It is increasingly recognised in the international aid community that organised crime hinders inclusive and sustainable development in many ways. Today’s universe of organised criminal activities and of the individuals, groups and networks involved in them is virtually infinite. Spanning the globe, organised criminal operations range from illegal protection economies and extortion rackets to cybercrime, oil theft, money laundering, counterfeiting, maritime piracy and the trafficking and/or smuggling of illicit drugs, humans, firearms and wildlife.

In 2009, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that transnational organised crime generated $ 870 billion, the equivalent of 1.5% of global gross domestic product (GDP). All criminal proceeds worldwide amounted to an estimated 3.6% of global GDP, equivalent to about $2.1 trillion.

Organised crime is not an ‘alien’, external threat. Criminal operations are planned, designed and implemented by mafia bosses, drug kingpins, paramilitary and insurgent commanders, warlords and gang leaders – but also by, and with, politicians, military and police officers, civil servants, investment bankers and accountants, among representatives of many other professions.

Organised crime promotes ‘non-development’ across four distinct dimensions:

  • Economic: Huge proceeds from illicit and criminal activities are siphoned away from the legitimate economy, and lawful markets are distorted.
  • Political and governance: Organised crime alters the political economy of developing countries, as illegal-criminal interests that span the public–private divide and involve non-state and state actors transform economic, political and social institutions.
  • Social: The social cohesion of communities and societies is fractured as criminal subcultures emerge and replace traditional values and norms.
  • (Human) security: The security of both citizens and states is endangered by organised crime.

Organised crime is sometimes associated with violence, even with warlike forms of violence. But there is no strong correlation between organised criminal activities and violence. Measures 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.

Conventional law enforcement and security approaches to tackling organised crime are insufficient, and at times also unrealistic and counterproductive. Such approaches are not useful where states 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. The evidence shows that conventional law enforcement and security approaches can have unintended consequences for security, governance, social cohesion and so on, including by boosting violence and disrupting the fragile political equilibrium between criminal organisations and state agents.

Integrated approaches address organised crime as a complex matter and aim to integrate law enforcement and security with diplomatic and development actions. Law enforcement, justice and security interventions are necessary, but need to be used as part of a broader effort to rein in organised criminal activities in developing countries and limit the harm they cause.

The development of integrated approaches is key, but remains a work in progress. The following four issues need to be addressed.

  • We need to determine whether development programming in crime-permeated settings should prioritise: a) supporting law enforcement/security efforts to contain the spread of organised crime and/or prevent its emergence; or b) protecting development processes from the negative effects of organised crime. These are two essentially different forms of engagement.
  • International development actors will need to review basic operating procedures, tools and mandates to be able to design and implement effective programmes in organised crime-permeated development settings and prevent the “securitisation” of crime-sensitive development interventions. They will also need to increase their capacity to conduct in-depth political economy analyses of crime-permeated development settings that systematically factor in the element of organised crime.
  • Introducing a strategic focus on organised crime is not entirely congruent with the Sustainable Development Goals. Crime-sensitive development actors will need to increase their efforts to build a strong coalition of international development agencies to pursue this cause effectively.
  • The international development community will need to engage more forcefully with: 1) reforms in the banking, tax and foreign trade sectors of high-income countries; and 2) reforms of global governance mechanisms, such as the UN-administered international drug control regime.