The study, conducted by researchers from prestigious American universities, found no link between poverty and support for militant groups.
The findings undermine a central pillar of the Conservative government’s radical new policy on aid, which will deliver almost £1.4bn to Pakistan over the next five years as part of a strategy to protect Britain from terrorist attack.
On Wednesday, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, spelled out the policy to a jeering audience of police officers, who face pay cuts while extra cash is earmarked for Pakistan.
“If you get aid right in certain parts of the world, such as Pakistan, it will reduce the possibility of terrorism on the streets of the UK,” she said.
Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University and one of the authors of the new paper, said there was no evidence for such sweeping assertions and that her study of 6,000 people suggested that poorer Pakistanis were actually less likely to support extremist groups than more affluent, better educated people.
“The terrorism literature has long held that poverty does not explain terrorism,” she told The Daily Telegraph.
“Yet despite what would be a fairly robust body of literature, both the British government and the American government, have put together this canard that we can buy our way out of terrorism by investing in education and so forth. We simply don’t find this.”
Andrew Mitchell, who became International Development Secretary last year, has repeatedly talked of putting national security at the heart of aid policy.
With domestic budgets being cut, the argument has been deployed to justify continuing to spend money overseas–even in Pakistan, a middle income country where few people pay tax and the government spends more than £4bn on its Army and nuclear arsenal each year.
In March, a review of British overseas declared, “Tackling extreme poverty in Pakistan will help make the UK safer,” as ministers announced they would more than double the amount of cash for the terrorist-hit country–to £446m in 2015, so long as certain benchmarks are met.
However, development agencies such as Oxfam have warned that such moves are wrongheaded and that money should be spent purely to help those in need–not to protect Britain.
The new research, the first of its kind and published by the Social Science Research Network, suggests the money will not even help make Britain more secure.
In an “endorsement experiment”, respondents were asked how much they supported different policies–the use of peace jirgas or reform of school curricula for example.
A test group was told the policies were connected with Kashmiri terror groups or the Afghan Taliban.
The difference between their responses and those of a control group, which was not told of any connection, was taken as a measure of support for the militant groups.
When compared with socio-economic indicators, the researchers found poorer people were less likely to support extremist politics.
The paper concluded that poorer people in Pakistan were more likely to be the victims of suicide bombings and other terror attacks, and therefore were more likely to have negative feelings towards militants.
“This does mean there aren’t good reasons to invest in education and poverty mitigation. There are perfectly good reasons to do that. But if you are doing it with the explicit goal of buying security at home, there is not a lot of evidence,” said Dr Fair.
“None at all.”
Andrew Mitchell, International Development Secretary, insisted that countries lacking education and mired in poverty were the least stable.
“Improving governance, security and the rule of law, matched with better opportunities in terms of education and jobs, means we are lifting people out of extreme poverty and addressing grievances that can lead people towards extremism,” he said.
“It is too narrow to consider this issue simply in terms of financial poverty and extremism. It is vital to consider a wider range of issues that can lead to instability and extremism, including local grievances and poor education.”