Time to take the challenge of rapid urbanization in fragile contexts seriously

UNU Centre for Policy Research

The emergence of fragile cities poses a growing security challenge and it is time to develop innovative solutions that are embedded in informal networks. John de Boer of the UNU Centre for Policy Research addresses this challenge in relation to 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.

ResoluteSupportMedia (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane) via Flickr

Fragile cities are a growing global risk. Over the past 40 years, urban populations living in the lower income bracket in fragile countries has increased by an astonishing 326 per cent. According to the UN in the coming 15 years, some of the most fragile and conflict affected countries including Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, the DRC, Liberia, Myanmar, and the Central African Republic will have urban populations making up 50 to 75 percent of the overall population. As people accumulate in the cities of fragile and conflict affected states at a rapid pace, it is plausible that the capacity of the local governments to deliver services, govern and provide security will be pushed to the breaking point.

Urbanization and violence in fragile cities

Experts talk about the emergence of fragile cities, which are characterized by unregulated urbanization and intense lingering violence. Commonly cited examples include: the battle for Fallujah in Iraq; urban wars in places such as Homs and Aleppo, Syria; peacekeeping interventions in gang-controlled territories of Port au Prince, Haiti; terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India and; battles for West African capitals such as Bangui in Central African Republic. As urban environments continue to present significant challenges for modern security forces, military experts have long been warning that asymmetric warfare in urban areas will be the greatest military challenge of this century. An urban landscape often reduces the advantage of the technologically superior force and makes security operations including manpower intensive, time-consuming and likely to result in a large amount of civilian casualties.

Local engagement

As Robert Muggah and myself noted in a recent article published by the World Economic Forum, the issues facing these cities go far beyond security. Many of these cities are in fact on the frontlines of challenges that range from climate change to extreme poverty to high homicide rates. This is due to the fact that cities account for at least 70% of total worldwide greenhouse gas emissionsthey are home to the majority of the world’s poor, and cities register higher homicide rates than rural areas.

Yet there is room for hope. There is great potential for constructive local engagements in promoting security and dealing with complex challenges in fragile cities and conflict-affected states. Many mayors have already recognized this reality and are teaming up to share innovative solutions.

Rather than being influenced from above, security in fragile cities needs to be, and often is, embedded in the relationships that mediate people’s everyday lives. In many cases, fragile cities have already developed some of these capacities through informal networks. For example, small businesses in the Bakaaro market at the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia have developed community-based security models and mutual support networks that protect the market from collapsing due to violence, which has enabled the thriving market to continue. In one of the world’s most violent cities of Karachi, Pakistan, young entrepreneurs have developed a crowd sourced platform called Halaat-o-Meter that enables residents to post updates on the state of violence and safety in their neighborhoods as a public service announcement.

Research has shown that some of the most resilient communities are those who have experienced harsh challenges. These capacities have developed as a result of having to overcome repeated disruptions and challenges to the point where a culture of positive resilience has emerged through informal networks that are rooted in trust.

Innovative solutions

The Guardian recently published a story about 24 ways to reduce crime in the world’s most violent cities as determined by worldwide experts on crime and violence. These recommendations included moving away from an exclusively security driven approach and transitioning towards treating violence as a public health concern. It also included focusing on hotspots and targeted people where crime tends to be most concentrated. Some other important ideas included focusing on prevention, understanding the gender dimensions of violence and targeting inequalities in the cities.

Risk reduction

There is also a growing body of evidence documenting the role that protective factors can play to enhance the resilience of vulnerable urban populations suffering from violence, disaster or extreme poverty. As witnessed in Medellin, Colombia, positive results in pulling youth away from gangs and towards more promising futures have been seen with the development of youth risk reduction programs aimed at stimulating income opportunities through job training, cash transfer schemes, microenterprise development and the provision of childcare.

Cities such as Nairobi, Kenya and Johannesburg, South Africa have experimented with market-based approaches to enhance the value of slum land by providing low interest loans, tax rebates and grants to rehabilitate houses and attract businesses to revive decaying urban areas that often serve as magnets for organized crime.

New technology

New technologies and solutions are also emerging that may prove useful in fragile cities, although technology is not the only answer. Possible solutions include open data initiatives that can help cities monitor and evaluate security interventions, as well as body cameras worn by police to promote more effective and accountable policing.

If we arm ourselves with the right evidence, develop the right tools and establish the right partnerships based in local networks of trust, we may be able to tackle the challenges of rapid urbanization in fragile contexts. It is time to start taking the challenge of rapid urbanization in fragile contexts more seriously. What is required is a concerted effort that brings together multiple stakeholders and resources to think comprehensively about how to harness the potential of urban environments to promote and achieve inclusive security and sustainable development.

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: ResoluteSupportMedia (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane) via Flickr.

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