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By Tom Cushing

The Violence of Poverty

Uploaded: Mar 17, 2014

"The impoverished Rwandans, at their point of most desperate need -- huddled against those advancing machetes in that church, did not need someone to bring them a sermon, or food, or a doctor, or a micro-loan. They needed someone to restrain the hand with the machete ? and nothing else would do."

Such was the stark realization of Gary Haugen, who investigated the unimaginably cruel atrocities of the 1994 African genocide. Nearly one-million children, women and men died at the hands of other countrymen, most often hacked by machete. The American lawyer has since founded the International Justice Mission (IJM), which seeks to attack the scourge of violence that severely impedes progress against poverty all around the world.

I heard Mr. Haugen's address to the World Affairs Council in SF recently. His message is clear and profoundly important: more than half the world's human population lives beyond the reach, and protection, of the Rule of Law. That figure includes Americans, like the young Oregon woman whose tale of misfortune opened his speech. Her futile 911 call apprised her that the police lacked coverage in her rural area. She was brutally beaten.

Haugen, in his book The Locust Effect, identifies four separate species of violence epidemic in the developing world, and present elsewhere. A sample chapter can be downloaded here.

First, there's Sexual violence: as primarily practiced against women and children, but including some men. Perpetrators in many places can act on impulse and without fear of consequences. Their deeds wreak havoc on their victims' lives, via injury, illness and pregnancy. Nearly as debilitating is the indirect fear of such attacks that pervades the lives of potential victims ? their educations, their mobility and livelihoods, their peace of mind ? minute by minute, every day. It is a classic, tragic deterrent to progress by those victims in making headway in their lives ? or even subsisting without male protection that may not be much of an improvement.

Second, Slavery: at what point in the world's history did slavery peak? If you answered "Now," go to the head of the class. Some 22 million people among the world's 7 billion are being held in bondage against their will. That's a very large number, if a small percentage ? especially if it's you or a loved one. Many are sexually trafficked, especially the most vulnerable among us. But, per Haugen, some 15 million, nearly 3/4 of the total, are held in three countries: China, India and Pakistan. Clearly that can't happen without some complicity from authorities, but these are Not prisoners of the state, duly convicted.

Third, Institutional brutality: in the colonial world, police forces were originally established to protect the overseers from the colonists, not the population from its baser elements. Commercial interests in those countries have always depended mostly on private security. After independence, those institutions were not reconstituted with a broadly protective mission ? they were and are organized, however. Indifference to the populace is one dilemma for the poor. As in Haugen's domestic US example, that problem can also include jurisdictional and government funding limitations, even in the First World.

Poor people are also too-often the victims of the local constabularies. As one beaten belt merchant put it: why should I rebuild my business, when the police will just come back, beat me with my product and steal all my money? Again, there are the brutal direct effects, and the even broader-reaching impediments to trying.

Finally, Dispossession of land. Without the protection of laws and real estate rights systems, everyone's a squatter. Land that has provided subsistence for generations can be taken by force in the Darwinian jungle. Without that lifeline, vulnerability to other violence increases. I recall a recent 60 Minutes piece on the dump-dwellers of Paraguay who've been forced off their lands. The Old 60 Minutes would have inveighed against that injustice; this weak sibling instead chose to tell the uplifting tale of their coping through music. Regardless, they eke-out their 'livings' by culling scraps atop a fetid landfill. It may-or-may-not be good to be da king ? in such places, it's an unmitigated bad thing not-to-be.

Toting up the individual consequences of violence, Haugen estimates that it costs whole societies remarkable sums in terms of lost progress ? progress that compounds like interest in a bank account. Colombia, for instance is 25% poorer, every year, because of the real and opportunity costs of violence. Other developing nations find their growth similarly retarded by the absence of this critical social infrastructure of the Rule of Law and real criminal justice.

Progress is possible, in part because these are acts and patterns of criminal, and commercial, impunity. In Cebu, the Philippines' second largest city, sex trafficking in children was a major scourge, with innocence ripped from those small bodies. Together with the Gates Foundation, Haugen's IJM launched a program to inform and change enforcement priorities of local police ? and that particular species of brutality has fallen by fully 79%. Impunity/immunity to the consequences of their criminality removed, pimps found other ways to occupy their time.

Violence in the absence of criminal justice systems, as a root cause of continued poverty and misery has been de-emphasized as recently as the UN's Millennium Report on the subject. The IJM is working to raise the ugly head of institutional, systemic brutality, and direct resources toward the hard work of establishing and funding systems, and socializing the citizenries in lands all over the developing world. As another commentator voiced it in a recent on-line roundtable, mouth-of-the-river rescue efforts to relieve poverty need to move upstream to address root causes with long term, non-rescue type efforts to create lasting change.

Clearly, there are other ways to organize and attack the many-headed beast of world-wide poverty, especially in the developing world. Violence has been an under-appreciated element, and very incompletely funded and addressed to-date. Haugen's approach and his efforts toward creating truly civil societies make a critical contribution to the planet's least-privileged inhabitants. We are justifiably concerned in this country with encouraging economic opportunity and social mobility. Those issues are played-out world-wide at the fundamental, survival level at the base of the Need Hierarchy.

The Locust Effect has given us a lot to consider and support. After all, Rwanda happens daily on an individual, but no less tragic, scale.