Transcript – Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, talks on The Hidden Reason for Poverty the World Needs to Address Now at TED
Gary Haugen – Human rights attorney
To be honest, by personality, I’m just not much of a crier. But I think in my career that’s been a good thing. I’m a civil rights lawyer, and I’ve seen some horrible things in the world.
I began my career working police abuse cases in the United States. And then in 1994, I was sent to Rwanda to be the director of the UN’s genocide investigation. It turns out that tears just aren’t much help when you’re trying to investigate a genocide. The things I had to see, and feel and touch were pretty unspeakable.
What I can tell you is this: that the Rwandan genocide was one of the world’s greatest failures of simple compassion. That word, compassion, actually comes from two Latin words: cum passio, which simply mean “to suffer with.” And the things that I saw and experienced in Rwanda as I got up close to human suffering, it did, in moments, move me to tears. But I just wish that I, and the rest of the world, had been moved earlier. And not just to tears, but to actually stop the genocide.
Now by contrast, I’ve also been involved with one of the world’s greatest successes of compassion. And that’s the fight against global poverty. It’s a cause that probably has involved all of us here. I don’t know if your first introduction might have been choruses of “We Are the World,” or maybe the picture of a sponsored child on your refrigerator door, or maybe the birthday you donated for fresh water. I don’t really remember what my first introduction to poverty was but I do remember the most jarring.
It was when I met Venus — she’s a mom from Zambia. She’s got three kids and she’s a widow. When I met her, she had walked about 12 miles in the only garments she owned, to come to the capital city and to share her story. She sat down with me for hours, just ushered me in to the world of poverty. She described what it was like when the coals on the cooking fire finally just went completely cold. When that last drop of cooking oil finally ran out. When the last of the food, despite her best efforts, ran out. She had to watch her youngest son, Peter, suffer from malnutrition, as his legs just slowly bowed into uselessness. As his eyes grew cloudy and dim. And then as Peter finally grew cold.
For over 50 years, stories like this have been moving us to compassion. We whose kids have plenty to eat and we’re moved not only to care about global poverty, but to actually try to do our part to stop the suffering. Now there’s plenty of room for critique that we haven’t done enough, and what it is that we’ve done hasn’t been effective enough, but the truth is this: The fight against global poverty is probably the broadest, longest running manifestation of the human phenomenon of compassion in the history of our species. And so I’d like to share a pretty shattering insight that might forever change the way you think about that struggle.
But first, let me begin with what you probably already know. Thirty-five years ago, when I would have been graduating from high school, they told us that 40,000 kids every day died because of poverty. That number, today, is now down to 17,000. Way too many, of course, but it does mean that every year, there’s eight million kids who don’t have to die from poverty. Moreover, the number of people in our world who are living in extreme poverty, which is defined as living off about a dollar and a quarter a day, that has fallen from 50% to only 15%. This is massive progress, and this exceeds everybody’s expectations about what is possible. And I think you and I, I think, honestly, that we can feel proud and encouraged to see the way that compassion actually has the power to succeed in stopping the suffering of millions.
But here’s the part that you might not hear very much about. If you move that poverty mark just up to two dollars a day, it turns out that virtually the same two billion people who were stuck in that harsh poverty when I was in high school, are still stuck there, 35 years later.
So why, why are so many billions still stuck in such harsh poverty? Well, let’s think about Venus for a moment. Now for decades, my wife and I have been moved by common compassion to sponsor kids, to fund microloans, to support generous levels of foreign aid. But until I had actually talked to Venus, I would have had no idea that none of those approaches actually addressed why she had to watch her son die. “We were doing fine,” Venus told me, “until Brutus started to cause trouble.” Now, Brutus is Venus’ neighbor and “cause trouble” is what happened the day after Venus’ husband died, when Brutus just came and threw Venus and the kids out of the house, stole all their land, and robbed their market stall. You see, Venus was thrown into destitution by violence.
And then it occurred to me, of course, that none of my child sponsorships, none of the microloans, none of the traditional anti-poverty programs were going to stop Brutus, because they weren’t meant to.
This became even more clear to me when I met Griselda. She’s a marvelous young girl living in a very poor community in Guatemala. And one of the things we’ve learned over the years is that perhaps the most powerful thing that Griselda and her family can do to get Griselda and her family out of poverty is to make sure that she goes to school. The experts call this the Girl Effect. But when we met Griselda, she wasn’t going to school. In fact, she was rarely ever leaving her home.
Days before we met her, while she was walking home from church with her family, in broad daylight, men from her community just snatched her off the street, and violently raped her. See, Griselda had every opportunity to go to school, it just wasn’t safe for her to get there. And Griselda’s not the only one. Around the world, poor women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44, they are — when victims of the everyday violence of domestic abuse and sexual violence — those two forms of violence account for more death and disability than malaria, than car accidents, than war combined. The truth is, the poor of our world are trapped in whole systems of violence.
In South Asia, for instance, I could drive past this rice mill and see this man hoisting these 100-pound sacks of rice upon his thin back. But I would have no idea, until later, that he was actually a slave, held by violence in that rice mill since I was in high school. Decades of anti-poverty programs right in his community were never able to rescue him or any of the hundred other slaves from the beatings and the rapes and the torture of violence inside the rice mill. In fact, half a century of anti-poverty programs have left more poor people in slavery than in any other time in human history.
Experts tell us that there’s about 35 million people in slavery today. That’s about the population of the entire nation of Canada, where we’re sitting today. This is why, over time, I have come to call this epidemic of violence the Locust Effect. Because in the lives of the poor, it just descends like a plague and it destroys everything. In fact, now when you survey very, very poor communities, residents will tell you that their greatest fear is violence. But notice the violence that they fear is not the violence of genocide or the wars, it’s everyday violence.
So for me, as a lawyer, of course, my first reaction was to think, well, of course we’ve got to change all the laws. We’ve got to make all this violence against the poor illegal. But then I found out, it already is. The problem is not that the poor don’t get laws, it’s that they don’t get law enforcement.
In the developing world, basic law enforcement systems are so broken that recently the U.N. issued a report that found that “most poor people live outside the protection of the law.” Now honestly, you and I have just about no idea of what that would mean because we have no first-hand experience of it. Functioning law enforcement for us is just a total assumption. In fact, nothing expresses that assumption more clearly than three simple numbers: 9-1-1, which, of course, is the number for the emergency police operator here in Canada and in the United States, where the average response time to a police 911 emergency call is about 10 minutes. So we take this just completely for granted.