Poverty Promotes Terrorism, Rubin Warns in Speech

Robert Rubin
Philip Zeyliger

Former Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin ’60 discusses the link between poverty and terrorism at the ARCO Forum Friday.

Global poverty can create an environment condusive to terrorism, former Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin ’60 told a packed audience at the Kennedy School’s ARCO forum Friday.

Rubin—who was confirmed last Sunday as the newest member of the Harvard Corporation—was introduced by his long-time colleague University President Lawrence H. Summers, who praised Rubin’s work for the government.

“As I was listening, I figured Larry [Summers] wanted something,” Rubin joked in response to Summers’ praise.

Rubin’s address soon moved on to more weighty matters.

Rubin, who is currently chair of the Executive Committee of Citigroup, Inc., said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had sparked international debate about global poverty.


He said the world is at “a historical juncture where we can see either political and social destruction, or economic and social well-being.”

According to Rubin, poor conditions in impoverished nations are currently putting America at risk. He cited statistics to argue that America is not doing enough to decrease world poverty.

According to Rubin, the United States government only contributes 0.15 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) toward international aid—while the European Union gives 0.35 percent of its GDP to foreign assistance.

But Rubin said the impoverished nations themselves should take some responsibility. He said countries with corrupt leaders will continue to “languish without foreign aid.”

Rubin said he was surprised by how economic journals had not addressed the relationship of global poverty and terrorism.

On a brighter note, Rubin said some poor nations have recently shown positive signs of growth.

He said South Korea’s per capita GDP has increased from $100 to $9,000 in the last decade, while India maintained a constant growth of 5.5 percent per year over the last 15 years.

Rubin only mentioned Harvard once during his address, saying that the University can “provide leadership and provide for international debate at a time when so much is at stake.”

When a member of the audience questioned whether poverty leads to terrorism—saying that most of the Sep. 11 hijackers were not poor—Rubin broadened his thesis to say feelings of “alienation, resentment, and hopelessness” around the world pose the biggest threat to America.

And when another member of the audience asked a lengthy question about how the dollar would be affected if oil were to be exported in the Euro instead of the dollar, Rubin didn’t lose his patience—or his humor.

“That would be adverse,” Rubin said, eliciting applause with his short answer to the long question.

—Staff writer Ravi P. Agrawal can be reached at