Making the Urban Poor Safer: Lessons from Nairobi and Maharashtra

Jean-Pierre Tranchant


Mumbai and Nairobi have acutely unequal urban development, with respectively 40 per cent and 60 per cent of their urban population living in slums. The most impoverished neighbourhoods are characterised by severe lack of service provision and poor access to employment opportunities. Urban violence is deeply rooted in the multiple vulnerabilities experienced by slum-dwellers, such as lack of steady income, lack of access to amenities and lack of connection to state resources. Yet security provision fails to address violence in this broader social and economic context, while efforts at tackling urban vulnerability often do not address its links with violence and physical insecurity. Issues of under-policing, unemployment or lack of services that shape urban violence are ultimately intertwined with the difficulty faced by slum-dwellers to interact with state authorities. Formal and informal policies need to take these local realities into account while building on local experience of what works best to reduce vulnerability and minimise violence.

In Maharashtra state, crime rates are comparatively low, and the main form of urban violence is rioting. Riots are persistent and widespread, with an average of over 64,000 riots per year over the last decade and 16 out of 28 states experiencing more than 1,000 riots in 2010. Recent research in urban Maharashtra showed that rioting and other forms of civil violence are prevalent in impoverished and under-policed urban areas: 20 per cent of respondents declared that there had been a riot or a public fight in their neighbourhood, and 14 per cent a curfew. Twelve per cent of households – mostly slum-dwellers – were directly or indirectly affected by riots.

In Nairobi, crime is very prevalent. A victimisation study conducted in 2001 found that 37 per cent of respondents were victims of robbery, 22 per cent victims of theft and 18 per cent victims of assault during the last year. In addition, the post-election violence of 2008 – although a national phenomenon with an estimated loss of 1,300 lives – affected Nairobi severely. Being the capital, Nairobi was a flash point, with 124 fatalities. Officially, over 72,000 were displaced in Nairobi’s informal settlements, not counting the much larger number of displaced people who either sought refuge in friendly neighbourhoods in other parts of the city, or left the city for their rural homes. Globally, the scale of urban violence in some countries which have not even been through civil conflict, can eclipse that of open warfare in others. Compiling data on crime and armed conflict, the report of the Global Peace Index notes that deaths by homicides in the world are more than four-fold those by armed conflict.

Policy recommendations

  • Policies that seek to reduce urban violence must be explicitly linked with poverty alleviation strategies: Urban violence is profoundly rooted in urban vulnerability to such an extent that the provision of security cannot be divorced from development activities like health promotion, promoting micro-credit and savings, or improving housing. For example, employment and service generation also need to be used as a violence-reduction mechanism. This would involve, for instance, prioritising access to created jobs for people most likely to commit violence, and closely monitoring the link between job creation, service provision and violence. In turn, security providers should be able to see violence, and their efforts to curb it, in their broader social and economic context.
  • Policies that seek to alleviate urban vulnerabilities and violence must be informed by local realities and knowledge of the informal arrangements that work: Initiatives to empower slum-dwellers to share this knowledge, and engage with formal authorities, especially the police, should be encouraged. Slum-dwellers are the most aware of the various ways urban vulnerabilities cause violence and this knowledge should be brought to the fore in policymaking. More generally, social distance between slum-dwellers and the authorities – including the police – is large and underlines the marginalisation of the areas they live in. Enhancing citizen participation in these contexts would help address the development and security goals.
  • More data and research is needed on the extent, type and change in victimisation patterns in slums of the global South: Knowledge is needed to inform the policies at work in these environments. As of now, no rigorous study looking at the effects of slum upgrading on violence exists.
  • Innovative community-led schemes aimed at reducing urban violence must be rigorously evaluated: This is key in order to generate knowledge, find the particular parameters that work, and form the basis for scaling-up and formalising successful violence reduction policies. Implementing a joined-up approach to reduce violence is difficult as key actors tend to follow their own agenda. Compelling evidence on what works will be key to overcoming institutional resistance.


Tranchant, J (2013). Making the Urban Poor Safer: Lessons from Nairobi and Maharashtra. Policy Briefing No. 47. Brighton: IDS.