The Locust Effect – the most powerful book I’ve read in years

Locust Effect headerAccording to a ComRes poll for the Mirror in June, a quarter of Britons (24 per cent) have lost faith in the police. Back in February another piece of research also conducted by ComRes for the Christian human rights organisation, International Justice Mission (IJM) found a surprising level of cynicism about the extent to which law enforcement in the UK acts with integrity. The British public were split evenly over whether the police have a ‘significant corruption problem’.

With recent news reports of the substantial failures of the police service linked to plebgate and Hillsborough have done a hefty amount of damage to the reputation of the police. Whilst such incidents of this kind are gross failures, they are also rare. The perception might be that the police and courts are often ineffective and incompetent, but that is because our standards and expectations are so high. The reality is that the UK has one of the best and least corrupt justice systems in the world. The vast majority of us rarely need to engage with the criminal justice system because peace and security are part of our everyday lives.

Imagine if you can what it would be like if Birmingham, with its population of just over 1 million had around 130,000 incidences of physical assault just in the last year of which 50,000 were rapes. Now imagine what it must be like for any young girl having been raped to find out that if they wish for medical evidence to be submitted to court, they will have to be examined by one individual doctor who deals with all the cases for the city. After months of being on a waiting list, you finally get to be seen, only to endure a humiliating and perfunctory 10 minute exam. Afterwards you are told that there is no evidence of any sexual assault, with the doctor concluding that you have not been raped. It doesn’t matter if you have enough evidence to prove who your attacker was, your case will never reach court. Instead you will have to return home to the place where your rapist is still on the loose and the police take such little interest in what is going on that serial rapists don’t even need to bribe the police or courts to leave them alone.

If that were the case in Birmingham how much would we dream of having the criminal justice system that we do and a violent crime rate in the city of 9,500 recorded incidences per year?

That situation is not hypothetical. This is the state of affairs in Nairobi in Kenya, only the numbers are triple those for Birmingham. Despite having 3 million inhabitants there is only one doctor to examine rape victims and Laura was one of them. She was just ten years old when she was raped on the way to school. She received no justice. What makes her story even more heart breaking was that this was not the first time she had been attacked in this way. Twice she had been raped outside of her home in the slums and as she had grown up she had been repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by her father. Eventually her school teacher found out what was happening and connected her with a volunteer social worker who attempted to take up her case, but the chances of success were non-existent. Not only was the justice system totally broken, but in her slum defendants would regularly pay local gangs to threaten would-be witnesses. The levels of fear were sufficient to prevent anyone testifying for Laura.

In the circumstances Laura finds herself in, it is not the poverty she lives in that has been the most devastating factor in her life – it has been the constant violence. And the violence she and others have to endure is made even more unpalatable because it frequently goes unpunished and significantly contributes to making and keeping them poor.

Locust Effect full bookThe story of Laura is just one that is told in Gary Haugen’s book The Locust Effect.  Haugen is the is founder and president of International Justice Mission which is hugely respected for its work rescuing victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery and oppression around the world. It grew out of the work of a group of Christian lawyers who desired to provide legal assistance to impoverished victims of violent abuse. Prior to founding IJM, Haugen served on the executive committee of the National Initiative for Reconciliation in South Africa chaired by Bishop Desmond. Tutu. He was also the United Nations’ Officer In Charge of its genocide investigation in Rwanda. Haugen’s authority is not derived from academic research, it is through many painful experiences.

When a book comes with an endorsement on its front cover from former US President Bill Clinton, you have to take it seriously. He writes:

“Throughout my life I’ve seen firsthand that while talent, ambition, and hard work are distributed equally among all people around the world, many face challenges each day simply surviving. The Locust Effect is a compelling reminder that if we are to create a 21st Century of shared prosperity, we cannot turn a blind eye to the violence that threatens our common humanity.”

As Haugen goes through the book, he tells grim stories of forced labour, slavery, brutality, murder, land theft and police abuse. This unchecked plague of violence ruins lives, blocks the roads out of poverty and undercuts development. The question the book asks is why this violence is so prevalent. The answer, as Haugen explains with great clarity, is that it is simply a case of there being nothing to shield the poor from violent people. One of the biggest social disasters – and least addressed – of the last half century is that basic public justice systems in the developing world have descended into a state of utter collapse.

