What’s more expensive, war or murder?

If you guessed war, you’d be wrong.  Anke Hoeffler and James Fearon recently released a fascinating systematic review of the benefits of programs aimed at reducing different types of violence.  There’s a brief summary at the CSAE blog, which was also the source of the graph below.  To quote the introduction to the full report,

Our estimates suggest that the costs of violence are high; the welfare cost of collective, interpersonal violence, harsh child discipline, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse are equivalent to around 11 per cent of global GDP [annually]. The cost of homicides are much larger than the cost of civil conflict. However, violence perpetrated in the home appears to be the most prevalent form of violence. Domestic abuse of women and children should no longer be regarded as a private matter but a public health concern. … We argue for moving beyond a near-exclusive focus on civil war violence – concern with which has increased in the development community and is admirable and important – to recognizing that the costs of interpersonal violence are probably much larger but are almost wholly neglected in current development programming (pp. iii – iv).

The comparison between the estimated costs of civil war and “domestic” crimes like child abuse or intimate partner violence is staggering.

global cost of violenceSo why do academics, policymakers and development actors tend to focus on the form of violence that’s actually least costly?  There’s the obvious point that conflict and terrorism are very public events, while child abuse and intimate partner violence tend to occur in private and often go unreported.  War is also perceived as being more likely to be deadly, which might be true, but fails to account for the fact that domestic violence is much more prevalent.  And I think there’s also a strong component of structural misogyny at play here.  Civil wars and terrorism are seen as serious topics, often analyzed and carried out by men, while domestic violence is described as a women’s issue – something only of importance to a lesser constituency.  (Consider the fact that no one’s asking if the Yazidis somehow deserved ISIS’ violence towards them, while many people claim that female victims of domestic violence must have done something to provoke their abusers.  Now think about how notions of “deserving violence” correlate with the importance we put on crafting good policy responses to violence.)  This report is a really important corrective to our tendency to write off domestic violence, and I’m quite interested to see how policymakers and development practitioners will respond.

4 thoughts on “What’s more expensive, war or murder?

  1. For a second I’ll set aside my quibbles with Fearon and Hoeffler’s counting techniques (how is Mexican drug violence “interpersonal” rather than “civiI”?).

    I think it’s a little myopic to suggest that “academics and policymakers” don’t focus on the more expensive types of violence. There are massive literatures in sociology, anthropology and criminology that deal with the problem of (ahem) crime. Several major programs that offer PhDs in social work allow students to focus on child welfare or domestic violence, making them subfields akin to international relations; very serious scholars dedicate their lives to this stuff. There are entire journals (such as the Journal of Public Child Welfare and the Journal of Family Violence) that focus great attention on each of these issues. Public health scholars, epidemiologists and academics in fields like gender studies produce massive amounts of research on these questions. I know a handful of police officials who are treating the new deluge of FOIA requests caused by this article with incredulity. “Can’t you guys get this data from the other academics we’ve been providing it to for years?”

    What Fearon and Hoeffler seem to expose is less a lack of social focus on important issues and more the chauvinism of political science and economics toward supposedly lesser disciplines; a chauvinism in which they seem to participate. I spend a lot of time talking to anthropologists, sociologists and criminologists that attempt to systematize probabilistic models to reduce disaggregated violence in the form of murder and domestic abuse, and I do present research about crime in my political science department. But ultimately I choose to focus issues of organized violence for theoretical reasons. These phenomena are less attenuated from the questions of community formation and governance that really interest me, and I choose (perhaps wrongly) to believe that understanding some of *those* mechanisms would bring positive externalities that would reduce costs (read: suffering) in a variety of other ways.

    The answer to the question “should political science focus on domestic violence (or etc.)?” isn’t found by comparing relative cost. It is found by asking if studying these phenomena help satisfy the core curiosities of political science and by asking if political science methodologies are well placed to add to the robust debate that exists already.


    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for this comment. I think your point about the chauvinism of political science and economics around these issues is well taken (including myself in that as well). I am curious – in talking about the anthro, soc and criminology fields, do you feel that they tend to focus on the US? Your point about FOIA made me wonder, since it’s difficult to get access to police records in many African countries. (And of course even if you do, they’re not necessarily useful because policing is so politicized in many places.)

      That said, I do think Fearon & Hoeffler’s point about the way that development actors approach these issues is spot-on. A lot of development programming is justified with often far-fetched claims that it will reduce the risk of civil war, particularly in Africa. It seems much less common to see people arguing that their program will reduce domestic abuse, even though it seems more likely that programs which change local patterns of access to resources will have this type of household-level effect. And for programs where domestic abuse is considered, it’s often not clear which way the effect goes. The microfinance sector is dealing with this issue right now. http://cfi-blog.org/2014/11/03/domestic-violence-and-microfinance-what-is-our-role-as-financial-service-providers/


  2. Or maybe war is a progression along the continuum of culturally defined and accepted contexts for violence as a seeming means of resolving conflict – we start with interpersonal violence and end with war. I would offer, however, as important clarification – although we share with many other animals the biological and psychological “fixed action patterns” for aggressive behavior, it is through the Frontal Cortex, most highly developed in human beings that we LEARN the contexts in which those behaviors are accepted. Compare a football game to a street brawl. In the first context we see aggressive behavior as acceptable and encouraged, in the second, much less so even to the point of establishing laws against it. If we teach children from an early age that violence is the only strategy to resolve conflict, then that is the only strategy that they will know as they mature, and they will see it and accept it as a way to resolve conflicts on all levels including internationally.


  3. The answer is not focus on one or another. Instead, academia should work in order to make pressure on governments to focus on BOTH sources of violence. In many cases, “civil conflict” comes in the form of terrorism disguised as political or religious and even if their economic costs are not as high as portrayed in media, the cultural and future effects of this criminal manifestations have to be eliminated in order to show future generation that there is not a type of crime that is admissible in modern societies.


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