Structural Violence

Can we find genuine peace in a world
with inequitable distribution of wealth among nations?

One of the articles in The Foundations Of Peace (IC#4)
Originally published in Autumn 1983 on page 8
Copyright (c)1983, 1997 by Context Institute

THE HUMAN TENDENCY toward, and preparations for, open warfare are certainly the most spectacular obstacles to peace, but they are not the only challenges we face. For much of the world’s population, hunger, not war, is the pressing issue, and it is hard to imagine a genuine peace that did not overcome our current global pattern of extensive poverty in the midst of plenty.

Hunger and poverty are two prime examples of what is described as “structural violence,” that is, physical and psychological harm that results from exploitive and unjust social, political and economic systems. It is something that most of us know is going on, some of us have experienced, but in its starker forms, it is sufficiently distant from most North American lives that it is often hard to get a good perspective on it. I’ve come across an approach that seems to help provide that perspective, and I’d like to describe it.

How significant is structural violence? How does one measure the impact of injustice? While this may sound like an impossibly difficult question, Gernot Kohler and Norman Alcock (in Journal of Peace Research, 1976, 13, pp. 343-356) have come up with a surprisingly simple method for estimating the grosser forms of structural violence, at least at an international level. The specific question they ask is, how many extra deaths occur each year due to the unequal distribution of wealth between countries?

To understand their approach, we will need to plunge into some global statistics. It will help to start with the relationship between Life Expectancy (LE) and Gross National Product Per Person (GNP/p) that is shown in the following figure.

Each dot in this figure stands for one country with its LE and GNP/p for the year 1979. All together, 135 countries are represented (data from Ruth Sivard’s World Military and Social Expenditures 1982, World Priorities, Box 1003, Leesburg VA 22075, $4). Kohler and Alcock used a similar figure based on data for 1965, and I’ll compare the 1965 data with the 1979 data later in this article. Except for a few oil exporting countries (like Libya) that have unusual combinations of high GNPs and low Life Expectancies, the data follows a consistent pattern shown by the curve. Among the “poor” countries (with GNP/p below about $2400 per person per year), life expectancy is relatively low and increases rapidly with increasing GNP/p. Among the “rich” countries, life expectancy is consistently high and is relatively unaffected by GNP.

The dividing line between these two groups turns out to also be the world average GNP per person. The value of the life expectancy curve at that point (for 1979) is 70 years. Thus, other things being equal, if the world’s wealth was distributed equally among the nations, every country would have a life expectancy of 70 years. This value is surprisingly close to the average life expectancy for the industrial countries (72 years), and is even not that far below the maximum national life expectancy of 76 years (Iceland, Japan, and Sweden).

Kohler and Alcock use this egalitarian model as a standard to compare the actual world situation against. The procedure is as follows. The actual number of deaths in any country can be estimated by dividing the population (P) by the life expectancy (LE). The difference between the actual number of deaths and the number of deaths that would occur under egalitarian conditions is thus P/LE – P/70. For example, in 1979 India had a population of 677 million and a life expectancy of 52 years. Thus India’s actual death rate was 13 million while if the life expectancy had been 70, the rate would have been 9.7 million. The difference of 3.3 million thus provides an estimate of the number of extra deaths.

Calculating this difference for each country and then adding them up gives the number of extra deaths worldwide due to the unequal distribution of resources. The result for 1965 was 14 million, while for 1979 the number had declined to 11 million. (China, with a quarter of the world’s population, is responsible for 3/4 of this drop since it raised its life expectancy from 50 in 1965 to 64 in 1979.)

How legitimate is it to ascribe these deaths to the structural violence of human institutions, and not just to the variability of nature? Perhaps the best in-depth study of structural violence comes from the Institute for Food and Development Policy (1885 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103). What they find throughout the Third World is that the problems of poverty and hunger often date back hundreds of years to some conquest – by colonial forces or otherwise. The victors became the ruling class and the landholders, pushing the vast majority either on to poor ground or into being landless laborers. Taxes, rentals, and the legal system were all structured to make sure that the poor stayed poor. The same patterns continue today.

Additional support is provided by the evidence in the above figure, which speaks for itself. Also, according to Sivard, 97% of the people in the Third World live under repressive governments, with almost half of all Third World countries run by military dominated governments. Finally, as a point of comparison, Ehrlich and Ehrlich (Population, Environment, and Resources, 1972, p72) estimate between 10 and 20 million deaths per year due to starvation and malnutrition. If their estimates are correct, our estimates may even be too low.

Some comparisons will help to put these figures in perspective. The total number of deaths from all causes in 1965 was 62 million, so these estimates indicate that 23% of all deaths were due to structural violence. By 1979 the fraction had dropped to 15%. While it is heartening to see this improvement, the number of deaths is staggeringly large, dwarfing any other form of violence other than nuclear war. For example, the level of structural violence is 60 times greater than the average number of battle related deaths per year since 1965 (Sivard 1982). It is 1.5 times as great as the yearly average number of civilian and battle field deaths during the 6 years of World War II. Every 4 days, it is the equivalent of another Hiroshima.

Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this whole tragic situation is that essentially everyone in the present system has become a loser. The plight of the starving is obvious, but the exploiters don’t have much to show for their efforts either – not compared to the quality of life they could have in a society without the tensions generated by this exploitation. Especially at a national level, what the rich countries need now is not so much more material wealth, but the opportunity to live in a world at peace. The rich and the poor, with the help of modern technology and weaponry, have become each others’ prisoners.

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