Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence

A young woman sits on the floor as she waits to receive medical help at the outpatient unit of a medical center run by Médeci
A young woman sits on the floor as she waits to receive medical help at the outpatient unit of a medical center run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (Doctors without Borders) in the town of Kuyera 04 September 2008. The United Nations appealed in June for 325.2 million dollars (229 million euros) mainly for drought victims after the lack of rain in the main February to April wet season has left at least 75,000 Ethiopian children under age five at risk from malnutrition, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) who also asserts that some eight million people need urgent food relief and another 4.6 million need emergency assistance. The MSF staff says that they have diagnosed or treated some 21,000 patients since the end of May. AFP PHOTO/Roberto SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

The findings of Oxfam's latest report on poverty made headlines this week with their stark picture of global divide: The richest 85 people in the world hold the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people. There are many obvious ways in which the lives of those wealthy 85 differ from the poorest 3.5 billion, but there is one critical difference that is much harder to see -- a difference that should be at the center of the world's efforts to overcome poverty. It is this: The rich are safe, while the poor are not.

In developing and middle-income countries, these 3.5 billion poorest people live with a constant threat of being raped, robbed, assaulted and exploited. They frequently name violence as their "greatest fear" or "main problem." For them, vulnerability to violence is just as much a part of being poor as illness, malnutrition, dirty drinking water or inadequate education.

This is the hidden devastation of "everyday violence" -- that is, common acts of criminal brutality that are already against the law. My colleagues and I at International Justice Mission see how terrifyingly ordinary this violence is through our work to protect the poor from rape, slavery, trafficking, property grabbing and police brutality in nearly 20 communities throughout the developing world.

Global statistics bear out the realities we see every day. Violence against women is an expected "part of everyday life," according to a massive World Bank study in developing world communities. In a WHO study, a stunning 71 percent of Ethiopian women reported experiencing physical or sexual violence. Sexual violence is a problem everywhere, but poorest are particularly vulnerable. In a UN report, one in five young women in the Central African Republic reported experiencing forced sexual initiation, and nearly half of young women in Caribbean countries did.

The painful truth is that the very poorest people in the world are desperately vulnerable to violence because they are poor. Throughout the developing world, justice systems are so broken and dysfunctional that the poor people these systems should protect have no defense whatsoever from those who seek to rape, abuse, exploit and assault them. In fact, the UN finds that most poor people in the world live "far from the law's protection." Under-resourced, under-trained and potentially corrupt law enforcement cannot or will not arrest and charge criminals or gather evidence. Trials move at a glacial pace, files are lost, no efforts are made to mitigate trauma during the court process for survivors of violence, and hearings are often conducted entirely in official languages the poor can't understand, among other systemic absurdities. In fact, not only do the poorest not seek protection through their police and court systems, but they often actively avoid them because the systems are so abusive.

Things are different for those outside the bottom 3.5 billion. In developed countries, justice systems (though imperfect) work well enough to provide a credible deterrent that protects you and me from experiencing the plague-like levels of violence our neighbors in developing countries do. And for the wealthy in developing countries, safety can simply be purchased through security services and other private alternatives.

Indeed, in global comparisons, perhaps no disparity is greater than the yawning gap between the justice systems of the haves and the have-nots. This crisis is not merely a consequence of pernicious income inequality -- it is also a cause of it. When only the rich can afford safety, the gap between rich and poor widens and deepens.

Violence blocks the road out of poverty and undermines development. According to the World Health Organization, school is the most common place for sexual violence for massive populations of poor girls in the developing world, and a key reason girls drop out, eroding the opportunity of education. Likewise, a micro-loan can't significantly change life for an impoverished woman if the proceeds of her farmland can just be stolen away by a more powerful neighbor, nor can a medical clinic help build the healthy foundations families need to succeed if those families are swept up into forced labor slavery. This is not to say that these development efforts are unimportant; rather, they are so important that they must be safeguarded from being laid to waste by violence.

The urgent truth is this: It will be impossible to overcome poverty if we do not eradicate the plague of everyday violence that is both a cause and effect of it. Fortunately, there is a sustainable way to protect the poor from the onslaught of everyday violence, and it is the solution you and I depend upon every day: functioning, effective justice systems, including law enforcement. But in 2000, when the UN's Millennium Development Goals were established as a blueprint to guide the world's fight against poverty, violence against the poor and the development of the functioning justice systems were not even mentioned.

You can join your voice with the growing movement calling for the inclusion of the issue of violence on the 2015 update to the goals now being drafted. My organization has launched a petition to General Ban Ki Moon, urging him to make this a priority. Adding your name is a great first step to help end the plague of violence. Three-and-a-half billion of our neighbors are counting on us.


Gary A. Haugen is President and CEO of International Justice Mission and the author of The Locust Effect