Gary Haugen on The Hidden Reason for Poverty the World Needs to Address Now at TED Transcript

Full text – Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, talks on The Hidden Reason for Poverty the World Needs to Address Now at TED

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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.

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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.

But what if there was no law enforcement to protect you? A woman in Oregon recently experienced what this would be like. She was home alone in her dark house on a Saturday night, when a man started to tear his way into her home. This was her worst nightmare, because this man had actually put her in the hospital from an assault just two weeks before. So terrified, she picks up that phone and does what any of us would do: She calls 911 — but only to learn that because of budget cuts in her county, law enforcement wasn’t available on the weekends. Listen.

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Dispatcher: I don’t have anybody to send out there.

Woman: OK

Dispatcher: Um, obviously if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away? Or do you know if he is intoxicated or anything?

Woman: I’ve already asked him. I’ve already told him I was calling you. He’s broken in before, busted down my door, assaulted me.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Um, yeah, so …

Dispatcher: Is there any way you could safely leave the residence?

Woman: No, I can’t, because he’s blocking pretty much my only way out.

Dispatcher: Well, the only thing I can do is give you some advice, and call the sheriff’s office tomorrow. Obviously, if he comes in and unfortunately has a weapon or is trying to cause you physical harm, that’s a different story. You know, the sheriff’s office doesn’t work up there. I don’t have anybody to send.”


Tragically, the woman inside that house was violently assaulted, choked and raped because this is what it means to live outside the rule of law. And this is where billions of our poorest live. What does that look like? In Bolivia, for example, if a man sexually assaults a poor child, statistically, he’s at greater risk of slipping in the shower and dying than he is of ever going to jail for that crime.

In South Asia, if you enslave a poor person, you’re at greater risk of being struck by lightning than ever being sent to jail for that crime. And so the epidemic of everyday violence, it just rages on. And it devastates our efforts to try to help billions of people out of their two-dollar-a-day hell. Because the data just doesn’t lie. It turns out that you can give all manner of goods and services to the poor, but if you don’t restrain the hands of the violent bullies from taking it all away, you’re going to be very disappointed in the long-term impact of your efforts.

So you would think that the disintegration of basic law enforcement in the developing world would be a huge priority for the global fight against poverty. But it’s not. Auditors of international assistance recently couldn’t find even one percent of aid going to protect the poor from the lawless chaos of everyday violence. And honestly, when we do talk about violence against the poor, sometimes it’s in the weirdest of ways. A fresh water organization tells a heart-wrenching story of girls who are raped on the way to fetching water, and then celebrates the solution of a new well that drastically shortens their walk. End of story. But not a word about the rapists who are still right there in the community. If a young woman on one of our college campuses was raped on her walk to the library, we would never celebrate the solution of moving the library closer to the dorm. And yet, for some reason, this is okay for poor people.

Now the truth is, the traditional experts in economic development and poverty alleviation, they don’t know how to fix this problem. And so what happens? They don’t talk about it. But the more fundamental reason that law enforcement for the poor in the developing world is so neglected, is because the people inside the developing world, with money, don’t need it.

I was at the World Economic Forum not long ago talking to corporate executives who have massive businesses in the developing world and I was just asking them, “How do you guys protect all your people and property from all the violence?” And they looked at each other, and they said, practically in unison, “We buy it.”

Indeed, private security forces in the developing world are now, four, five and seven times larger than the public police force. In Africa, the largest employer on the continent now is private security. But see, the rich can pay for safety and can keep getting richer, but the poor can’t pay for it and they’re left totally unprotected and they keep getting thrown to the ground.

This is a massive and scandalous outrage. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Broken law enforcement can be fixed. Violence can be stopped. Almost all criminal justice systems, they start out broken and corrupt, but they can be transformed by fierce effort and commitment.

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The path forward is really pretty clear. Number one: We have to start making stopping violence indispensable to the fight against poverty. In fact, any conversation about global poverty that doesn’t include the problem of violence must be deemed not serious.

And secondly, we have to begin to seriously invest resources and share expertise to support the developing world as they fashion new, public systems of justice, not private security, that give everybody a chance to be safe. These transformations are actually possible and they’re happening today.

Recently, the Gates Foundation funded a project in the second largest city of the Philippines, where local advocates and local law enforcement were able to transform corrupt police and broken courts so drastically, that in just four short years, they were able to measurably reduce the commercial sexual violence against poor kids by 79%.

You know, from the hindsight of history, what’s always most inexplicable and inexcusable are the simple failures of compassion. Because I think history convenes a tribunal of our grandchildren and they just ask us, “Grandma, Grandpa, where were you? Where were you, Grandpa, when the Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany and were being rejected from our shores? Where were you? And Grandma, where were you when they were marching our Japanese-American neighbors off to internment camps? And Grandpa, where were you when they were beating our African-American neighbors just because they were trying to register to vote?”

Likewise, when our grandchildren ask us, “Grandma, Grandpa, where were you when two billion of the world’s poorest were drowning in a lawless chaos of everyday violence?” I hope we can say that we had compassion, that we raised our voice, and as a generation, we were moved to make the violence stop.

Thank you very much.

Question-and-answer session

Chris Anderson: Really powerfully argued. Talk to us a bit about some of the things that have actually been happening to, for example, boost police training. How hard a process is that?

Gary Haugen: Well, one of the glorious things that’s starting to happen now is that the collapse of these systems and the consequences are becoming obvious. And so there’s actually now political will to do that. But it just requires now an investment of resources and transfer of expertise. There’s a political will struggle that’s going to take place as well, but those are winnable fights, because we’ve done some examples around the world at International Justice Mission that are very encouraging.

Chris Anderson: So just tell us in one country, how much it costs to make a material difference to police, for example — I know that’s only one piece of it.

Gary Haugen: In Guatemala, for instance, we’ve started a project there with the local police and court system, prosecutors, to retrain them so that they can actually effectively bring these cases. And we’ve seen prosecutions against perpetrators of sexual violence increase by more than 1,000%. This project has been very modestly funded at about a million dollars a year, and the kind of bang you can get for your buck in terms of leveraging a criminal justice system that could function if it were properly trained and motivated and led, and these countries, especially a middle class that is seeing that there’s really no future with this total instability and total privatization of security I think there’s an opportunity, a window for change.

Chris Anderson: But to make this happen, you have to look at each part in the chain — the police, who else?

Gary Haugen: Right. So that’s the thing about law enforcement, it starts out with the police, they’re the front end of the pipeline of justice, but they hand if off to the prosecutors, and the prosecutors hand it off to the courts, and the survivors of violence have to be supported by social services all the way through that. So you have to do an approach that pulls that all together. In the past, there’s been a little bit of training of the courts, but they get crappy evidence from the police, or a little police intervention that has to do with narcotics or terrorism but nothing to do with treating the common poor person with excellent law enforcement, so it’s about pulling that all together, and you can actually have people in very poor communities experience law enforcement like us, which is imperfect in our own experience, for sure, but boy, is it a great thing to sense that you can call 911 and maybe someone will protect you.

Chris Anderson: Gary, I think you’ve done a spectacular job of bringing this to the world’s attention in your book and right here today.

Thanks so much. Gary Haugen.



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