Gary Haugen is a civil rights lawyer who over the years has deeply challenged me about my attitude to our responsibilities in an unequal and unjust world. 

He reminds me of the quote by Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Gary’s organisation, International Justice Mission is one of the few in the world that is hacking at the roots of the evil of poverty, while literally thousands others are focussing on the branches.

In this 22 minute TED talk he invites us to understand compassion in the face of global poverty. If you have the time now please watch it. Otherwise please make sure you schedule some time soon to sit and watch. It brings much hope and wisdom to what is such an endemic and global issue.

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Quoting Haugen, “the fight against global poverty is probably the broadest longest running manifestation of the human phenomenon of compassion in the history of our species.”

The good news is that the number of people in our world living in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.25 a day) has fallen in 35 years from 50% to 15%. That is great progress. However, with a rising global population in that time, when you measure poverty as being below $2 a day then you still have the same number of 2 billion people in harsh poverty as there was 35 years ago.

In spite of all the awareness, campaigning and work done in the last few decades, why are there still such huge numbers trapped in terrible poverty? The reason is something that we have chosen to ignore for a long time. The reason is violence.

To understand the scale of this, domestic abuse and sexual violence to poor women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 account for more death and disability than malaria, car accidents and war combined. When you reflect on how much coverage these tragedies get in our media saturated world and compare that with the attention given to day-to-day violence to the poor then the level of that coverage and awareness is tiny.

The stark truth, Haugen asserts, is that half a century of anti-poverty programmes have actually left more people (a staggering 35 million) in slavery than at any other time in history.

The reason is that like a plague of locusts can descend on communities and destroy everything in their path, violence agains the poor is so deep rooted and endemic that it has a similar devastating effect. What is even more sobering is that it is not the violence of genocide or wars, but everyday violence from those around them that is so damaging.

It is not a problem of lack of laws to prevent this from happening. The laws are in place, but there is neither the will nor the capacity in so many countries to ensure law enforcement.

Haugen chillingly brings that home to us with the audio of a woman in Oregon, USA who could not get the police to come and protect her when a dangerous assailant was banging down her door.

In the majority world that fear and terror is exponentially magnified. So for example, Haugen asserts:

In Bolivia if a man sexually assaults a poor child he is statistically at greater risk of slipping in the shower and dying than he is of ever going to jail for his crime. In South Asia if you enslave a poor person you are at greater risk of being struck by lightning than of ever being sent to jail for your crime.

What is just as surprising is that you might have expected that the disintegration of basic law enforcement in the developing world would be a major priority in the global fight against poverty. The tragedy is, according to auditors of international assistance, not even 1% of aid goes to protect the poor from the lawless chaos of everyday violence.

So widespread and prevalent is this that private security forces are a huge business in the majority world. In some countries they can be up to 7 times larger than the public police force.

But Haugen shows us that there is hope for real change when we make combatting violence an indispensable part of the fight against poverty. An example is where the Gates Foundation were able to fund a project in Quezon City, the second largest city in the Philippines, where the local advocates and law enforcement were able to transform corrupt police and local courts so drastically that commercial sexual violence against poor children was reduced by 79%.

The website of International Justice Mission is here.

Below is a link to Gary Haugen’s book The Locust Effect that goes into this in much more detail.

What thoughts and questions does the video and statistics raise for you?