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the locus effect by gary haugen

The Locus Effect by Gary Haugen

THE author of a new book, “The Locust Effect”, was in London recently to talk at the Legatum Institute, a think-tank. Gary Haugen founded the International Justice Mission, a non-profit organisation that tries to increase access to justice in poor countries by helping victims to take cases, by training police and by lobbying for more money and attention to be given to what Mr Haugen terms the “plague of everyday violence”.

The subtitle of his book, “Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence”, explains his thesis in a nutshell: no matter how much is done to improve poor countries’ business environments, education or health care, unless they become safer, they will never stop being poor. And the main reason why violence is endemic in so many places is very simple, he thinks: nothing shields most of the world’s poor from those who wish to prey on them. “In the last half-century,” he writes, “basic public justice systems in the developing world have descended into a state of utter collapse.”

When you picture a poor person in a poor country, you probably imagine someone who lacks food, and perhaps safe water and adequate shelter, and who may be suffering from untreated disease. But what you don’t see, because it is not visible, is that he or she is probably outside the protection of any law. Someone who attacks or steals from a poor person (who may have a small plot of land, or tools of a modest trade) will almost certainly never be punished. When poor people are asked what their biggest problem is, says Mr Haugen, they often answer “violence”—even if they are also hungry, jobless or sick.

Much of the book is given over to truly distressing stories: a Peruvian mother who finds her young daughter’s dead body thrown in the street, bearing marks of torture and rape; Indian villagers enslaved in a brick factory, beaten and starved. The common thread is impunity. In the case of the Peruvian girl there was, to say the least, suggestive evidence implicating a powerful local; it was apparently destroyed with the collusion of the police. When some enslaved workers escaped from the brick factory, the owner not only felt so sure he would not be prosecuted that he went to their village to drag them back, but enlisted local police to help him.

But it is not all depressing. Mr Haugen points out that even countries where the rule of law is now reasonably secure used to have corrupt and violent police, dysfunctional legal systems and de facto impunity for the rich and powerful. In the mid-1900s Parisian police saw their job as protecting the elite from the poor; around the turn of the 20th century New York’s police were hand-in-glove with kleptocratic politicians and racketeers. The powerful lesson of history, he writes, is that even terrible criminal-justice systems can be made to function reasonably well—given time, committed campaigners and reform-minded elites.


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