This is What We’ve Been Missing in the Fight to End Global Poverty

by | Jun 18, 2017 | Formation, Justice and Peace, Poverty: Analysis and Responses

In March 2015, IJM President and Founder Gary Haugen delivered a talk on the TED2015 stage in Vancouver, Canada. His message? There’s a reason that so many are still living in poverty today and our development efforts are being undermined by a phenomenon too frequently ignored by the greater development community.


The problem?

A plague of everyday violence against the poor.

Haugen, whose new book The Locust Effect, co-authored by Victor Boutros, came out in paperback just yesterday, emphasized that not only does the development community need to pay attention to the unspeakable violence being afflicted upon those living in the world’s poorest communities, it needs to necessitate that addressing violence be part of the conversation moving forward.

We have to start making stopping violence indispensable to the fight against poverty. In fact, any conversation about global poverty that doesn’t include the problem of violence must be deemed not serious. -Gary Haugen, TED2015

“The Locust Effect” is also the name Haugen has assigned to this plague of violence against the poor, because, like a swarm of locusts, it descends on the poor and vulnerable and destroys their attempts — and the attempts of the international development community — to lift them out of poverty.

Below is an excerpt from The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence: © 2015, Oxford University Press

We Know Enough to Sound the Alarm

For those who care about the struggle against global poverty, the time of reckoning has come. We must be willing to speak openly and honestly about the locust effect — the way lawless violence uniquely lays waste to economic development and the human and social capital upon which increased standards of living are built. It is bracing, for example, to inventory what diverse experts actually now know about the way specific forms of violence directly thrust vulnerable populations into poverty or keep them there.

For example, we now know that gender violence and land grabbing throw women and girls out of stable homes and communities and force them into urban slums where they are even more insecure and find it even more difficult to overcome poverty. Studies show that many women migrate to the urban slums “not so much in search of something as to escape from something which threatens to harm them.” We now know that education for girls in the developing world has a spectacular rate of return in helping girls and their communities escape from poverty. But we also now know — but rarely discuss — that violence against girls in the developing world has a devastating impact on their school attendance, their educational performance, their achievement levels, their self-esteem, and their physical and psychological health. We now know that sexual violence is one of the most powerful drivers of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its devastatingly disproportionate assault upon women and girls in the developing world (especially in Africa) and the epidemic’s unparalleled economic destruction in poor communities.

We now know from sophisticated studies from the developing world that forced labor directly causes poverty and extreme poverty — locking poor people “in a cycle of poverty from which they cannot extricate themselves.”

In economic terms, experts find that forced labor adversely impacts “efficiency and equity” and undermines economic development through low or no wages, withholding of wages, lack of cash wages, denying children access to education, and denying laborers the very means to invest in their livelihoods, their human capital, or in their children’s future.

We now know from recent, ground-breaking research that abusive detention practices in the developing world have a devastating economic impact on the poor through lost income (billions lost to the poor), lost employment, lost education, lost harvest, lost market space; devastating costs for fees, bribes, travel visits; and increased risks of bankruptcy, property theft , family disintegration, and destitution for poor families living on the edge of survival.

We certainly know that lawless violence undermines economic development and makes it harder for poor people to improve their standard of living through increased income, medical services, and education. But the algorithms of economic growth and development are exceedingly complex and our capacity to isolate and measure the precise impact that lawless violence has on rates of economic growth, or income generation, or poverty alleviation, can prove elusive. So, even as we sound the alarm about the locust effect, we don’t need to pretend like we know everything yet.

To begin with, securing highly accurate data on incidents, rates, and levels of violence and crime is very difficult because violence and crime are intentionally hidden. Researchers are forced to use offi cial statistics of reported crime, or victim surveys, or proxy measures (like homicide as a proxy for violence in general) or other data sources that are notoriously unreliable and imprecise. The scholarly disquisitions on the diffi culties of measuring violence and crime (especially across different countries and communities) could, and do, fill vast social science libraries.

And even if you could get great data on the amount of violence, isolating the causal link of that particular violence from all the other factors impacting economic growth or poverty in a given community or nation is extremely challenging. Moreover, some of the very specific causal connections between violence and poverty that seem intuitively obvious fail to be validated under the microscope of intense empirical study. For example, the idea that violence against poor women in the home reduces their capacity to get productive work outside the home has not been validated by careful studies that examined the proposition. So sometimes the causal links between violence and poverty that make sense simply have not been proven or are too complicated for experts to clearly isolate.

