Book review: The Locust Effect, by Gary Haugen, Victor Boutros

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am

The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence
by Gary Haugen, Victor Boutros
Oxford University Press
4 stars

David Wilson

In 1885, a racist Seattle mayor appointed himself police chief and tasked 100 men to stage an attack on the Chinese community: cue an orgy of murder, looting, forced expulsion and arson.

Today, officially sanctioned civic violence of that intensity is hard to imagine, but it still happens: just ask the founder of the human rights group International Justice Mission (IJM) Gary Haugen, and US federal prosecutor Victor Boutros, who cite the event in their expose of the criminal justice system in the developing world, which seems a century behind.

In many poor countries, rape, forced labour and land theft occur routinely, it seems. With a hint of bitterness, the authors note that development agencies fixate on less thorny issues - hunger, disease and homelessness. Meanwhile, suspects railroaded into the court system on wobbly grounds wilt.

"My IJM colleagues and I have sat hundreds of times in cramped, dilapidated and stuffy developing-world courts as a mangy clump of pretrial detainees are shuffled into court for yet another charade of Kafkaesque insanity where they will sit through some intermittent non-event that they don't understand and in which nothing meaningful or comprehensible will happen before they are shuffled back to their detention cell," Haugen writes.

As the extract shows, he and Boutros have a knack for expressing themselves with acid exactitude.

In their view, the near collapse of justice in the emerging world ranks as one of the past half century's worst social disasters. One reason for the decline, they say, is heritage: old colonial systems were designed to pamper the rich. Apparently, the habit became entrenched - just like the occupier's language in some cases: they cite a Swahili-speaking Kenyan courtroom defendant who is forced to grapple with English.

Other countries they scrutinise include Guatemala, Peru, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines. Despite their dire legal woes, at least such countries are basically stable. Better still, the locust-like predation that thwarts further progress can be countered, it seems.

One reason for hope is the apparent success of the anti-trafficking scheme Project Lantern. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project tackled an epidemic of violent sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines' second-largest city, Cebu. Four years of campaigning reaped the rescue of hundreds of children and the prosecution of about 100 sex traffickers.

Another reason for cheer comes from the nation of Georgia: there, in response to mounting criticism, the police force was sacked then rebuilt with terrific results.

True, huge challenges remain, the authors say, noting that the world contains 27 million slaves - more than the number extracted from Africa during 400 years of transatlantic slave trade. The main obstacle to ending slavery and systematic rapacity is that a police force may just as easily embrace predation as justice, they write.

Haugen and Boutros' take on the developing world's criminal justice system is keenly accurate. That said, their style is repetitive: they restate their points so often The Locust Effect could gain from losing 50 pages. Ploughing through the 368-page tract is particularly hard because some reports are beyond brutal: the depiction of Indian brick factory bondage is especially grim.

But The Locust Effect leaves the reader with an intense sense of respect for the authors, whose statement badly needs making because, as they say, their subject wins little coverage.

When a dissident is arrested in China, a front-page article addresses the incident, the authors write; when 100,000 girls are trafficked into brothels, that goes ignored. With luck, The Locust Effect will raise awareness of such vile coercion.