as well as to others becomes exponentially magnified in a highly interconnected world.

Such threats can potentially take various forms: a mutated, highly contagious and deadly flu virus that jumps from animals to humans, and from human to human, in Cambodia or Cameroon; a case of deadly hemorrhagic Marburg fever unwittingly contracted by a U.S. expatriate in Angola who returns to Houston on an oil company charter; terrorist cell attacks on a U.S. navy vessel in Yemen or Djibouti; the theft of biological or nuclear materials from poorly secured facilities in some forty countries around the world; narcotics traffickers in Tajikistan and criminal syndicates from Nigeria; or flooding and other effects of global warming, exacerbated by extensive deforestation, in the Amazon and Congo River basins. Dangerous spillovers from fragile states could result in major damage to the global economy. In a worst-case scenario, millions of lives could be lost.


When Americans see televised images of bone-thin children with distended bellies, typically their humanitarian instincts take over. Few look at such footage and perceive a threat that could destroy their way of life. Yet global poverty is not solely a humanitarian concern. Over the long term, it can threaten U.S. national security. Poverty erodes a state's capacity to prevent the spread of disease and protect forests and watersheds. It creates conditions conducive to transnational criminal and terrorist activity, luring desperate individuals into recruitment and, more significant, undermining the state's ability to prevent and counter those violent threats. Poverty can also give rise to tensions that can erupt into full-blown civil conflict, further taxing the state and allowing transnational predators greater freedom of action. In the twenty-first century, poverty is an important driver of transnational threats.

Americans can no longer realistically hope to erect the proverbial glass dome over their homeland and live safely isolated from the killers-human or otherwise-that plague poorer countries. Al Qaeda has had training camps in conflict-ridden Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan and a presence in the diamond markets of Sierra Leone and Liberia. A global pandemic or a mutated, deadly virus causing human-to-human contagion could also have an alarming impact.

Low-income states tend to be fragile and in poor control of their territory and resources. Ill-equipped and poorly trained immigration and customs officials along with weak police, military, judiciary, and financial systems create vacuums readily invaded by transnational predators. Conflict, difficult terrain, and corruption render such states even more vulnerable. Terrorist groups are able to raise funds through tactical alliances with transnational criminal syndicates, smugglers, and pirates operating in lawless zones, from the Somali coast and Central Asia to the triborder region of South America. Not surprisingly, the human pawns drawn into global criminal enterprises-the narcotics couriers, sex slaves, and petty thieves-frequently come from the ranks of the unemployed or desperately poor. Transnational crime syndicates reap billions each year from illicit trafficking in humans, drugs, weapons, hazardous waste, and endangered species-all of which reach American shores.


Among the most significant consequences of country-level poverty is a heightened risk of conflict. Poor countries are much more likely than rich ones to experience civil war. Their average gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is usually less than half that of countries free of conflict. Indeed, per capita GDP is known to have a statistically significant relationship to the likelihood of civil war. Economic decline heightens the risk even further. The link between poverty and conflict, an area of rare scholarly consensus, is probably the most robust finding in the econometric literature on conflict.

Put simply, increasing a country's GDP-without changing other important factors such as the degree of democratization or number of ethnic groups-reduces the chance of civil war in that country. An otherwise "average" country with $250 GDP per capita has a 15 percent risk of experiencing a civil war in the next five years, whereas for a country with per capita GDP of $5,000, the risk of civil war drops to less than 1 percent over the same period. Other poverty-related factors that foment conflict include shrinking economic growth, low levels of education, and high child mortality rates.

Poverty also helps perpetuate the fighting and once a conflict has ended may increase the likelihood that war will recur. This was the case in East Timor, where violence resumed in 2006, displacing an estimated 150,000 and necessitating the redeployment of UN forces, and in 2008 when an attempt was made on President José Ramos-Horta's life. Since then, the security situation has improved. Ten years into the postconflict period, however, poverty remains high, unemployment is still rampant, and GDP growth has languished. In 2009 half the country's population lived below the poverty line, compared with 36 percent in 2001. Despite substantial inflows of international aid, East Timor's child mortality rate remains among the highest in the world, and unemployment hits nearly half the young people in urban areas, now a cauldron of disaffected youth. Unless East Timor's economy improves and poverty is reduced, peace and stability will be difficult to sustain.

Civil wars tend to be long, averaging sixteen years by one estimate. Their resolution often falters: one-third later reignite. The ensuing vicious cycle is termed a "conflict trap." Further conflict cannot be avoided unless economic performance improves, as occurred in Mozambique, one of the world's poorest nations. After civil war ended there in 1994, GDP increased by nearly 8 percent. Furthermore, gross primary school enrollment jumped from 60 percent at the end of the war to roughly full enrollment in 2005. In the wake of sustained economic growth and investments in social services, rural poverty declined 16 percent from 1997 to 2003. Once an epicenter of subregional conflict, Mozambique is now among the more stable societies in southern Africa.


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Table of Contents

Foreword Strobe Talbott vii

1 The National Security Implications of Global Poverty Susan E. Rice 1

2 Poverty and State Weakness Susan E. Rice 23

3 Poverty, Development, and Violent Extremism in Weak States Corinne Graff 42

4 Poverty, State Weakness, and Civil War Andrew Loomis 90

5 Feeding Insecurity? Poverty, Weak States, and Climate Change Joshua Busby 125

6 State Weakness and Infectious Diseases Mirian Estrin Carl Malm 167

7 Conclusion and Policy Implications Carlos Pascual Corinne Graff 202

Contributors 231

Index 233

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