The under appreciated problem of everyday violence around the world


Every once in a while, I am fortunate to read a book that presents a set of insights that I am surprised I did not understand previously. Moreover, the author describes a problem that is not well-understood or well-appreciated by well-educated, well-meaning Americans.

Such a book, which I have just finished, is called The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence I by Gary A. Haugen, the founder and president of a not-for-profit organization called the International Justice Mission. Haugen documents a simple, but profound and overlooked point: we will never solve the problem of world poverty unless we address the fundamental issue of everyday violence throughout these countries.

He distinguishes between violence that results from wars or insurgencies or acts of terror on the other hand and the everyday acts of violence committed against people who do not have the resources to protect themselves. Not surprisingly, the most frequent victims of such violence are women and children. However, poor men are also victims.

He suggests that mass sex trafficking and slave labor (a problem that has more victims in absolute numbers today than it did three centuries ago) are manifestations of this problem, but not the only ones. At the same time, many individual acts of violence occur every day all around the world.

He attributes much of this to three fundamental problems:

  • The colonial legacy of many of these countries left in place criminal justice systems designed to protect the handful of colonialists against the populations they were managing. In effect, when colonialists like the British led India, the criminal justice system, particularly law enforcement, was designed to make sure that those who committed acts of violence against colonial officials and what we would call expatriates worked to bring criminals to justice. When the British and other colonial powers left these countries, the criminal justice principle of protecting the elites at the expense of the poor stayed in place. All that happened was that local elites stepped into the shoes of the British.
  • Not surprisingly, the criminal justice systems work every effectively today for those with the financial resources to bribe and coerce the law enforcement, prosecutorial, and judicial authorities to support their goals, and to be an instrument of oppression and exploitation against the poor. As I have often pointed out in other contexts, when a system appears to be broken, but does not change, we always have to ask the question of who benefits from it. We will generally find that people who want to change a broken system will experience ferocious resistance from those who benefit from its retention.
  • Few resources directed at fighting poverty have been deployed to build up well-trained law enforcement, prosecutorial and judicial systems in developing countries. I suspect that one reason for this is the misguided belief that the law enforcement authorities are inherently the enemy of the poor, and should not be supported as a result.

This is actually not dissimilar to problems we have had in America at various times in various parts of our country. Haugen specifically describes the corruption and complete breakdown of law and order in cities like 19th Century New York and Los Angeles. He also could have described the criminal justice system as it existed for African Americans during the entirety of reconstruction, a picture very well painted by Professor Isabel Wilkerson in her portrait of the great migration of African Americans from the viciously racist South in her book The Warmth of Other Suns. More recently, the phenomenal book Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness by Robert Conot, which described Los Angeles during the 1964 race riots in the Watts section of the City described a completely broken law enforcement system.

In 1964, and, for that matter, right up to the 1990’s, Los Angeles had many of the attributes of a 3rd world criminal justice system, particularly the perception that law enforcement authorities were like an occupying Army, not a local community-friendly police force. It resembled the law enforcement system that Haugen describes in country after country.

What happens in these broken systems is that predators of all kinds, most particularly sexual predators, seize the opportunity to commit unspeakable acts of violence against the most vulnerable populations. They keep individuals from being educated, from living even a minimal quality of life, and from being safe anywhere. Haugen points out that the one current journalist who has been more prominent and consistent than any other in highlighting this set of issues is Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, but that very few people and very U.S. government or global anti-poverty resources are targeted at this problem.

To some degree, this is understandable. U.S. government law enforcement resources assistance resources are predominantly focused on rebuilding war-torn societies and preventing violence in failed states from spilling over into the rest of the world, combating global terrorism, and targeting the worst scourges of global commerce in illegal drugs. More recently, there has been some focus on human trafficking of sex workers. These are all worthy issues to address, but they are the tip of the iceberg in terms of overall focus on violence prevention.

Haugen makes the persuasive case that, unless we address issues of everyday violence, we will be wasting anti-poverty resources. I agree with him. I remember the many well-intentioned efforts by musicians to host concerts to attack hunger around the world in the 1980’s or even the wonderful George Harrison concert in the early 1970’s to raise funds to prevent starvation in Bangladesh. These efforts produced great music, but, by and large, the money they raised and the food they caused to be shipped to these countries got diverted by criminal predators away from their intended recipients.

The good news is that, in terms of the incidence of war-related and disease-related deaths, we are in a far safer time than we were in the 20th century, although it would not surprise any of us if there were a major genocidal event like the slaughter in Rwanda in 1994 or the millions of people who were killed in Cambodia in 1975. However, it is now time to turn our attention to the problem Haugen has identified, one that stubbornly persists across the world.