World Bank recommends new approach to violence in Latin America

World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean Jorge Familiar visits a school in León, Nicaragua. Early-childhood education programs are a proven method to reduce crime. (Cynthia Flores/World Bank)

Latin American countries must employ proven violence prevention policies if the region is going to adequately address crime and violence, according to a new World Bank report presented this week.

The report, “End Violence in Latin America: A Look at Prevention from Infancy to Adulthood,” warned that violence remains a major challenge for Latin American and Caribbean countries and has a high cost on human life and development.

“In order to be successful, the region needs to build a more inclusive social fabric with more equal opportunities, as well as implement prevention policies that have worked to reduce violence, such as reducing dropout rates and increasing quality youth employment,” Jorge Familiar, World Bank vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, said during a livestream from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

The authors challenge the idea that crime and violence are symptoms of poverty, inequity and other common issues in developing countries. If that were true, then we should have seen a drop in crime and violence by now. Over the last decade Latin America and the Caribbean have seen unprecedented levels of economic growth and poverty reduction, cutting extreme poverty by more than half (to 11.5 percent) and decreasing overall poverty from 42 percent to 24.1 percent, according to World Bank figures.

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Yet the region is plagued by rising levels of homicides and violent crime, in some cases resembling war-torn countries. And the price tag is high: Violence and crime cost around $261 billion for the region, according to a recent estimate from the Inter-American Development Bank. Paradoxically, it also hinders economic and social progress – the very factors once believed to cause such problems in the first place.

Source: World Bank, 2017

Source: World Bank’s “End Violence in Latin America” report, 2017

“The complexity of the issue (and multiplicity of its causes) is one of its defining characteristics and the main reason why there is no magic formula or a single policy that will fix the violence in our region,” according to the report. “We will not solve the problem by relying only on greater police action or greater incarceration, or through more education or employment.”

Rather than these silver-bullet methods governments commonly employ, the report recommends using proven methods to reduce violence and crime. It suggests a multitude of biological approaches, such as pre- and post-natal care and better nutrition, as well as social improvements in early-childhood development programs and improved neighborhood infrastructure.

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One method mentioned in the report, simply banning the sale of alcohol in bars after 11 p.m., helped a Brazilian city reduce its homicide rate by 45 percent. Laura Chioda, senior economist at the World Bank and author of the study, said crime and drug use was also reduced in Brazil by extending the period of basic education. She noted that the measure paid back the cost invested in additional years of school.

“Prevention is possible; It is never too early or late to apply it,” said Chioda during the livestream. “… We do not advocate for an intervention with comprehensive policies, but for a comprehensive approach that is different.”

For such methods to work, she said legal and justice systems need to be trustworthy and reliable. Another speaker on Tuesday, Eric Olson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, emphasized the need for autonomous and independent journalism to demand transparency in the use of resources and legitimacy of judicial processes.

Eight Latin American countries exceed the level of violence defined by the World Health Organization as “conflict” (30 homicides per 100,000). According to the report, Honduras and Venezuela experience the highest figures – at 90 and 54, respectively – scoring well above some countries at war.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com