And this has happened on a truly epic scale. A 2008 United Nations report estimates that four billion people live outside of the protection of the rule of law. In 1999 the World Bank sponsored a study entitled Voices of the Poor that recorded tens of thousands of the personal accounts of the very poor. They were asked: How do you view poverty and well-being? What are your problems and priorities?

Without a doubt, one of the most powerful revelations was that poor people must contend with the relentless forces of violence on a daily basis – this is violence that has not resulted from war or political conflict, but simply stronger neighbours harming and abusing weaker ones. Powerlessness and violence were the two overarching realities.

Over the last few decades massive strides have been taken to reduce extreme poverty, to improve health, access to clean water and education, but not violence. In fact it has hardly been on the radar at all even though it has the power to undo many of the gains in individuals’ lives made through investment and foreign aid. In many developing countries the police and justice systems work – most often deliberately – to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of those at the bottom of the ladder.

Haugen acknowledges that progress in this area is incredibly difficult. but likens it to the fight against AIDS:

‘With the AIDS pandemic, the world got to a place where it became an embarrassing oversight to carry on a conversation about economic development and poverty alleviation in the developing world without mentioning there was a raging AIDS epidemic that was destroying millions of poor people every year. You were not in touch with reality if you weren’t in touch with the global ravages of AIDS. Likewise, our conversations about global poverty are not in touch with reality if the plague of violence does not surface as an urgent, fundamental reality that brutally contorts everything else. Moreover, with the AIDS epidemic, the world eventually came to grips with the fact that antiretroviral drugs could keep babies safe from HIV and could keep HIV-infected people safe from AIDS. And even thought these treatments were available, the world came to see that poor people in the developing world just didn’t get access to these protections. The world came to see that the poor were needlessly wasting away by the millions as a result – and the world has substantially reversed its course.

‘Likewise, we all know that law enforcement systems are indispensable for keeping us and those we love safe in our communities, but we seldom speak of the fact that poor people in the developing world don’t get these protections and so suffer in terror by the millions. But now we know, and we must speak of it – and we must transform the conversation.’

This is a bleak book, but it offers hope too. It gives stories where interventions, mostly by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaging and working alongside local and national justice systems, are making considerable impacts. In Sierra Leone the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), which is one of the very few international development agencies working in this area, has been ploughing resources into the justice system since 1999. It has focused on transforming the police service by providing training and equipment, increasing trust between the police and grassroots communities and conducting leadership training. These reforms have created social demand for justice systems that work for the poor and the results of these accomplishments have been significant with improved security and policing and a more effective judicial system.

The work of the DfID is unusual. A more common approach to change is the one used by IJM and other NGOs. This involves what they describe as ‘Collaborative Casework’. Teams of lawyers, investigators and social workers move into local communities to catalyze a coalition of forces in the community to actually transform corrupt and ineffective local law enforcement systems. Individual cases of injustice including trafficking and sexual violence are taken on and followed through from start to finish looking to work with the authorities to improve and fix the system bit by bit.

This can be slow and frustrating work, but where this has been applied, the results have at times been impressive. In 2006 IJM decided to move into Cebu, a city of 2 million in the Phillipines and work in one district that was well known for child prostitution and sex-trafficking. Using independent auditors and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation they were given four years to transform the performance of local law enforcement in fighting sex-trafficking of minors and to demonstrate a measurable 20 per cent reduction in the availability of children in the commercial sex trade.

When the four years were up, the team had exceeded all expectations. They had increased the local law enforcement’s rescue of sex-trafficking victims by about 1000 per cent and the outside auditors had documented a 79 per cent reduction in the availability of children in the sex trade.

Reading the Locust Effect results in one of those genuine moments of revelation as a window is opened into the lives of the global poor. We may complain about our police in the UK, but looking at things objectively we have so much to be thankful for. It also starkly highlights how much needs to be done to combat the endemic violence and failures of justice systems around the world. There is hope, but the world needs to wake up to the extent of the problem before we can move on – and moving on is something that desperately needs to happen.

The Locust Effect is available from Amazon and other book sellers. More can be learnt at the Locust Effect website. Terry Tennens, the Executive Director of International Justice Mission (IJM) UK has written an article for this blog and on November 15th IJM UK will be hosting their first national conference in London.

Categories: Human rights, Justice, Overseas aid, Poverty, Slavery and trafficking

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