While crucial, the political dimension of organised crime and its impact on the state, political institutions and governance in developing countries has long not received the attention it warrants. As discussed above, criminal organisations have typically been portrayed as somehow detached and alienated from the state or, at the most, representing some kind of parallel state or force that seeks to ‘capture’ it. Arguably, this perspective is informed by the experience of modern industrialised countries in Europe and North America, where states command relatively stronger political authority, legitimacy and institutional capacity, which enables them not only to withstand criminal pressures but also to prevent criminal activities from taking root and dismantle organisations and networks as they arise. Of course, this is not to say that (transnational) organised crime is not a challenge for developed states too. It evidently is, and there are indications that, instead of diminishing, the problem is actually growing at present (see, for instance, Europol, 2013; Finklea, 2010; US National Security Council, 2011; von Lampe, 2008).
In this conception, organised crime is framed as deepening state fragility by further undermining already weak state capacity, authority and legitimacy as criminal groups resort to violence to defend their interests, distort markets and siphon off scarce resources. In this vein, fragile and conflict-affected states are seen as convenient theatres of operation for transnational criminal groups and networks, such as Latin American drug trafficking organisations in West Africa. The affected countries are thus stylised as vulnerable places located on the large trans-continental smuggling and trafficking routes. These are essentially controlled by external criminal actors who make use of the opportunities ungoverned spaces and existing local corruption rings among the government and security forces offer. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 employs the concept of ‘external stressors’ to capture this relationship of vulnerability, including in respect to transnational illicit flows. For a critical discussion of the concept, see Schultze-Kraft (2014).
However, the relationship between state fragility and organised crime is more complex than is commonly portrayed. For instance, too little attention has been paid to the intricate ways in which organised criminal groups and networks have sought to influence – through a variety of means, including coercion but importantly also the establishment of alliances with political parties, and the injection of funds into the electoral campaigns of ‘willing’ politicians – the outcomes of electoral contests at the municipal and even the national level in developing countries. For these processes to work, it takes two to tango, as it were: organised crime is not acting on its own but in concert with a range of political and other elite sectors in the context of political systems and governance structures that are often characterised by clientelism, patronage, informality, corruption and illegality. This analysis poses a number of intricate challenges for the extant conceptions of state fragility and development in fragile and conflict or violence-affected settings (see, for instance, Miraglia et al., 2012).
According to a recent study by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University,
organized crime poses enormous governance challenges for developing countries. All of the countries [Nepal, Ghana, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Guyana and Jamaica] studied for this project (except Nepal) are formal multi-party democracies. However, in most of the cases (including Nepal), formal institutions are underpinned by extensive informal systems sustaining patronage and corruption, and a political economy providing limited services and protection for citizens. In each of the case studies, organised crime takes advantage of systemic weaknesses, for example, through corruption of the electoral, legislative, and public procurement processes, and corruption of local administrations. Coercion of politicians and public service officials by organized criminals also plays into this situation, as does the reverse side with political actors taking advantage of organized crime for political gain. In most cases, a weak or politicized civil society and media, or an academia with limited voice, provide limited checks on government complicity with organized crime (Kavanagh, 2013, p. 17).
In the era of globalization, large illicit flows of (illicit) goods and money can therefore have very significant effects on the political economies of developing countries. ‘Criminal groups are generally more nimble than government regulators in exploiting new markets, but in African cases the growth of organized crime is not primarily because of deficiencies in regulation so much as in the willingness of politicians to envisage relationships with professional criminals’ (Ellis & Shaw, 2015, p. 515). Here, it is important to emphasise the point made by Ellis and Shaw (2015) that, ‘even in Western democracies, where respect for law is comparatively stronger, the relationships between politics and crime has changed’ (p. 515–16), with politicians and businesspeople co-engaging more frequently in illegal and/or outright criminal activities. Hence, ‘there now exists a connection between the types of crime characteristic of African states, on the one hand, and high finance and big business in rich countries, on the other hand. Both are associated with the off-shore world, used by multinational businesses to avoid taxes and to make the payments necessary to secure contracts as well as by crime bosses laundering their money’ (Ellis & Shaw, 2015, p. 518).
Once large-scale drug markets, for instance, have become established, such as in West Africa in the past decade,
Political marketplaces […] are prone to undergo significant change. Group loyalties that hitherto were negotiated within, and structured by, patronage and clientelistic relationships of a ‘traditional’ kind, that is, without significant external influences, become vulnerable to breaking up or being transformed. […] New relationships of loyalty and patronage emerge that are likely to involve a larger number of groups, including subaltern ones. In extreme cases, such as in Guinea-Bissau, this can result in the staging of coups by factions of the military and political elites that compete over drug trafficking rents, as well as in the capture of the entire state by drug-trafficking interests (Schultze-Kraft, 2014, p. 18–19).
There can be other, though in the longer term not less pernicious, variations of these dynamics:
Importantly, elite bargains that underpin existing political settlements and provide a degree of stability can be shaken up when, for instance, one powerful faction becomes involved in an illicit business and switches alliances. […] Other powerful groups which are left out of these criminal bargains will have strong incentives to follow suit and establish their own alliances with traffickers [or other criminal entrepreneurs] so as not to end up in a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis their competitors. A vicious circle can result in which progressively more groups that hold sway over their country’s political and economic affairs are drawn into the trafficking networks and become beholden to criminal interests (Schultze-Kraft, 2014, p. 19).
In sum, from a political and governance perspective, organised crime represents something of an anti-thesis to inclusive and sustainable development. Rather than ‘development in reverse’, as has been said about violent conflict, organised crime is non-development, as it undermines and/or transforms political institutions and governance structures while at the same time creating its own rules and modes of governance. These are, however, essentially non-democratic, non-accountable, non-transparent and exclusionary; and, depending on the involved illicit markets and the particular configuration of the associated protection economies, have a propensity to be upheld by the illegitimate use of coercion.
- Ellis, S., & Shaw, M. (2015). Does organized crime exist in Africa. African Affairs, 114(457), 505–28.
- Europol. (2013). EU serious and organised crime threat assessment. The Hague: Europol.
- Finklea, K. (2010). Organized crime in the United States: Trends and issues for Congress. Washington, DC: CRS.
- Kavanagh, C. (Ed.). (2013). Getting smart and scaling up. Responding to the impact of organized crime on governance in developing countries. New York: Center on International Cooperation.
- Miraglia, P., Ochoa, R., & Briscoe, I. (2012). Transnational organized crime and fragile states (Working Paper 3/2012). Paris: OECD.
- Schultze-Kraft, M. (2014). Getting real about an illicit ‘external stressor’: Transnational cocaine trafficking through West Africa (IDS Evidence Report 72). Brighton: IDS.
- US National Security Council. (2011). Strategy to combat transnational organized crime. Washington, DC: The White House.
- Von Lampe, K. (2008). Organised crime in Europe: Conceptions and realities. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 2(1), 7–17.