Dislocation in ungoverned urban spaces


Rapid urbanisation, especially in lower and middle-income countries, is creating areas where public service provision and economic opportunity are low, and susceptibility to external security threats is high. Transnational organised crime, flows of illicit goods and violent ideologies, all benefit from the relative weakness of public institutions, as well as social and economic marginalisation.

While working at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), I helped organise a meeting in Panama of Central American law enforcement professionals and municipal authorities. Some of the key issues raised in this meeting and two similar ones that were held in South Africa and Thailand, were the strong relationship between crime and social and economic dislocation, as well as how difficult it has been for city governments to plan and manage the inclusion of communities while cities expand at a rapid pace. This issue has received increasing international attention, not least during the  the third International Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (‘HABITAT III’), held in Quito in October 2016. The conference made declarations on, among other things, the economic and social exclusion that is both a cause and consequence of urban poverty. Despite declarations and a new urban goal in the Sustainable Development Goals, there is still a wide gap between commitments made at the international level, and the attention paid by municipalities to disadvantaged communities and populations. As Central American city and police officials made clear in Panama, the key to the long-term health of cities lies in finding ways to support broad-based development that counteracts the risk of community fragmentation and dislocation.

Improved human development through better urban life

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This urban population currently produces 80% of global GDP and is likely to grow by an extra two billion individuals by the middle of this century. The majority of this population growth will occur in lower and middle-income countries, with Africa and especially Nigeria seeing some of the most rapid urbanisation .

Cities favour economic development through the existence of so-called ‘agglomerative economies’ – clustering of related economic activities in a single area. Economic specialisation, reductions in transaction costs, increased knowledge transfer, and economies of scale are all facilitated by urban growth. However, growth puts increasing demands on city resources, infrastructure, as well as governance and service provision.

Even where growth is not a significant factor, poor or inadequate housing, infrastructure, public services, and international connectivity can all serve to restrain a city’s potential to provide economic and social opportunities for its inhabitants. Furthermore, when population growth is rapid and unplanned, potential investors and trading partners may see these restraints as evidence of civic dysfunction, potentially perpetuating cycles of low investment and limited economic opportunity.

The OECD’s report ‘Fragile States 2016’ connects low levels of economic opportunity with fragility at the country level, highlighting areas where there is insufficient capacity in local communities and authorities to mitigate or else manage risk exposure.  Many of these risks connect local social and economic opportunity, as well as and effective governance, to broader regional or global trends such as the expansion of international criminal networks or the increasing effects of climate change. This interconnected view of vulnerabilities echoes recent discussions in development circles on ‘policy coherence’ - the rather obvious idea that programmes in different departments or levels of government should be mutually reinforcing, or at the very least not in open conflict with each other. As cities look to reduce their overall vulnerability to risk, they will increasingly need to look at how to work with a range of actors across policy domains, both nationally and internationally.

Cities in lower and middle income countries tend to suffer from higher levels of vulnerability to risk, but also higher resource constraints. Though population concentration should make service provision both more economical and logistically feasible, even modest levels of investment may be difficult for civic leaders to manage. In rapidly-urbanising sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a lack of opportunities for new urban residents may already be creating new threats to citizens’ security and fragile urban zones of weak government authority.

In fragile city zones with reduced avenues of economic opportunity and weak or ineffective civic and security institutions, what has been referred to as ‘criminal governance’ may take the place of the state. Criminal governance actors are criminal groups that successfully impose their own sets of rules and norms on local communities. These actors regulate local markets through the control of licit or illicit trade, or through the provision of services to the local population where criminal actors demand ‘protection’ payments from local communities. One of most well-known examples of this is the Sicilian Cosa Nostra however, the ‘privatization’ of local security governance in the hands of criminal actors is a common phenomenon in areas where state governance is weak.

In certain cases, illicit groups may enjoy some level of support from local communities or segments of the population - either for their ability to provide protection services - or through their self-promotion as ‘defenders’ of otherwise marginalised groups. Such connections have been observed, for example, with the Primeiro Comando da Capital group in Sao Paulo, that appears to exert control over levels of criminal violence in the city.

Illicit flows and illicit economies

Already fragile zones in cities can provide spaces where international flows of illicit goods can be managed by criminal actors without state interference - further exacerbating local vulnerabilities. As economies grow around illicit activity, segments of the local population may begin to see illicit flows as a source of economic opportunity. In some cases, they may even become the primary means to improve standards of living.

City fragility and threats from illicit flows and economies bring together issues that are traditionally handled at different levels of government. In mitigating these threats, both municipal authorities and national policy-makers would gain from increasing coordination and cooperation. At the national level, this means greater attention given to understanding migration flows that are driving urbanisation, and provision of support to municipal authorities that are dealing with rapid change, including small and medium sized cities.

Support would include cooperation between central policing and security agencies and local municipal authorities. Failure can further undermine fragile communities by allowing international criminal elements to exploit highly localised areas of weak state authority. Moreover, an inability to address social and economic exclusion in cities risks creating areas where criminal elements can assert their dominance. Improved transport links to areas of economic activity, expansion of basic service provision to impoverished and informally settled areas, and efforts to build local democratic accountability have all shown some success in reducing community exclusion. While not all of these interventions will be relevant in every local context, they highlight a key finding of debates in reducing security risk and improving livelihoods in urban areas - that effective responses may involve rethinking existing governance structures at local, national and international levels, and taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding urban exclusion and dislocation.