Thursday, August 23, 2018

Homicide and the inequality gap

Kwei Quartey for Michael - Thursday

Kwei Quartey
Kwei Quartey is one of my favorite mystery authors. I could be accused of bias because (a) he sets his books in Africa; (b) he is a Sunshine Noir author; (c) his detective Darko Dawson and our Kubu seem to come across similar issues, quite independently. But beyond that, he's a great story teller with a wonderful sense of place in Ghana and an understanding of the cultures there.

Born in Ghana, he now lives with his family in Pasadena, where until recently he practised medicine. Now he is concentrating full time on writing. Our gain! Michael Connelly said of his work: “Searing and original and done just right . . . Inspector Darko Dawson is relentless, and I look forward to riding with him again." If you haven't read any of the Darko mysteries, start with Wife of the Gods. You'll want to read them all.

In this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, Kwei asks:

Does rising economic inequality lead to more murder?

The income inequality gap appears to have a relationship to the homicide rate in different countries. Complex, scholarly articles have considered the question in depth. The FBI has a study on the topic, and there’s a website called Professor Emeritus Martin Daly in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada has written a book called Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide. He argues that homicides, which are primarily male-on-male and not male-on-female as often thought, are rooted in the fierce competition between and among men.  He connects this to income inequality using one of the most popular measures of inequality, the Gini coefficient (or index or ratio). You don’t need to know about the Gini in detail, but essentially, a coefficient of 0% means maximum equality, and 100% is maximum inequality. So, the higher the Gini, the more inequitable the society is from an income/economy standpoint.
 But in practice, how does inequality correlate with the homicide rate? Let’s say I live in a poverty-stricken, economically-downtrodden neighborhood in the US. I’m unemployed and frustrated. Some guy down the street looks at me sideways, or, worse, comes on to my girlfriend. I feel so “dissed,” I hunt him down and shoot him dead. Was it the awareness that Jeff Bezos is filthy rich and I’m dirt poor that drove me to kill? Clearly not. What I believe is happening here is that the institutional and political systems in place that serve to maintain and promote income inequality itself (the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer), lead to the malignant neglect of the poor and disenfranchised. Someone in that inexorable condition is heavily affected at a very personal level as the daily grind of hopelessness and vexation relentlessly continues. The outlet for this despair may be violence. In the US particularly, that violence comes too often in the form of fatal shootings.
 Across the world, gun deaths in multiple countries have a positive correlation with the Gini coefficient referenced above.
Fig. 1 Firearm homicide rate against GINI Index (World Bank estimates)
Norway is the orange disc with Gini 28.4 and Rate 0.05
US the yellow disc with Gini 40.8 and rate 3.65
South Africa the highest Gini at 61.9 and rate 20.29
However, hidden behind this graph is a third element that could skew the result, specifically, access to firearms. Compared to the US, for example, Norway has both a low Gini index and a low homicide-by-firearm rate, but availability of guns in the US is far greater than in Norway, and it’s fair to wonder how much that difference is influencing the results.
 I thought it would be better to correlate the Gini coefficient with all intentional homicide (excluding war/armed conflict) rather than firearm homicide specifically. Using data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the CIA World Factbook, I chose fifteen countries and plotted a graph of their Gini coefficients and corresponding intentional homicide rates (Table 1 and Figure 2):


INTENTIONAL HOMICIDE RATE (per 100,000 population)











































