At one of the World Bank’s annual spring meetings last week, a group of experts met together with state officials and the International Monetary Fund to discuss development progress in Latin America. They concluded that increasing violence across many countries is threatening development gains. In a recent Guardian article, the vice-president of the World Bank for the region is reported to have acknowledged that “behind Latin America’s economic boom, there is a hidden wave of crime and violence that threatens a decade of progress, hurting all citizens, particularly the poorest, who have no way of protecting themselves.”
Violence not only victimises individuals; unchecked crime also affects public institutions and civil society, which both need to be strong for development growth and economic prosperity. The cost of crime to the region is hard to measure, but one World Bank-commissioned study found that imprisoned youngsters were 15% less likely to have access to a formal education, limiting their chances of earning a good livelihood and contributing to society later in life. New studies are focusing on the effects of gender violence on early infant health and nutrition.
In Colombia, violence affects families in a highly visible and measurable way. Last week, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) highlighted how armed groups and criminal gangs continue to try to recruit children. Threats are used to pressurise families into handing over boys and girls as young as ten, and gangs also prey on children near schools, luring them to work as messengers and watchmen. Up to two fifths of fighters in one of the main armed groups are boys and girls are also taken to be used as sex slaves.
The knock-on effect is that many families are forced to flee their homes to protect their children. Youngsters living along Colombia’s Pacific coast and the country’s southern provinces, where fighting is still ongoing, are particularly at risk. According to the UNHCR, the displacement crisis in Colombia (nearly 4 million Colombians have been uprooted over the last five decades) therefore shows no sign of improving. According to official figures, around 143,000 Colombians fled their homes to escape violence in 2011, representing a 9% rise over 2010.
Until citizens can be protected, it is impossible to provide long-term social services and other community programmes. If it wants development, Colombia, like other South American nations, must therefore find a way to bring security to its people.