The Plagues of the Poor

Book Review: The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary Haugen

Every Saturday, after exchanging polite Swahili greetings with the security guard, I walk the dusty and unpaved road into town. I walk past shops made from scraps of wood and torn plastic tarp. Heaps of corn kernels dry in the hot sun. Children practicing their English shout, “Mzugu, how are you! How are you?” and some run beside me begging for money. I cross the dilapidated colonial-era railroad tracks and finally make my way toward the bustling center of town to do my shopping for the week.

This weekly walk has taught me a fairly obvious lesson. The global poor just don’t have a whole lot of money. In fact, one out of every two people in Western Kenya is, statistically speaking, poor; they live off of less than $2.00 per person per day adjusted for the purchasing power of the dollar.

This lack of money ripples through almost every aspect of life. Money buys food, housing, education, clothing, and medicine; it provides access to bank accounts, loans, freedom, and choice. A life in poverty with just enough money to survive is tough; so challenging in fact that studies have shown that people who must constantly think about financial problems score lower on cognitive tests. It is a mental burden, which effectively mimics the cognitive drop-off of becoming an alcoholic for a typical adult.

In many countries around the world where law enforcement is corrupt, where the judicial system is backlogged, and where the rule of law fails to effectively restrain criminal behavior, money also must buy safety, security, and justice. In these countries being poor grinds even harder because assurance of simply being safe is not a reality.

More Than Just Poor

Gary Haugen, President of International Justice Mission (IJM) reveals this sobering reality in his new book The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence. In it he tells tragic and haunting stories about the role violence plays in the lives of the global poor; it is an everyday occurrence that swarms like locusts, and devours everything people have done to pursue a life they deem worth living.

There is the story of Yuri, an eight-year-old girl from La Union, Peru who was violently raped and killed. Yuri’s killers have never been brought to justice because (a) her family can’t afford a lawyer, (b) the police are untrained and unwilling to properly investigate a rape/homicide case, and (c) when the rapist/murderer is finally (and miraculously) brought to trial the magistrate chose (or was bribed) to look the other way as a key piece of evidence was tampered with and deemed useless to the case.

There is also Mariamma, a young, low-caste woman living and working in a brick factory just outside of Bangalore, India. One day she was offered a much better job in another brick factory. What seemed to be a pathway out of poverty ended up being a lie that landed Mariamma in bonded labor. Her new boss insisted that she owed him money and required that she work for him until the debt was paid. Mariamma however, was paid so little and forced to work so much that it would be impossible for her to ever pay off the debt.

Then there is Bruno, a husband and father in his late forties who lives with his family in a tiny little home in one of the slums in Nairobi, Kenya. One morning on his way to sell leather belts in a nearby market, a police vehicle pulled along side Bruno. Suddenly he was forced off his feet and shoved into the back of the vehicle. Bruno was kidnapped as part of a police investigation; instead of pursing actual criminals the Nairobi police apprehended Bruno as a scapegoat for a crime he knows nothing about. Bruno’s family hears nothing from him for weeks because, even if he wanted to, Bruno can’t afford to bribe the police to set him free.

After reading these stories, I begin to see things differently on my weekly walk into town. Things like the steel rebar in front of the windows of my apartment, the private security guard who is stationed 24/7 at the metal front gate, and the fifteen-foot concrete walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass surrounding the homes of those who can afford it.

The government clearly does not adequately provide security, protection, or law enforcement; otherwise people wouldn’t pay for these private security measures. Private security generally works well, unless you are too poor to pay for it; then there is essentially nothing to protect you from the harmful reach of human violence.

In many countries around the globe being poor means even more than simply not having enough money. It means life on a daily basis is often violent, always dangerous, and incredibly unjust.

Transforming the Topic

For decades international development agencies have been making drastic steps to improve the lives of the global poor. A smaller proportion of the world now lives in poverty than in any other time in history. As each day passes we are learning more and more about what actually helps people flourish and what simply hinders improvement.

These organizations have made these advancements by focusing on easily visible characteristics; the parts of life I noticed the first time I walked into town. Lots of people are unemployed and don’t have money, leading to a lack of food, clean water, medical care, education, housing, and sanitation. These challenges of life are both real and obvious, but if we fail to look harder we will miss a major part of life for the global poor: violence, crime, extortion, and injustice.

Without fully understanding the every day conditions of the over two billion people living in poverty globally, we will fail to understand behavior such as why a taxi driver doesn’t take a loan (survival rather than maximizing profit is his primary motivation), why a young girl doesn’t go to school (it is unsafe for her to walk even within her own community), and why a farmer doesn’t use fertilizer (the majority of his crops will be stolen anyway).

Poverty is a complex problem and without understanding what life in poverty is really like, we will never solve it. This is why The Locust Effect is so important. The book paints a picture of reality that the global poor experience daily, an existence where law enforcement and judicial systems fail and violence and injustice rein. It is time to transform the conversation about global poverty to include the effects of everyday violence as we examine the complex problems facing the global poor today.

2 thoughts on “The Plagues of the Poor”

  1. […] Easterly has many good things to say, but his acerbic personality and need to be nasty to those who don’t share his views detracts from his argument. He’s also very “economic,” seeming to assume that the only thing that really matters in life is how much stuff people have. While he’s right that incentives matter and that self-interest is a powerful motivator, there are also other sources of motivation (e.g. love, community spirit, ethical compasses) that need recognition and consideration. An excellent book that makes a somewhat similar point to Easterly, but is more holistic and ultimately more coherent, is The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. (Reviewed by me here) […]

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