02.20.148:52 AM ET

The Plague That People Can’t See

In his new book The Locust Effect, author Gary A. Haugen argues that the key to ending poverty lies in first ending common violence.

The idea sounds, at once, totally obvious and infinitely complicated: Violence, says Gary A. Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission  (IJM), is “the hidden plague that the world has missed.” What he means, and what he explores in his new book The Locust Effect, is that all of the world’s efforts to support and empower the poor—especially women—will be undermined if we don’t accept the truth that they are the ones most vulnerable to common violence—be it theft, assault, or worse. While in New York City for his book launch, Haugen sat down with Sarah J. Robbins to explain why violence is so hard to address—and why failing to do so could undermine our best efforts to improve the lives of women and girls.

Women in the Wolrd: Why has this connection between violence and poverty been, until now, so unexplored?

Gary Haugen: The law enforcement enjoyed by people who traditionally work on economic development and poverty alleviation—especially those coming from the West—is like the invisible oxygen they breathe every day. They don’t have much idea of the incredible historical development and expense and effort that goes into us all just having a nice day today. It’s not rocket science: “Oh yeah,” we’d all say, “I don’t think I’d get very far if people could just beat me up or assault me or steal from me.” 

It’s a complicated social phenomenon. A lot of violence is crime of opportunity, which you can drive down with criminal deterrents, but then you’re dealing with social pathology and people’s cultural attitudes toward certain classes of people. You can also actually overemphasize law enforcement, sending people to jail for life for having small amounts of marijuana, as is the case in our society’s drug war. The answer to bad law enforcement is never going to be more law enforcement or no law enforcement—it’s got to be better law enforcement. My co-author [Victor Boutros] and I thought: Someone in the world is going to have to ring the alarm bell and say, “We’re really not making any progress toward better law enforcement for poor people.” That system is getting worse from overload and from withdrawal by people with wealth and power.

It’s not that violence is the only problem—or more important than, say, issues of hunger or disease or unemployment. It’s just that we’ll be substantially disappointed in our ability to empower poor people over the long-term if we underestimate the capacity for someone to hurt or steal from them.

WITW: What will it take to change the tide?

GH: It is a lot like waking up to the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when people said, “Oh my, this is big, no one’s talking about it, and it’s just going to get bigger.” You could just fall back in despair, or you could have the courage to say, “no, this is a big deal, and we have to deal with it.” 

We can do two things: First, invest in demonstration projects that experiment with what really can work in terms of poverty alleviation and law enforcement. There is massive expertise just waiting to be deployed. The second is to demonstrate that we are taking seriously this problem of utterly dysfunctional criminal justice systems for the poor. Would I pour development assistance into your country if you were ignoring the AIDS epidemic? We know a tremendous amount about how to stop violence; it’s the political will to take those steps is what’s needed.

WITW: The stories that open your book—about a girl named Yuri in Peru, and then a woman named Mariamma in India—are so heartbreaking. So much of this violence you describe is endured by women. Why is this the case—and what can be done? 

GH: One thing for sure is that women and girls are overwhelmingly the ones who are penalized by this failure of law enforcement. It destroys everything—even girls’ the capacity to go to school. You see,the girl effect  that comes from education is supposed to be really, really true, but if there’s violence dragging them down—and studies now show that the main reason they’re not going to school is because of violence—it won’t happen.

But though women are overwhelming the victims of this, they’re also emerging as the champions who are leading the change. At IJM, we have stories of women leaders who are now engaging law enforcement very dramatically. Eva Kadi, who is now running our Gulu office, in Northern Uganda (an area that for more than 20 years suffered at the hands of warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army), was herself displaced by the violence in her area. The surviving widows and orphans are now coming back to find their homes and land seized by others—and clan militias backing up the thieves. Eva is now working to bring law enforcement as the solution for this, and she’s already restored hundreds of widows and orphans to their homes. She is just the most amazing hero that you’ll ever imagine.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited. 

To learn more about IJM’s work—and to find out how you can take action—visit