Crime and Violence Put the Brakes on Development

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Jorge Familiar is World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean.

By Jorge Familiar

The traditional logic seemed unassailable: where there are low levels of development and high levels of poverty and hopelessness, people are more likely to act outside the law and commit criminal and violent acts. And yet, despite the unprecedented levels of economic growth and poverty reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean over the last decade, the region still experiences high levels of crime and violence.

Between 2003 and 2013, the region cut extreme poverty by more than half, to 11.5 percent, and overall poverty decreased dramatically from 42 percent to 24.1 percent in 2013. For the first time in history, the region has more people in the middle class than in poverty, raising expectations for a better life.

Nevertheless, crime and violence continue to be a staggering problem. Between 2005 and 2012, the annual growth rate of homicides was more than three times higher than population growth. Not surprisingly, the number of Latin Americans who mention crime as their top concern tripled during those years. Fear makes people withdraw, hide behind closed doors, and avoid public spaces, weakening interpersonal and social ties that bind a population as a community.

The relationship between development and crime and violence is a two way street. On the one hand, we cannot say that economic growth and social progress have no impact on reducing crime and violence. The lesson that we should clearly draw from the past decade is that development is necessary but not sufficient to bring it under control. In addition to development, a combination of proven and comprehensive policies need to be put in place to prevent this scourge and bring peace and security to our streets.

On the other hand, crime and violence does take a toll on development. Even though it is practically impossible to put a price tag to this phenomenon, we know for a fact that the region ranks first and second in the world in terms of the percentage of firms that experience crime-related losses or incur security costs, respectively. Based on surveys, it can be estimated that crime and security in the region cost private firms $144 billion in 2010. Overall, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that the annual costs for the region reach $261 billion.

Insecurity is the result of a combination of many factors, from drug trafficking and organized crime, to weak judicial and law enforcement systems that promote impunity, to the lack of opportunities and support for young people who live in deprived communities.

That is why there is no magic formula. We will not solve this problem only on the basis of greater police action, or further imprisonment, or through more education, or employment alone. We must do all this in a comprehensive way, based on reliable data and proven strategies.

To that end, Stop the Violence in Latin America: A Look at Prevention from Cradle to Adulthood is a significant contribution. This report, [to be] released February 7th, takes a new look at what has worked – both in Latin America and elsewhere.

From early childhood programs to reduce the likelihood that children will run away from home, to mental health treatment, and more quality employment for young people, a comprehensive approach towards violence prevention is what seems to make policies successful. And, of course, for a preventive approach to work, it needs to take place in a context where institutions such as the police and the justice system are trusted and reliable.

But beyond specific policies, what matters is the social fabric of our countries and communities. After all, despite the unprecedented economic growth and profound social transformation experienced by the region, Latin America and the Caribbean continues to be the most unequal region in the world. So, improving opportunities for all and equity in access to social services will definitely strengthen the social fabric and help prevent violent behavior.

If we want to succeed in the fight against poverty and in boosting shared prosperity, the unrivaled levels of crime and violence in the region need to come to an end.