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The Economics of Violence

COPENHAGEN – What is the biggest source of violence in our world? With the brutal conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere constantly in the news, many people would probably say war. But that turns out to be spectacularly wrong.

Getting it right matters if we are to find cost-effective solutions to this and other global problems. Obviously, everyone would like to stop wars and violence, just as we would like to end poverty, hunger, and global warming, while providing education to all. But, given limited resources, the international community can only do so much. We have to prioritize, which is what an economic analysis of costs and benefits can do.

The international community is working on new development goals for the next 15 years, and the Copenhagen Consensus has asked some of the world’s leading economists to give their assessment of the smartest targets they can choose. Is reducing violence a goal worthy of resources that would otherwise be spent on, say, reducing hunger? And, if so, which forms of violence should be targeted?

A study by James Fearon of Stanford University and Anke Hoeffler of Oxford University’s Center for the Study of African Economies argues that societal violence – homicides and especially violence against women and children – is a much bigger problem than civil wars. Nine people are killed in interpersonal violence for every battlefield death in a civil war, and one child is killed for every two combatants who die.