Finally, we also do not have nearly enough data on the impact lawless violence has on specific poverty alleviation programs in the developing world. As we’ve seen, we have a good bit of empirical data, for example, on the way sexual violence undermines education programs and health programs among poor girls in the developing world. But what exactly is the impact of land grabbing on programs to increase the food production of women in Africa? What is the impact of bonded slavery on rural health programs targeting the poor in South Asia? What is the impact of gender violence on access to the new clean water sources? What is the impact on child sponsorship programs of child sexual violence? What is the impact on micro-loan programs of police extortion against families in poor communities?

Practitioners who run these various programs in the field will tell us candidly that lawless violence has a painful impact on their work and on the poor communities where they work; but outside the high-profile contexts of war and civil conflict, they rarely see systematic studies that calculate the true cost of the violence on their poverty alleviation efforts in the more stable settings where the vast majority of the world’s poor live. Since few traditional poverty alleviation programs in the developing world claim to include a component that measurably reduces the poor’s vulnerability to violence, some practitioners say there is little incentive to study and discuss a phenomenon that is undermining the usefulness of their programs, but for which they have no effective response.

But, for the sake of the larger fight against global poverty, denial is never the answer. Nor is the difficulty with data and empirical complexity a reason to turn away in silence from what we do know — namely, that the locusts of lawless violence have been allowed to swarm unabated in the developing world and they are laying waste to the hope of the poor.

But, for the sake of the larger fight against global poverty, denial is never the answer. Nor is the difficulty with data and empirical complexity a reason to turn away in silence from what we do know — namely, that the locusts of lawless violence have been allowed to swarm unabated in the developing world and they are laying waste to the hope of the poor. The gaps in data and knowledge are reasons to prioritize and fund research that will help us understand the reality as rigorously as possible, but they are not a reason to falter in sounding the alarm. There remain enormously complex data questions about issues like global warming, the AIDS epidemic, unsustainable entitlement programs, obesity, and other crises of public affairs — but it is only the foolish deniers and irresponsible contrarians who allow data complexity to push these crises off the agenda of urgent public discourse.

In a comfortable, western intellectual culture that can value an easy and clever complexity over the risks of responsible action, this can be a real danger.

The truth is, human and social reality is so complex, and our tools of analysis so exquisite that demonstrating unequivocal relationship of cause and effect in human affairs that meet our highly specialized standards for empirical truth has become nearly impossible — in ways that can’t help but seem funny to people of common sense.

The latest headline appears above the fold, stating that a rigorous study has established a link between obesity and portion size or sedentary lifestyles. Experts celebrate because demonstrating such linkages to the satisfaction of modern empirical standards is amazingly diffi cult — indeed, measuring precisely the relationship between weight gain and how much you eat and how much you exercise is full of misunderstandings, falsehoods, rumors, fad theories, and bogus correlations. But the common person probably got the core idea a long time ago.

Likewise, when it comes to lawless violence and the struggle against the worst poverty in the developing world, while we’re not done learning, we know enough. Recognized as one of today’s most careful scholars, Christopher Stone of Harvard has said after reviewing the state of knowledge in the field:

Whether the aim of development assistance is the growth of national economies, the effective administration of national and local governments, or simply the relief of those conditions that people in poverty identify as their greatest concerns, reducing crime and violence is important.

Indeed for the millions of poor men, women, and children in the developing world who find that they cannot go to school, or go to the medical clinic, or keep their wages, or keep their land, or keep their job, or start a business, or walk to the water well, or stay in their house, or stay healthy because they are enslaved, imprisoned, beaten, raped, or robbed, “violence is important.” In the same way, the problem of the locusts was “important” to those six family members in the shallow grave in Missouri in 1875.

Fortunately for the hardy survivors of the 1875 plague, the Rocky Mountain grasshoppers never swarmed in such a devastating way again. In fact, mysteriously, they were extinct as a species by the turn of the century. Unfortunately for the vulnerable poor in the developing world, the forces of predatory violence will not simply go away like the locusts of the Great Plains. On the contrary, if the forces of violence are not restrained, it is the hope of the poor that will just keep going away — generation after generation — and there is nothing that our programs for feeding, teaching, housing, employing, and empowering the poor will be able to do about it. If we can’t overcome the locust effect, nothing else good people do to help the poor will be truly sustainable.

So How Do We Make the Violence Stop?

To consider that question, we will need to back up and ask some other questions first — namely, why do the poor suffer such massive and disproportionate levels of violence in the developing world? Why are forces of such brutal violence allowed to swarm and wreak such relentless and brutal havoc among the global poor? These are the questions we turn to next.

Read more of The Locust Effect, now available in paperback.

Thanks to Julie Eckert and IJM on for this story.

International Justice Mission

We partner with local authorities to protect the poor from violence in the developing world. Learn more at

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