The Private Sector’s Vested Interest in Citizen Security

Armed security at a Walmart store in Costa Rica, (Photo: La Nacion)
Armed security at a Walmart store in Costa Rica, (Photo: La Nacion)

Security is a fact of life that many of us in the developed world take for granted. I feel fairly confident that I can go about my life on a daily basis with nearly zero contact with crime or violence. Thanks to that security, I feel confident enough to shop, go out to eat, and generally spend time outside of my home and workplace, adding to the local economy. Thanks to this security, my city is growing and developing and life is generally getting better for most people, despite the recent economic recession. Imagine if that were not the case.

At the second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lies safety – the security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health and property. Intuitively we know that our basic needs must be met before we can endeavor to improve our self, our livelihood, our families, or our communities. Without the feeling of safety, people are less able to act freely in a market – to buy products, start businesses, or invest – limiting a country’s potential for development.

It is with this logic that a recent United Nations Human Development Report argues in favor of increasing measures in citizen security in the Latin America region. In this region more than 100,000 homicides are registered per year. The World Health Organization considers these levels epidemic and they are much higher than most other regions of the world today. The report’s authors state, “The level of insecurity many experience impedes human development.”

Let’s take a look at the numbers. According to the report, 50 percent of Latin Americans perceive that security in their country has deteriorated and 13 percent reported having felt the need to move for fear of becoming a victim. Robberies have increased three-fold in the last 25 years making robbery the most common crime in the region. Crime is perpetrated by both organized units (with both gang and military or state affiliation) and individuals. Extortion and kidnapping remain problems. Gender-based violence, street-crime, corruption, and illegal violence by state agents all combine to make life for many in Latin America a difficult and dangerous endeavor, precluding any thought of starting a business.

As the report states, “Crime, violence, and fear severely limit the capabilities and freedoms of people, the way in which they organize their lives in society and the way they relate to the state and to other institutions.” This insecurity pushes citizens to prefer the “mano dura” (heavy hand) approach which in turn opens the door to human rights violations and a concentration of power in the military or autocratic rulers. The often endemic corruption in police and military forces increases the levels of distrust citizens have for the rule of law and increases their approval of vigilantism.

On a national level, crime and insecurity also take their toll. The UNDP report estimates that the cost of crime and violence exceeds 10 percent of GDP in Honduras and 8 percent in Paraguay. Conversely, economic hardship also drives crime – the study revealed that most inmates were working at the same time they were committing crimes (60 percent in Chile, 70 percent in Brazil, and 84 percent in Argentina), supporting the idea that low quality jobs and low salaries drive individuals to supplement their income in illegal ways.

The report also notes that the years of life lost due to homicide  significantly affect the productivity of nations as a whole and severely limit the prospects for families and communities. In 2009 alone, the 15 countries surveyed lost 331 million years of life due to homicides. Furthermore, and perhaps most worrisome, violence and insecurity are linked to multi-generational negative impacts on earning potential, life expectancy, and health, costing individuals, families, and economies for decades to come.

These numbers help build a strong case for the private sector to get involved in combating violence. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, crime and insecurity affect 32 percent of businesses in Latin America – the highest level of all four developing regions (Asia – 18 percent, Eastern Europe and Central Asia – 25 percent, Africa – 29 percent). Crime reduces the overall economic opportunity for individual workers and business owners. In areas of elevated crime, businesses are less likely to expand or invest in their businesses or increase their workforce, perpetuating the cycle.

In Latin America, the private sector remains largely untapped when it comes to issues of citizen security. Businesses drive economic growth, provide jobs and stability, facilitate commerce and help communities develop stable markets. Business has as much to give as it has to gain.

In many parts of the world besieged by violent crime, civil society organizations, police and other armed security, and government intervention have proven ineffective. The private sector, with its inherent “skin in the game,” is in a unique position to form alliances with CSOs and municipal authorities to develop the legal and formal sector and reduce crimes of necessity.

The private sector across Latin America needs to start investing in the future of their nations, and as a result the future of their businesses, by forging new coalitions and partnerships to tackle the issue of citizen security.

Laura Boyette is a Program Assistant for Latin America & the Caribbean at CIPE.