Billions of the world’s poorest people have no access to law enforcement to protect them from violence.
If we don’t address the problem of predatory violence it decimates all the other solutions to poverty we are trying to put in place.
Gary Haugen was introducing his new book, The Locust Effect at an event I attended on Friday. He had begun with the story of a woman in the US who called the police to report an intruder trying to break into her home. The intruder was known to the woman; he had attacked her just a couple of weeks earlier. She was alone at home in a rural area, and he was breaking his way through her door. The phone was answered, but no help was forthcoming: budget cuts meant that there simply weren’t any emergency response vehicles available in that area at the weekends. The dispatcher was sorry, but there was nothing she could do.
The intruder broke in, and the woman was raped and choked.
This lack of access to help when it is needed is shocking. What sets this woman apart from many of the other people whose stories Gary related is that she did have an expectation that help should be available. There was a number she could call. Help should have been at hand, and she does now have a reasonable expectation that something will be done to bring the perpetrator to justice.
The poorest of the poor in developing countries have no such expectation.
There is no emergency number. The police will not come sweeping down the street with sirens blaring. There will be no justice.
In the developing world you don’t run to the police for protection, you run from the police for protection.
The fight against global poverty continues, and many people are doing wonderful things to bring education, relief and hope to those in need, yet it will be futile, Gary argues, if we don’t also work to end the relentless, predatory violence perpetrated against the poor day after day – what he calls “an epidemic of everyday violence.”
They did not need a sermon
Studies have shown that one of the most powerful ways to get people out of poverty is education, and in particular the education of girls, but the biggest obstacle to educating girls is violence, as they are often attacked on the way to and from school.
Projects which help families cultivate their land and grow food to live on and to sell are wonderful – until those families are violently evicted from their homes and driven off their land.
When the victims of the Rwandan genocide were huddled in their churches, watching the machetes hack their way towards them, cutting down their friends, neighbours and relatives on the way, Gary writes in the introduction to the book,
[they] did not need someone to bring them a sermon, or food, or a doctor, or a teacher, or a micro-loan. They needed someone to restrain the hand with the machete—and nothing else would do.
The locusts of predatory violence had descended—and they would lay waste to all that the vulnerable poor had otherwise struggled to scrape together to secure their lives. (p. x)
Yet how do you stop a global swarm of locusts? When the criminal justice systems in developing countries are as corrupt, inept and overloaded as they are, and slave owners, gangs and other violent criminals know they can act with total impunity, what hope is there of ever being able to bring about change?
Actually, Gary believes there is hope.
Reasons for hope
Firstly, history teaches us that there is hope: virtually every country with a functioning Criminal Justice system once had a violent and corrupt one. Situations not only can change, they do change, and have changed. Citing the conditions 100 or so years ago in New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Paris in chapter 10 of the book, Haugen tells us that they offer a powerful lesson:
namely, that reasonably functioning justice systems are possible even in circumstances in which they do not currently exist, or seem unlikely to emerge. (p. 224)
There is no ‘silver bullet solution’, he says,
But all of the stories say it is possible. It is possible for a law enforcement system to start our backwards, broken, and dangerous for poor people, and yet to be transformed by intentional effort into one that provides common citizens with the basic protections and dignity they need. (p. 229)
The other reason to be hopeful, he says, is that “the people who oppress the poor are not brave.” In situations where violence is endemic like this, much of the reason is that the perpetrators know they will not have to face the consequences of their actions. They will not even be pursued, let alone brought to justice. When functioning criminal justice systems begin to be put in place, however, when violent crime starts to have repercussions, its levels drop, drastically. When slave-owners start to face imprisonment for their crimes, they stop enslaving people. When someone stands up to the bullies, they melt away.
It’s a long road. It’s a hard task. It has to be tackled from multiple angles at once, and it is very frustrating, but it can work. The last chapter of the book is called ‘Demonstration Projects of Hope’ and, as its name suggests, it details some areas of the world where governments, NGOs and the International Justice Mission – of which Gary is founder and president – are beginning to see signs of progress towards establishing functioning criminal justice systems and creating environments in which the poor can, at last, begin to find a toe-hold and move towards living in a place in which, at the very least, they have a reasonable expectation of safety at home, at work and on the streets.
Gary is an outstanding communicator, with decades of in-depth knowledge and first hand experience of the fight for justice for the poorest of the poor all round the world. I highly recommend his book; it’s a heart-breaking, harrowing read at times, but it ends with hope.
If you want to play your part, as well as buying the book* you can visit the website and sign a petition asking the UN to consider adding goals to address violence against the poor when it renews its Millennium Development Goals in 2015. And if you want a bit more hope in your life, I highly recommend following IJM on twitter. Their regular tweets about the tiny, day-by-day incremental successes in their work are truly encouraging, with links to some very moving stories.
This has been something of a contrast to my last post, about the Lego movie, hasn’t it? I write a lot about fairly abstract concepts, about issues that shape us and our minds and our culture, but that aren’t really very tangible. I hope that doesn’t mean that I am immune to the far more urgent, physical, life-and-death battles faced by millions in our world today. This matters, too. I feel helpless in the face of it, but I will do what I have been given, which is to write.
Thank you for reading.
NB: Links to buy the book on Amazon are Affiliate Links,
meaning I get a small proportion of the sale price as an advertising fee.