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Interpersonal violence far more deadly — and costly — than civil war

by Lindsay Jolivet Oct 9 / 14

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Image above: An Israeli soldier guards an observation tower in the Gush Katif settlements block July 17, 2005. Photo by Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Interpersonal violence, such as domestic abuse and homicide, kills nine times more people worldwide than civil wars, according to a new report co-authored by James Fearon (Stanford University).

Fearon, a senior fellow of the program in Institutions, Organizations & Growth, assessed the costs of conflict and violence with Anke Hoeffler for a paper commissioned by the Copenhagen Consensus Centre. The paper encourages the United Nations to put reducing interpersonal violence on the agenda for its next set of international development goals.

Fearon is a renowned expert on civil war, but for this project, he wanted to expand his focus to consider the impacts of other forms of violence.

“We wanted to know what we would find if we tried to use available data to produce comparable estimates of the economic and social costs of more widespread and ‘routine’ forms of violence — in particular, homicide, intimate partner violence and severe child abuse,” Fearon says.

These issues are often absent from the international development conversation, he says. The results were staggering; the estimated annual cost of all forms of violence, including civil war, was $9.5 trillion, or 11 per cent of the global gross domestic product. Civil war accounts for less than two per cent of the total cost. Fearon says the estimates try to account for personal and social costs as well as strictly economic considerations. “Welfare is directly reduced when people live in fear of assault and violent death, or abuse at the hands of police forces who are in principle supposed to be protecting them.”

From an economic perspective, the report suggests that the fallout from living in danger would almost certainly affect productivity and development. For example, Fearon says that high homicide rates in a city would most likely reduce local investment in physical and human capital.

However, less than one per cent of international aid goes toward reducing interpersonal violence, while more than 10 per cent of all aid supports programs for better governance and civil society, often in countries that are rebuilding after a civil war, the report found. “One thing that surprised me in doing the research for this report was how little international aid goes to programs aimed improving the professionalism and competence of developing country police forces, and also to programs aimed specifically at reducing homicides, intimate partner violence or child abuse,” Fearon says.

Since so few programs have addressed the issue, it is difficult to recommend specific policies and programs to help fight it worldwide. However, the authors argue that funding and evaluating local programs to reduce day to day violence should be a priority. In particular, they recommend efforts to change persistent social norms, such as attitudes toward women, which can make official laws against violence ineffective.

Fearon says a major theme in the program in Institutions, Organizations & Growth has been to expand the scope of economic development to areas outside of traditional economics, and this approach has influenced his thinking. “I don’t know of any research group in this area with the same penchant for asking new questions and ability to follow through.”