Key issues and lessons

The evidence presented in this Topic Guide is unequivocal in showing that organised crime poses serious challenges for development. Rather than ‘development in reverse’, organised criminal activities promote what could be called non-development. Illegal and criminal interests that span the public–private divide and involve non-state and state actors upend, transform and reconfigure the rules of the game—that is, the institutions that govern the economic, political and social affairs of societies and states and the prevailing distribution of power and wealth.

Legality and formal institutions do not normally collapse entirely under the pressure of organised crime, and governments are fighting organised criminal groups and networks. Yet in the past two to three decades organised crime has spread across the globe, particularly affecting developing countries and fragile states. In this vast process, illicit markets have multiplied; criminal operations have become ever more globally networked; huge proceeds from criminal activities are siphoned away from the legitimate economy and lawful markets are distorted. The political economy of crime-affected developing countries is altered significantly. Social cohesion is fractured as criminal subcultures emerge and replace traditional values and norms, and the security of both citizens and states is endangered.

Depending on several factors, such as the type of illegal-criminal activity involved and the degree and nature of state fragility in a given country, organised crime can be associated with violence, sometimes even with war-like ‘new’ forms of violence, such as in the 2000s in the Niger Delta of Nigeria and currently in Mexico.

However, we cannot assume that organised crime always leads to violence and instability. For instance, the cases of Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Niger Delta of Nigeria reveal that a measure of stability and relatively low levels of violence can be compatible with huge high-value criminal operations, such as transnational drug trafficking and oil theft on an industrial scale. Such ‘stability’ in crime-permeated environments may be due to the existence of state or elite-sponsored protection rackets and effective corruption rings. But it may also arise from other types of (local) governance arrangements and agreements involving both criminal organisations and legitimate political, economic and social groups, such as in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

This analysis reveals that it is not appropriate and useful anymore, if ever it was, to conceive of organised crime as some sort of ‘alien’ threat that is external to states, licit markets and legitimate, law-abiding society. The alternative framing of organised crime as a development challenge used in this Topic Guide aims to help analysts and policy-makers overcome a bias towards prioritising law enforcement and security interventions when tackling problems that stem from organised criminal activities.

Evidence that law enforcement and organised crime control policies are effective is scant at best. Arguably, such approaches are even less promising and useful in developing countries, where states typically do not have sufficient law enforcement capacity and do not hold the monopoly on the use of force. Things are complicated further because in such settings the rule of law is weak or non-existent, corruption and human rights violations are rife, and political and social institutions, both formal and informal, are not separated by the membrane of legality from organised criminal activities. Wider society—affected by rampant inequalities in income and well-being—may not even consider such activities illegitimate.