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If We Want to Overcome Extreme Poverty, We Must Change This

A few years ago, a United Nations study quantified an astounding truth – a truth so dramatic it deserved space on the front page of papers around the world, and with implications so stunning it demanded that we re-consider the way we are combating extreme poverty.

But, instead, the study quietly faded into the background.

The explosive truth that most of the world missed in that study is that a stunning four billion people are not protected by their own justice systems.

To put that into perspective: More than half the world’s population, including most of the world’s poorest people, aren’t safe.


Throughout the developing world, justice systems – law enforcement, court systems, social services – have corroded and collapsed into utter dysfunction. 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 of the abuse they expect to experience from them.

When their justice systems do not work, nothing shields the poorest from violent people. As a result, the threat of being raped, robbed, assaulted and exploited is constant. According to World Bank data, for example, women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 are more at risk of being killed or disabled by gender violence than by cancer, car accidents, malaria and war combined. In surveys, the poor 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 overwhelming vulnerability to everyday violence doesn’t just destroy lives, it also blocks the road out of poverty and undermines development. Consider what happens to efforts to overcome poverty when violence is an everyday threat. 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, eroding 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 or if she is one of the millions of women chased from her home each year, nor can a medical clinic help build the healthy foundations families need to succeed if those families are among the nearly 30 million people swept up into forced labor slavery in our world. 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 for the poorest to thrive if we do not eradicate the plague of everyday violence that blocks the road out of poverty and undermines the world’s efforts to help the poor thrive.

Fortunately, there is a sustainable way to protect the poor from the onslaught of everyday violence, and it is the solution most of us in developed countries depend upon every day: functioning, effective justice systems, including law enforcement. It’s exactly what that UN study found that four billion people don’t get today.

But when the world came together to create the UN's Millennium Development Goals – the global blueprint guiding the fight against poverty – violence against the poor and the development of the functioning justice systems were not even mentioned. You can join your voice with the growing movement calling for the inclusion of the issue of violence on the 2015 update to the goals now being drafted. My organization has launched a petition to General Ban Ki Moon, urging him to make this a priority. Adding your name is a crucial first step to help end the plague of violence. Let’s not let this urgent reality fade into the background again.

Buy The Locust Effect February 2-8 and for every copy sold in the U.S. (both physical books & e-books), a generous donor will give $20 to IJM*. (*up to $80,000 - enough to cover the cost of 17 rescue operations.)

All author royalties from your purchase of this book will go to International Justice Mission to help fight violence against the poor. Learn more about IJM’s work.

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