The Breakfast Table

An International Program To Root Out Boredom?

Dear Alexander,

Ever since my one and only trip to Tanzania, round about a decade ago now, I’ve never liked arguments about how much better the world would be if only we spent more money on development, or about how much more virtuous aid-giving countries are over their meaner counterparts. At the time I went, Tanzania was receiving more aid, per capita, than any country in Africa. I seem to remember the Swedes in particular were big on giving aid to Tanzania, largely out of admiration for Tanzania’s “African Road to Socialism,” even though Tanzania’s attempt to collectivize agriculture had by then been abandoned. One saw the Swedes quite often—large and blond, decked out in dark glasses and sturdy khaki shorts—driving their Land Rovers around Dar es Salaam.

Not that it made much difference: Tanzania was still unbelievably poor and, at the time, not growing particularly quickly either. Quantity of aid is meaningless. Quality of aid matters much more: Throwing money at corrupt or inefficient governments just produces more corruption and inefficiency. Strangely, while the development community—the World Bank and their ilk—absorbed this lesson long ago, quite a lot of other people haven’t. I suspect quite a lot of leaders of European countries haven’t, just for starters. 

All of which is slightly beside the point since, as you point out, the 9/11 attackers were mostly middle-class, and for that matter mostly from Saudi Arabia, not a country to which we are likely to start shipping food packages any time soon. It is my view, for what it’s worth, that terrorism arises not from poverty but from boredom. People who are truly poor—people in Africa, for example—have no time to join terrorist movements. People who are slightly less poor but still don’t have many exciting things to do in the evenings are much better candidates. Saudi society is notoriously uninteresting, and prospects for young, wellish-off men who aren’t particularly well-connected are nil. The same is true in Palestine—and for that matter in Northern Ireland. Which would you rather be, yet another young Belfast man on the dole, or a glamorous member of a secret terrorist organization? No wonder the IRA has lasted so long. 

It is hard to see, of course, how there could be an international program to eradicate boredom. If they really want to contribute to the war on terrorism, maybe Tony Blair, Chris Patten, Hubert Vedrine, and the rest of the Euro brigade could invent one. Young Saudis could be given courses in French cooking, or taken on trips to British dog-racing tracks, or whisked off to retrace the steps of Napoleon. That would give the European leaders something to crow about, a legitimate excuse to brush away the “axis of evil” talk as unnecessary. But until such a program gets underway, I’m happy with higher levels of U.S. military spending, myself.

And, since you asked, we haven’t finished moving yet, although it is about 7 p.m. my time: There weren’t enough boxes. Somehow, my attempts to move houses, however organized to start out with, always end with me hauling armfuls of baby clothes down the street, dropping mateless socks in my wake.