South Africa


Table 1. GINI Coefficient v Intentional Homicide Rate for selected countries

Fig. 2  GINI Coefficient v Intentional Homicide Rate (Kwei Quartey)
On my graph, the correlation between the Gini coefficient and homicide is moderate and non-linear. The left lower corner of the graph shows countries with whom we typically associate with both low Gini values and low homicide rates—the usual suspects of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, and so on. The curve rises somewhat sharply after UK onward to USA, Turkey, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. Significantly off the curve are China, Rwanda (both with lower homicide rates), Mexico and Brazil (much higher homicide rates) and South Africa, with dramatically higher homicide rates and Gini coefficients.
 Caution should be applied to these data because of a number of unseen factors. For instance, not all the numbers are as up to date as others: US figures are from 2016, but others are from earlier than that. 
Fig. 3 Ghana, West Africa, on the Gulf of Guinea
Since I write novels set in Ghana, West Africa, (Figure 3), I was particularly interested by its place on the graph. According to, Ghana's economy expanded by 8.1 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2017. There is no doubt the country is developing, but the contrast between rich and poor Ghana could not be starker. Income inequality is perfectly represented by the high-rise buildings and luxury apartments that look down onto the streets below.
Fig 4. Luxury high-rise apartments
in Accra
 (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Fig. 5 High-rise office building under construction,
(Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Meanwhile, for ordinary folks, plumbing and road infrastructure go neglected.

Fig. 6 Unauthorized wood shack in Jamestown, Accra, without interior plumbing
(Photo: Kwei Quartey)

This readily observable inequality appears reflected in Ghana’s Gini coefficient, which is higher than that of the US, and so is Ghana’s respective homicide rate of 6.1. But according to the World Bank, Ghana’s homicide rate decreased overall from 2.2 per 100,000 population in 2001 to 1.7 in 2011. The jump to 6.1 in 2012 is surprising and out of place. Was that an unexplained “blip,” an error in data collection, or is it indeed correct? I have no figures for the years following 2012, so we can’t see how the 6.1 data point trended thereafter. I have requested updated figures from Ghana’s Statistical Service but haven’t yet heard back from them. Knowing Ghana well, it could be a while.
 Besides mere academics, what does this kind of information hold for readers and writers of crime fiction? It may appear as dry information, but behind all statistics are real people. Eudora Welty said, “The writing of a novel is taking life as it already exists, not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it and offer it to the reader . . .”
 That’s why we don’t write about vacuous settings detached from reality. Social inequity, a real thing, holds a particular fascination for me, as does cultural dissonance, but the task—something like wrestling a bull to the ground—is to figure out how and why the Gini Index at the human, micro level sets the stage for murder.


  1. South Africa comes out particularly badly in murder rate, yet this would suggest that it's once again inequality related. Growing the economy and generating jobs has to be the top priority. That's what the government says too. But their actions often don't agree with their sentiments...

    1. South Africa is very concerning! I remember in Jo'burg the upscale neighborhoods all protected by high walls and electric fencing--also a common sight in Accra by the way.

  2. Talk about a timely post, Kwei, this info on South Africa might be playing tonight on FOX NEWS--somewhat enhanced, no doubt.

    1. Right, land ownership is one big inequality item in RSA with something like 72% white ownership and 4% black ownership.

  3. Is it true that the majority of Swiss households have a firearm? Something to do with their National Service?
    And here, there is a policy of the social services not to return troubled youngsters to the streets they came from. Change of environment, out of gangs, out of poverty often, and away from the repeated familial violence they deal out and are subjected to.

  4. I'm not an expert on it, but I understand Swiss nationals are trained in the use of firearms (not sure if it's EVERYONE) and also have a culture of "respect" for firearms as a means of defending the country and not as weapons against their fellow Swiss. Some of our readers might have more information on it. Switzerland does have its challenges, but I suspect their social services are superior to those of the USA, so your point is well taken, Caro.

    1. It’s been 40 years since I visited my brother then living in Lausanne, but I distinctly remember discussing Swiss defense strategy with some of his colleagues, and central to it (at the time) was that every Swiss household must have a long gun to defend the homeland. That may have changed, but I’m certain the patriotic concept continues.

  5. Yes, I think so. They certainly are a nation unto themselves!

  6. Just an aside, Kwei's novel Children of the Street has been chosen as one of Africa's Best Thrillers from Around the Globe by the New York Times. Jeff's book Target is up there too on the Europe list. Congratulations to both of you!

    1. Thanks, Michael--even though the Times left off the second part of the title (Target: Tinos) :). Congratulations to Kwei, and also happy for Leighton and Tim Hallinan, also on the map. GO MIE!!