Organised crime and development: introduction

The analysis presented in the previous section strongly suggests organised crime and the myriad unlawful activities and businesses it spawns in national and sub-national jurisdictions as well as transnationally pose serious—potential and real—challenges for development. The members of, and participants in, criminal groups and networks can include professional criminals but also a broad range of other state and non-state actors, such as insurgents, warlords, businesspeople, lawyers, politicians, military and police officers and civil servants.

The activities and strategies of organised crime groups and networks and their organisational forms are multiple, adaptable and dynamic. They may involve the threat and use of violence but also varying types of non-violent interactions and transactions, such as corruption and bargaining and pact-making between a range of official and unofficial power-holders and their constituencies. The organisation of criminal activities and participation in them is motivated by the active quest for economic and other material gains by illegal means but also by economic, institutional and other opportunity structures, strategic choice, social and political relationships and the socio-cultural environment. The impact of organised criminal activities on licit markets, societies and states, particularly fragile ones, is (potentially) far-reaching, corrosive and destructive: economic, political and social institutions are undermined and/or transformed and reconfigured, accountability and democratic processes are hollowed out, vast amounts of public revenue are lost and stolen, social cohesion is fractured and the security of citizens and states is endangered.

Yet it was not until relatively recently that a small but influential group of bilateral and multilateral donor agencies, such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Germany’s Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) and the World Bank, began to engage with the issue in more systematic fashion. This engagement has been spurred by mounting concerns that organised crime—just like armed conflict and insecurity—is holding back and/or undermining inclusive and sustainable development, particularly in the world’s poorest countries and most fragile states. According to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, a global network of law enforcement, governance and development practitioners dedicated to seeking new and innovative strategies and responses to organised crime,

The international community has become increasingly aware of the extent to which organised crime serves as a spoiler of sustainable development. This realisation has been enshrined in a number of seminal reports. In 2005, the report of the UN Secretary-General, In Larger Freedom, which identified the challenges preventing the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), highlighted organised crime as one of the principle threats to peace and security in the 21st century. The 2010 Keeping the Promise report of the Secretary-General recognised that in order to achieve the MDGs, there would need to be capacity to respond specifically to organised crime. The [World Bank] World Development Report 2011 concluded that both conflict and organised crime have the same detrimental effect on development, resulting in 20% less development performance. As such, combatting organised crime and promoting greater economic and social resilience to its most deleterious impacts has become an integral part of the 2012 ‘Action Agenda’ of the Secretary-General, as a priority for achieving a stable world (Global Initiative, 2015, p. 3).

This incorporation of organised crime into international development discourse and practice acquired a new quality with the adoption, in 2015, of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UN General Assembly, 2015). Although organised crime writ large is not a central element in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, ‘illicit financial and arms flows’, ‘the recovery and return of stolen assets’, the ‘combat of all forms of organized crime’ and the reduction of ‘corruption and bribery’ are all explicitly mentioned in Goal 16 and Targets 16.4 and 16.5. As the Global Initiative observes,

While organised crime’s importance is recognised, [its impact on development is] extensive and diverse [and needs to be clearly acknowledged as such]. Organised crime cannot be viewed as a separate development challenge to be addressed in isolation. Rather, an effective response calls for the recognition that organised crime is an intrinsic element to a large number development challenges, and must be interwoven throughout broader development response frameworks (Global Initiative, 2015, p. 4).

While this is true, it is equally important to recognise that we have still limited knowledge on the specific negative impacts organised crime has on development—that is, through which mechanisms and processes it becomes ‘a spoiler to development’ (Global Initiative, 2014, p. 1)—and how to measure this impact. By the same token, as Section 2 discusses, we also still lack effective tools to evaluate the outcomes and impact of counter-crime interventions, both regarding more ‘traditional’ law enforcement and rule of law programmes as well as with respect to more integrated and encompassing approaches to reducing and/or mitigating the negative impact of organised crime on development. The remainder of this section summarises the evidence on how organised crime affects development in four dimensions: economic, political-institutional, socio-cultural and (human) security.

  • Arguably, the international development community’s delayed response to the issues organised crime has thrown up exhibits some similarities with the reluctance to engage with armed conflict and security issues in the 1990s. This may be related to a perception among development practitioners and scholars that organised crime and its control are subjects that are beyond the ‘natural’ remit of development and are therefore difficult to handle for development organisations that are not equipped with the expertise and tools for this job. Furthermore, research and policy work on organised crime is arguably more difficult than, say, that on conventional development issues, such as education, health or even governance. Primarily, this is so because it is challenging to collect robust data about criminal and illegal activities and groups that are hidden from public view. Political considerations and constraints also come into play. It is not easy for international donors to conduct political economy analyses meant to guide interventions that explicitly include a focus on organised crime and the involvement of senior government officials and representatives of the local elite and of the transnational business community in illicit and/or outright criminal affairs.