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Everyday violence against the poor

by Dagmar Wolf

In brief

Young slave labourers in the fish industry in Ghana.

Young slave labourers in the fish industry in Ghana.

Poor people experience indiscriminate oppression and injustice on a daily basis. The lack of legal security blights any prospects they might have and locks them into poverty.

A book by legal experts Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros decries the fact that billions of poor in the world are denied the human right to liberty and security. It finds that penniless people are helplessly exposed to sexual violence, forced labour and slavery, land theft, abuse of police power and torture. The authors substantiate this with shocking case studies in Peru, India, Kenya and elsewhere. They conclude that everyday violence thwarts every attempt that people make to free themselves from poverty. As a result, it also undermines poor countries’ economic development and torpedoes every effort to reduce poverty.

Many poor people in developing countries live in a de facto state of lawlessness. Haugen and Boutros point out that laws are not enforced and that prosperous, influential people have taken advantage of broken and corrupt legal systems to suppress and exploit the poor. Many countries still have legal systems established by former colonial powers – systems solely designed to protect the regime from the people. And according to the authors, they continue to do just that in many cases today. Furthermore, rich and powerful elites have availed themselves of private security services, which undermines the public legal system even more.

Ailing legal systems have been characterised by:

  • arbitrary prosecution and arrest;
  • abuse and torture of detainees on remand, potentially for months or even years until a case goes to trial – if indeed it ever does;
  • poor police training and pay;
  • poor legal training;
  • lack of vital resources and infrastructure;
  • defendants denied legal counsel;
  • trials conducted in a foreign language (e.g. English or Spanish rather than the relevant local language) which defendants neither speak nor understand;
  • absence of trial transcripts that could serve as a basis for a retrial.

Haugen and Boutros hold donor countries partly responsible for the poor enforcement of laws. The jurists conclude that they have not devoted enough attention to the issue and have not channelled sufficient funds into remedial action. Only around one to two percent of official development assistance (ODA) has been earmarked for measures specifically designed to improve the judicial system and legal protection for all. In most cases, the reason for this is found in development agency statutes. They effectively prohibit support for the police and justice sector to avoid interference in the internal affairs of countries and to ensure that the agency’s work does not strengthen corrupt governments even more. The authors believe, however, that proper enforcement of laws and a functioning legal system are absolutely vital for sustainable development.

Boutros is a US federal prosecutor who investigates and tries cases of police or official misconduct such as corruption and abuse of authority. Haugen is founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission (IJM), an international human-rights organisation that protects the poor from violence, slavery and human trafficking. Presenting projects supported by IJM and other organisations as examples, the authors show that it is possible to change non-functioning legal systems in developing countries so that they provide effective protection for the poor. The fact that this can be done is evidenced, in their eyes, by the history of the police service in the United States for example. Haugen and Boutros point out that no country started out with a legal system that protected the poor and weak.

The authors call upon development agencies to step up their efforts in this area. In return, they urge developing countries to commit more vigorously to the development of legal systems that also protect poor sections of their population.

Dagmar Wolf


Haugen, G. A., and Boutros, V., 2014: The locust effect – why the end of poverty requires the end of violence. Oxford University Press.

International Justice Mission:

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