If you’ve been a tourist or business traveler recently in Kenya, India, Guatemala or any other developing country, you probably saw uniformed guards in the stores and offices you visited or hotels where you slept. The sight of these guards is so common that their presence most likely faded into the background. But they are emblematic of a massive social transformation that is passing unnoticed: Throughout the developing world, public justice systems are being replaced with private systems of security and dispute resolution. The implications for the world’s poorest people are devastating.
Businesses and economic elites in developing countries left frustrated by incompetent police, clogged courts and hopelessly overburdened judges and prosecutors are increasingly circumventing these systems and buying their own protection. In India in late 2010 the private security industry already employed more than 5.5 million people — roughly four times the size of the entire Indian police force. A 2009 World Bank report showed roughly the same ratio in Kenya. The largest employer in all of Africa is a private security firm, Group4Securicor, and in Guatemala, private security forces outnumber public police seven to one.
The repercussions extend far beyond the elites and businesses that buy safety: When protection must be purchased, the poorest are left with nothing to shield them from violence. In many developing countries, if you want to be safe, you pay to be safe. And if you can’t pay to be safe — you aren’t.
As elites abandon the public security system, their impoverished neighbors, especially women and girls, are left relying on underpaid, under-trained, undisciplined and frequently corrupt police forces for protection and all-but-paralyzed courts for justice.
This is not a small problem isolated to a single context. It is the terrifying truth of everyday life for billions of our poorest neighbors. As a U.N. commission found in 2008, a stunning 4 billion poor people live outside the protection of law.
When a justice system descends into utter dysfunction, those who exploit and abuse vulnerable people may do so without fear of apprehension or prosecution. As a result, violence is an everyday threat, as much a part of what it means to be poor as being hungry, sick, homeless or jobless. World Bank data suggest that, globally, women and girls ages 15 to 44 are at greater risk of being killed or disabled by gender-based violence than by cancer, traffic accidents, malaria and war combined — with poor women and girls absorbing the vast majority of the abuse. Appallingly, for many girls in the developing world, school is the most common place where sexual violence occurs.
This result cannot be attributed solely, or even primarily, to the elites’ abandonment of the public justice system. For one thing, the colonial-era justice systems that linger in most of the developing world were never designed to protect the poor from common crime, nor were they meaningfully reengineered to do so after independence. For another, trillions in aid have been provided to the developing world, but virtually nothing has been spent on improving criminal justice systems to meet the basic needs of poor people.
It is perfectly rational for wealthy citizens and businesses to protect themselves and their property. But when elites, including government officials, have no stake in professional and reliable public security, it deteriorates, just like libraries and schools do when affluent families opt out of public facilities and pay for such services in the private sector.
In the midst of great and worthy efforts to help the global poor build better lives, donors and development institutions have paid little attention to the painstaking work required to ensure the things that are indispensable to stopping violence: professional and accountable police; and functioning prosecutors, courts and child welfare agencies.
Even with the widespread recognition that everyday violence undermines health, education and opportunity, it has been assumed that poor communities can move forward without basic law enforcement systems — a notion none of us has been willing to bet on for our own communities.
The United Nations is in the process of revising the 2000 Millennium Development Goals. Although the original eight goals inspired enormous progress toward addressing poverty, the issue of violence against the poor wasn’t even mentioned. It’s time to add a target for providing the poor basic law enforcement protections from everyday violence.
Identifying the right to safety and justice as a crucial development goal is a first step toward including those marginalized by violence and exploitation in the world’s drive to end extreme poverty. For children, women and men plagued by violence as they try to climb out of poverty, it’s a change that can’t come soon enough.
Gary A. Haugen is president and chief executive of International Justice Mission and the author of “The Locust Effect.”