Blog post

The Cost of Violence II: What can we do?

4 min read
18 Nov 2014

In the first part of this series, we looked at the problem of violence in its different guises, and at how much damage different forms of violence cause. In this, we will start from the knowledge of the ways in which violence causes the most damage to consider what we can do to help.

Promising interventions

In the “Conflict and Violence Assessment Paper” recently released by the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, researchers estimate that sexual and physical violence against women and children costs society at least 5 times more than the cost of homicides, wars, and terrorism put together. Given the large cost of violence worldwide, it is important to prioritise the most effective responses aimed at solving the problem.


To this end, authors evaluate the literature and estimate Benefit-to-Cost Ratios (BCRs) for promising relevant interventions. The paucity of good data in this field makes it difficult to arrive at accurate numbers. The authors themselves admit their BCR estimates are “extremely conjectural”.[1]

On the issue of civil war violence, the report finds no evidence that aid prevents civil war onset, with the one proven post-conflict intervention (UN peace-keeping operations) only being applicable in limited circumstances.

Interventions into societal violence seem more promising. For example, a program enforcing reduction of alcohol consumption in the UK reported quite a high BCR ($17 for each $1 spent) and programs to improve policing in general are also expected to have large BCRs, as they cost little to implement. Unfortunately though, the authors note that current aid programs pay little attention to rates of violent crime, focussing instead on preventing and dealing with the consequences of civil war.

For those forms of violence tied strongly to social norms(female genital mutilation, harsh physical discipline, domestic violence), the report notes that merely changing the law to make such practices illegal is unlikely to be effective. The top interventions for these issues were instead those focussed on improving education around specific issues and improving the overall quality of social services. Programs improving parenting skills in the US (BCR = 8), or increasing early response of social workers in child abuse cases in the US (BCR = 13-14), both look promising for preventing violence against children. A program to help social workers identify women at high-risk for domestic violence in the UK also looks promising due to its low rollout costs.

The authors propose the following 5 targets based on their findings:

| Conflict and Violence Targets | Best BCR reported for related interventions | | Reduce Assaults | $17 | | Eliminate severe physical violence as a method of child discipline | $11 | | By 2030 reduce the number of countries experiencing large scale wars (>1000 deaths) to 3 or fewer and the number of countries experiencing small scale wars (<1000 deaths)="" to="" 14.<="" td=""> | $5 | | Improve Policing | Likely To Be High | | Eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls | Likely To Be High |

Adapted from Hoeffler and Fearson, 2014

Although these figures seem promising, we have some reservations about how well the BCRs reported for these programs (which have mostly occurred in rich countries) will translate to the developing world. Reviewers were also less optimistic about the BCRs given by Fearon and Hoeffler, with one concluding that most of the policies considered “are most likely to have modest impact with little evidence that these policies [would be] implemented in a manner that would be exceptional [in the developing world].”[13] This reviewer goes on to provide their own BCR estimates for the report’s top interventions, which range from 0 - 8 as opposed to the original 5 – 17.

BCRs for mitigating violence are in general lower and involve more uncertainty than those for interventions in other areas. Compare these values with those for highly effective interventions: micronutrient fortification (BCR estimates often over 20, sometimes over 200)[14], deworming (BCR = 24.7 to 41.6)[15], and subsidising malaria medication (BCR = 35)[16].

Giving opportunities for individual donors

The large total cost of violence suggests that violence prevention may be an area in need of funding. However, the recommendations listed in this study are mostly aimed at policy makers rather than individual donors, and at the current time we do not know of any charities working in this area that present better opportunities than our current top charities.[6] This also applies to donating to the Copenhagen Consensus Centre itself - while we are supportive of Centre’s approach and research, we have some doubts about the centre’s research priorities, and are uncertain about the centre’s ability to significantly influence global aid policy through their research. See our full report on the CCC here.

Final thoughts

Even with doubts about the accuracy of the estimates made by Fearson and Hoeffler, the work in this paper serves to illuminate important areas for future research. The key lesson to take away is that in our efforts to help those in the developing world we need to think about unseen problems as well as very public ones.


  1. Conflict and Violence Assessment Paper
  2. Conflict and Violence Perspective Paper
  3. Giving What We Can Summary of Micronutrient Interventions
  4. Worms at Work: Long-run Impacts of Child Health Gains
  5. Copenhagen Consensus 2012 Challenge Paper on Infectious Disease
  6. Giving What We Can top charities