The Root Cause of Global Poverty

It isn’t a lack of food or education. It’s a problem that challenges both the left and the right.

Girls wear backpacks as they walk through a street in a slum.
Girls walk through a street as they return from school at the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2014. Noor Khamis/Reuters

If you’re a progressive Democrat in the United States, you’re supposed to care about poverty, education, and women’s rights. If you’re a conservative Republican, you’re supposed to care about terrorism, crime, and controlling immigration. But in real life, all these issues are connected. To solve the problems you care about, sometimes you have to listen to the other side.

Here’s an example: To help the world’s poor people, you have to fight crime.

This is the work of the International Justice Mission, a human rights organization. Its founder, Gary Haugen, outlined the global challenge at an April session of the Faith Angle Forum, a conference on religion and society. In 1994, Haugen led the United Nations investigation into the Rwandan genocide. Three years later, he launched IJM. Through his work and his book The Locust Effect, Haugen makes a compelling case: Today, the principal cause of misery and stagnation in the world isn’t a lack of food or education. It’s violence and lawlessness.

In the United States, crime has sunk to historic lows. But across much of the globe, it’s rampant. The crisis isn’t just war. It’s what Haugen calls “everyday violence”: sex crimes, slavery, and theft. Based on World Health Organization data, Haugen says sexual violence and domestic violence cause more death and disability among women aged 14 to 44 than war, malaria, and car accidents combined. In Peru, he recalls, a doctor reported seeing 50 cases of rape in the preceding five days. All the victims were less than 15 years old.

These crimes are rarely prosecuted. In some countries, statistically, you’re less likely to be convicted of sexual assault than to die from slipping in the shower or being struck by lightning. In such places, ordinary people don’t expect police or the courts to protect them. Often, the police are predators. Kenya, for instance, went through a 25-year period in which, despite chronic police abuse, not one officer was convicted of murder.

The violence is bad enough. But it’s also thwarting development assistance. International organizations throw money at poor countries, often without much to show for it, in part because predators get in the way. One key to development, for example, is educating girls. But in much of the world, what keeps girls out of school is violence. It’s dangerous to walk to school, it’s dangerous to be in school, and many girls face violence at home that keeps them from leaving.

Haugen argues that lawlessness, like joblessness or illiteracy, is a form of deprivation. It’s part of a class structure. Poor people face high crime rates for the same reason they get the worst food and the worst health care. In colonized countries, Western powers designed courts and police to protect their own interests, not the public. In many places, even today, if you want protection, you have to buy it. In the developing world, according to Haugen, the private security industry is four to seven times bigger than public police forces. It’s the largest employer in Africa.

When colonized countries ousted their Western overlords, progressives hoped the injustice within those countries would end. It didn’t. Local strongmen repurposed criminal justice systems to serve themselves. The abuse of state power turned out to be a human problem, not a colonial one. To this day, in many places, police have no idea how to investigate crimes. They’re trained to do what regimes want: crowd control, counterterrorism, and VIP security.

Initially, progressives thought they could drive out abuses by helping governments pass laws. But that didn’t work, because law, like food or medicine, requires an effective delivery system. Slavery has been outlawed everywhere. And yet, Haugen points out, millions of people around the world are still held in slavery.

You can’t just do good. You have to grapple with evil. “The World Bank now is doing these massive projects in countries where there’s no functioning justice system,” says Haugen. “They did a $400 million project, building a road that was going to have transformational effects in a part of Uganda that’s quite remote. What happens when you build a massive road? You send massive numbers of men to go build it. What do massive numbers of men do in an area where there’s no law enforcement? They sexually assault the women and children.” The crime wave resulting from that project became so horrific that the project had to be stopped.

Some liberals don’t like to hear this message. They’re uncomfortable with the language of power, punishment, deterrence, and force. They prefer to talk about amnesty, rehabilitation, or demilitarization. At the Faith Angle Forum, Haugen was asked about a movement to abolish prisons and law enforcement in the United States, on the grounds that these institutions are racist and corrupt. Haugen sympathized with this critique, but he pleaded for reform not abolition. The answer to corrupt or biased law enforcement, he argued, is fair and honest law enforcement. Never in history, he observed, has there been a country “where violent human beings didn’t have to be restrained.”

Tyrants impose their will by making an example of anyone who stands up to them. Haugen likes that idea, but it has to be applied lawfully and morally. In corrupt police forces, some officers are predators, but others want to serve the public. Most officers waver in the middle, willing to go along with whichever side prevails. Haugen’s strategy is to tip these forces in the right direction by sending a blunt-force message that the good guys will win. To deliver that message, you can’t just send thoughts and prayers. You have to help the people of these countries build criminal justice systems that can take down the bad guys.

When citizens in a lawless country see a powerful thug brought to justice, they’re shocked. They begin to hope. They gain confidence. They raise their voices. The system begins to respond to them. That’s beginning to happen in Kenya, Haugen reports. After 25 years with zero murder convictions of police officers, “We had nine convictions last year.”

IJM pursues this strategy, in concert with amenable governments, one malefactor at a time. The work requires patience and compromise. Cambodian law enforcement has gotten better at fighting sex traffickers, for instance, but it still represses political freedom. And IJM stays out of countries where the government refuses its help. You can’t police the world. You can only help those who are willing to police themselves.

Conservatives, too, can learn from IJM’s work. To fight terrorism, you have to confront police abuse in the developing world. People who don’t trust law enforcement don’t cooperate with it, and their silence allows terrorist organizations to flourish. Chaos and violence also fuel migration across the United States’ Southern border. “Central America has some of the most lawless and violent countries in the world,” says Haugen. “Families are fleeing these communities where there’s no functioning justice system.” A wall won’t solve the problem, he warns. “If you do not address the underlying circumstances of lawless chaos in countries that border [us] and that have access to the border, you will never build anything sufficient” to control immigration.

The most difficult lesson for conservatives might be Haugen’s message about law enforcement in the United States. Over the course of our history, our police and courts have improved dramatically. But there’s still far too much abuse and injustice. At the Faith Angle Forum, Haugen repeatedly drew analogies between rampant abuse in other countries and persistent abuse in our own.

We need to fix our criminal justice system. But we also need to help other countries fix theirs. We can’t do that by cutting foreign aid, as President Donald Trump has done. Nor can we do it just by sending food, clothing, or medicine. These countries need reliable, well-trained cops and prosecutors. They need justice.