Grass-roots approach to fighting terror

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2007, 12:00am

'When my tyre was flat in Pakistan's countryside, many villagers came to help,' recalls Li Donglin. 'Touched by their kindness, I offered money but they all refused. In Islamabad I have a papaya tree in my garden, but nobody steals the fruit. I think it has something to do with Islam's sense of supporting each other in a community.'

Mr Li, a Chinese citizen, is director of the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) office in Pakistan. A former official at Beijing's Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, he is acutely attuned to the problems of a developing economy and the need to accommodate local conditions and cultures in solving them.

Last week, two rival conferences - the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya - praised and challenged globalisation, respectively. At the same time, at the ILO office in Islamabad, Mr Li reflected: 'Pakistan is an example [of the globalisation debate]. Gross domestic product growth should create employment, but often it [increases the income gap]. Because of globalisation the rich become richer; but the poor should not become poorer.'

The World Economic Forum heralded the past decade as an era of unprecedented prosperity. But, according to more sobering ILO figures, economic growth has been reflected more in rising levels of productivity than in growing employment. While world productivity increased by 26 per cent over the past decade, the number of working people rose by only 16.6 per cent. This means the income gap is continuing to widen.

Meanwhile, security concerns have increased sharply. Adolescent suicide bombers are a growing phenomenon in some countries. A contributing factor in some cases is unemployment, which leads to social and economic marginalisation.

ILO figures reveal that, over the past decade of prosperity proclaimed by the World Economic Forum, unemployment hit young people the hardest. It marginalised 86.3 million youths, who represented 44 per cent of the world's total unemployed last year. Most were between the ages of 15 and 24 - the prime age for suicide bombers.

The pro- and anti-globalisation debate raged last week. Meanwhile, on the ground in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, a different, middle-of-the-road voice could be heard seeking practical solutions to cyclical poverty. This is the microcredit, grass-roots approach inspired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, which is tackling poverty without the gobbledygook of academic theory. It is the antithesis of globalisation.

In one example, the ILO has begun its own microfinancing efforts in Pakistan: a US$15 million fund to fight child labour aims to boost parents' incomes and gets children into schools. Another programme, Training for Rural Economic Employment, teaches people how to use microcredit. Such programmes empower the poor not only with financing, but also with the support system necessary to build self-confidence.

'Our scheme involves a village community of 20 to 30 people to create 'collective collateral' - which is a social rather than a financial guarantee [that loans will be repaid],' said Mr Lin. Through this grass-roots networking, 'our lending-return programme enjoys a 95 per cent success rate'.

Could such models also serve to eliminate terrorism at its root? For a fraction of the money the Bush administration spends on military action, funds could be designated for vocational training and microenterprises organised at Islamic madrassa schools, with their vast popular networks.

Poor parents send their youngsters to madrassas to get them off the streets and to learn religious discipline. But without vocational skills, they cannot become economically independent.

As one official in Islamabad said: 'Terrorism happens not because people have a political agenda, but because they have no hope. They have been marginalised from society. When the international media demonises their only beliefs, it leaves them no choice but to become radicalised.'

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation