Saturday, July 23, 2005

[Terrorism] Development preached as a counterterrorism tactic

The Virginian-Pilot
July 23, 2005

NORFOLK — Military might and diplomacy are two obvious tools in the global war on terrorism, but to Dr. Mohammad N. Akhter of InterAction, so are debt relief, fair trade and assistance to the world’s poorest nations.

“If you don’t deal with the development piece, you don’t deal with the root causes” of terrorism, said Akhter, who heads InterAction , the largest alliance of nonprofit international relief organizations in the United States.

One of those groups is Physicians for Peace, a medical aid agency based in Norfolk where Akhter spoke on Friday.

InterAction was among relief organizations that successfully urged the United States to join other “G-8” industrialized nations last month in cance ling $40 billion owed by 18 countries to lenders such as the World Bank.

The wealthy nations, including the United States, Britain and Japan, also agreed to double aid to Africa by 2010 . In addition, they agreed to move toward reducing domestic farm subsidiaries so that Africa’s agrarian economies can better compete in world markets.

Akhter, a Pakistani-born physician, said he has met with U.S. national security officials who agreed that reducing global poverty is an important tactic in eliminating conditions that fuel terrorist movements. “They are speaking our language,” he said.

In Akhter’s view, extreme poverty leads to malnutrition that leaves people susceptible to lethal diseases such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.

“When people die, like in many African countries, families fall apart. When families fall apart, there is nobody to do the agriculture or tend the cattle,” Akhter said. “Then the communities fall apart.”

Broken communities, in turn, fall prey to warlords who use cruel but efficient methods to control desperate populations.

“When the warlords take over, they provide a safe place for terrorists,” Akhter said. “Where did Osama bin Laden go? Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan – the failed states.”

Another trait of failed states is their history of corrupt leaders who plundered international loans meant for economic development. Ahkter said Western nations ignored that looting in exchange for the leaders’ political support during the Cold War against communism.

“After these dictators are gone, the countries were stuck with the loans,” Akhter said.

He said the 18 nations whose debts were cance led last month by the G-8 had paid already $2.30 in interest on every dollar they had borrowed. “It is fair that we forgive the rest of the loan,” he said.

Among G-8 nations, debt forgiveness is probably less controversial than the idea of cutting government agricultural subsidies. Support for subsidies is strong in the United States, where the farm community has considerable political clout.

“The biggest commodity many of these poor countries have is agriculture,” Ahkter said.

“Poor countries can’t give any subsidies to their farmers, so their farmers’ product is much more expensive than ours, so they can’t compete in the free market.”

Ahkter said the G-8 leaders’ agreement to review subsidy cutbacks is a step toward fair trade conditions that could yield more African exports and jobs.

Ron Sconyers , a retired Air Force brigadier general who is the CEO of Physicians for Peace, said he agreed that “terrorism, insurgency, civil war gain a foothold from things like poverty.”

Physicians for Peace has a 30-year history of providing medical treatment and education to African nations, including Eritrea, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Egypt. The organization was founded by a Norfolk physician, Dr. Charles E. Horton Sr.

Reach Steven G. Vegh at (757) 446-2417 or