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WEF 2015: How Everyday Violence is Undermining Development

In the midst of this busy week at the World Economic Forum (WEF) I have found myself reflecting on WEF’s slogan of “Improving the State of the World.” While that is a very ambitious statement, in the past few days I have experienced tangible proof that there is indeed progress toward this goal. I’ve witnessed and participated in conversations between the business sector and the non-profit community that I believe will lead to actual good in the world, in the lives of very poor people.

And yet, I also often find myself asking, “Improving the State of the World… for whom?” It seems some here are beginning to ask the very same thing. One focus this week is inequality, especially as leaders at WEF attempt to respond to things such as a report published last year by Oxfam that made headlines with its stark picture of global divide: The richest 85 people in the world hold the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people. Now Oxfam says it’s only 80 people. The divide grows. There are many obvious ways in which the lives of those wealthy 80 differ from the poorest 3.5 billion, but one way that is the least discussed and, arguably, the most important, is that poor people do not get law enforcement.

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 18 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 World Health Organization (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, as well.

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, which erodes 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. I have been quite encouraged by the recognition of this in conversations this week around the Sustainable Development Goals. It is our belief and experience that law enforcement is emerging as the greatest forgotten need when people consider how to actually sustain development efforts for those who need it most.

The thing I find most extraordinary is that the organizers of the World Economic Forum fundamentally understand the need for law enforcement as they have lined the streets of Davos with armed police, set up layers of manned check-points, daily fill police vans and patrol the skies by helicopter.

My hope is that the amazing clarity all around us of the need to protect those here might soon translate into a similar recognition of the need to protect the world’s poorest.

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