The need for a systemic approach to urban security

Danish Institute for International Studies

In populous and rapidly growing cities across Africa and Asia, security is provided by a plurality of centrally governed state institutions and locally embedded service providers. Peter Albrecht from the Danish Institute for International Studies argues that urban security should be approached as a system of service providers rather than a number of distinct state and non-state actors. He addressed this point at the event ‘Plural Security in the City’, which was organized by the University of Amsterdam, the Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael Institute and the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law in Amsterdam on 22 October.

In urban areas across many parts of Africa and Asia, local security service providers are part of an extensive system of governance that incorporates a variety of national and locally embedded organizations and institutions. The systemic nature of public service delivery must be central to any analysis of how local security is provided, and therefore also in how enhancing urban security is approached.Effectively, this means that centrally governed state institutions should not be seen as giving shape to locally embedded service providers any more than local actors shape and condition centralized ministries, departments and agencies. They are mutually constituted. This is important to keep in mind as it suggests the need for simultaneous development of top-down and bottom-up accountability.

Taking a systemic approach exposes the fact that rather than seeing local actors as simply challenging the state’s claim on the monopoly of security provision, a strong degree of integration is also the norm. It is by understanding the workings of the system and the ensemble of actors, norms and practices that constitute it where positive change can be engendered. An example of this is the Sierra Leone Police’s community policing model. Community policing forums have opened up the possibility of social transformation in the breadth of actors who define local security threats and how to address them. This means that women’s groups, bike riders, teachers and groups of young men who often have an important role in enforcing urban security now have a say in defining and responding to local security threats. Community policing forums are not independent security providers; they are set up under the aegis of the Sierra Leone Police. At the same time, they have encouraged a degree of transparency, openness and accountability within the police that did not exist previously.

The establishment of such integrated systems of security providers can be seen as the consequence of three general developments:

  • In many African and Asian cities, policing is often considered inadequate by the public and at the very least delivered inconsistently. On one level, the state is absent. It does not reliably enforce the law, protect citizens rights or offer them a path to secure justice. At the same time however, the state is present by providing security, often unpredictably, through law enforcement by security forces and bureaucracies in ways that often comes across as repressive, restrictive and violent.
  • In this ambiguous and fluctuating field of security provisions, a plurality of actors commonly referred to as ‘non-state actors’ operate, from community policing members and neighborhood guards to militias and secret societies. They are often well-organized and undertake crime prevention through patrols, investigate by using their social networks and punish offenders, at times, through violence.
  • If anything, rapid urbanization and urban population growth have accentuated the correlation between cities and violence as witnessed in Baghdad, Nairobi and many other cities across the world. By extension, this has exposed a heightened sense of insecurity among urban populations as well as the presence of, and need for, multiple governance actors. This means that not one set of actors can monopolize the authority to enforce security, entailing negotiations and renegotiations over how security is understood and is provided at the local level.

What does this mean for how support is given by outsiders, specifically international development agencies, and how public agencies should deliver their services?

Success will first of all depend on their organization of activities around already existing local structures of authority. This is not necessarily to the liking of development agencies that support security-related programming in many urban areas of Asia and Africa, for instance, because of the human rights track record of local actors. However, if we have learned anything from the past decade of support to security and justice reform at the local level, it is that wholesale transformation is neither feasible nor desirable because attempts to induce abrupt change is either ignored, wholly resisted or leads to rising tension and possibly renewed conflict.

One of the implications of this is that private interests, which can be both political and economical, should be accepted as part and parcel of engaging and supporting the establishment of local institutions. Local actors that engage in policing often do so in an attempt to guard or consolidate particular interests. This should not come as a surprise. As with any functioning governance institution, locally generated practices and actors are not established in isolation from the political, social and historical context in which they operate. Donor agencies must understand and learn to work with rather than resist this reality that is often ignored or discarded as illegitimate and corrupt.

Engaging local actors is not only advantageous; it is in fact what commonly happens in everyday policing. The ability to draw on the networks of local actors, for instance youth groups such as quasi-vigilante groups and secret society networks in Freetown, Sierra Leone, is a precondition for the state-sanctioned police to identify and access criminals. Many neighborhoods in urban settings are altogether physically inaccessible without these gatekeepers, and equally important, local actors often play the role of the police by proxy, which determines whether a crime such as a homicide will be acted upon or not.

The population density that characterizes urban areas and the plurality of actors that police these settings constitutes a system, which must be approached by external and internal actors as an integrated whole. Only then can positive change be engendered and lead to better service delivery at the local level.

There are five recommendations when pursuing a systemic approach:

  1. Local actors involved in service delivery must build relationships with centrally governed institutions as such relationships are the foundation of long-term sustainability and accountability.
  2. The relative success of externally supported local consensus building initiatives in service delivery is dependent on the extent to which they are organized around previously existing local authority structures.
  3. Private interests should be accepted as part and parcel of what engaging and supporting the establishment of local institutions entails.
  4. Development programs should not only include efforts to link all centrally governed and locally embedded service providers, but also include the development of simultaneous top-down and bottom-up accountability.
  5. Keep it simple and build on already established structures to enhance the potential for sustainability.

Join the conversation

This blog post is part of an online continuation of the conversation started at the event ‘Plural Security in the City’, held on 22 October 2015 in Amsterdam. The Platform and The Broker are organizing a series of online blog posts on this topic, in order to inform the Platform’s broader network about the discussions that have taken place during the event, and to invite you to join the conversation.

Photo credit: Sierra Leonean police officers on duty © Aubrey Wade.

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