Cities, conflict and fragility

Urban conflict and violence affect country and metropolitan level economic development, and the livelihoods and well-being of poor households and communities. Conflict refers to ‘situations where individuals and groups have incongruent interests that are contradictory and potentially mutually exclusive but contained’; violence is the manifestation of that conflict (Moser & Rodgers 2012: 2).

Cities are inherently sites of conflict, but this is generally managed through social, cultural and political mechanisms. When these mechanisms break down, outbreaks of chronic violence occur. Moser and Rodgers (2012) suggest that it is important to understand the potential transition from conflict to violence as a ‘tipping point’ – the moment a given social process becomes generalised rather than specific in a rapid rather than gradual manner.

Muggah (2012) identifies risk factors that influence urban conflict and its potential to descend into violence: city density, poverty, inequality, youth population bulges, male youth unemployment, legacies of conflict and governance failures.

Conceptions of urban violence have increasingly moved towards overlapping categories that can be simultaneously political, social or economic (Beall et al. 2011).

See this table in Moser (2004: 2) for a taxonomy of violence in urban areas.

Raleigh (2015: 91) asserts that countries that experience political instability, but not civil wars, often experience the highest levels of urban unrest, particularly during periods of political contestation such as elections and national instability.

Conflict is an inevitable aspect of development and change in urban settings, but an important question is whether it is channelled destructively through violence or in a more constructive way, such as through participatory forms of engagement and debate. For example, Rodgers (2015) suggests that attempts to address the causes of high levels of crime that plagued New York in the 1970s and Medellín in the 1990s encouraged the subsequent urban ‘renaissance’ in both cities.

Urban governance is integral to the management and resolution of conflict and the mitigation of violence. It involves more than just laws and regulations; it also encompasses the manner in which we live and how challenges are resolved. The notion of social capital is important in understanding urban conflict, as it is when social networks and bonds break down that conflict tips into violence.

This breakdown and loss of trust is at its worst in ‘fragile cities’ (see Muggah, 2012) – where the cumulative effects of risk may overwhelm local coping systems. Some cities, particularly those in low-income or fragile states that have limited institutional capacity, may be pushed to collapse by accelerating urbanisation (Muggah & Savage, 2012; de Boer, 2015). Cities, as with states, become fragile when institutions can no longer fulfil their core functions, such as ensuring safety for citizens, property and infrastructure, or access to basic services (de Boer, 2015). This can lead to groups challenging city government’s legitimacy, authority and capacity, and in some instances can lead to violence. This violence marks a rupture in the social contract between city government and those that contest its authority, and may be targeted at city spaces, infrastructure, and civilian populations (Graham 2009).

Where governance failures are persistent, violence can take an overt or covert form of coercion and control, with different groups seeking to fill the institutional power vacuum (Muggah, 2012). Such groups thrive in cities where there is a ready pool of recruits, and as a result of complicit public institutions, patronage, fear and unease, which cumulatively inhibit the development of networks and social capital. Fragile cities are especially susceptible to rapid deterioration of core functions when exposed to a combination of internal and external urban risks. These may include concentrated disadvantage, police and judicial impunity, and sudden price shocks.

Gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against women and children are an often overlooked element of urban violence. However, cities can help women cope with violence by providing more tolerance, access to economic resources and institutional support than rural areas. Ultimately, cities do not necessarily generate GBV, and urbanisation offers opportunities for its reduction (McIlwaine 2013: 65)

Different forms of violence and conflict require different kinds of policy interventions at the local, national and international level that acknowledge a city’s specific governance needs and the challenges associated with urban politics. Moser and Mcllwaine (2014) call for a shift from representing violence and conflict as solvable problems, towards a recognition that they are an element of daily life and components of development. Examples of interventions and approaches that have had, or have, potential for success include the following:

  • In Bogotá and Medellín (Colombia), urban politics played a role in the management of social tensions (Gutierrez et al., 2007). Against a backdrop of soaring urban violence, a new style of politics accompanied the introduction of the 1991 Constitution. This allowed for wider political participation and debate, which in turn saw coalitions of middle class and elite interests emerge. Whilst these coalitions represented a range of political positions and actors, they shared a commitment to improved public goods and services in urban areas. At the heart of these success stories was the creation of institutions and processes for participatory engagement and debate.
  • A greater understanding of structural and contextual factors, rather than causal conditions, in which gangs exist results in recognising them as institutional actors and as a product of societal change. Working with gangs instead of simply trying to dismantle them may pay dividends. This willingness to engage with gangs shifts the focus from reducing violence to managing it (Winton, 2014).
  • In their discussion of GBV interventions, Whitzman et al. (2014) call for a multi-pronged partnership approach. Their framework includes four categories of actors: elected officials as ‘champions’; public servants as ‘enablers’; community groups as ‘advocates’; and researchers as ‘information brokers’. A greater understanding of the most appropriate scale for policy action is central; reliance on local strategies to reduce GBV needs to be linked with actions to contest and confront GBV at regional, national and supranational levels. This approach shifts the focus from individualised security measures to those identified through collective consultative processes in which women assert their right to live, work and participate in city life (ibid.).
  • The Viva Rio project launched in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) in 2004 aimed to reduce community violence and manage and transform conflict (Yazdani et al., 2014). It involved an innovative incentive programme that combined peace with education. It facilitated peace negotiations between local community leaders and other community projects, thus solidifying the process of stabilisation and development as well as establishing the presence of Viva Rio in target neighbourhoods. Viva Rio offered scholarships to children and adolescents via a monthly lottery if a neighbourhood reported no conflict-related deaths. If a death was reported the lottery was suspended for the month.

Leveraging a combination of community and city-level political processes to encourage social groups to bargain, debate and form broad coalitions to manage urban conflict is a common theme across these examples. Governance strategies thus need to involve cooperation and engage local communities, city authorities, national governments and where appropriate, international agencies. Muggah and Savage (2012) identify a number of entry points for addressing urban conflict and violence:

  • enhancing public services and local municipal capacity;
  • emphasising risk reduction and strengthening urban resilience;
  • engaging with armed groups or gangs around issues of urban violence, prevention and reduction;
  • strengthening community structures to build social cohesion and more effective conflict resolution capacities;
  • harnessing formal and informal structures at city level.

Coordinating city responses to violence and conflict is complex. Responsibility for public security often does not lie exclusively at city level, if at all, as many metropolitan areas and municipalities rely on national governments to provide such services (Muggah & Savage, 2012). A more nuanced approach to addressing sources of conflict and violence is needed that leverages local resources and capacities in innovative ways. Urban governance can reinforce the capabilities and participation of residents and non-state actors by promoting civic engagement. Muggah (2015) suggests this is not just a matter of rights and citizenship but also of ensuring local buy-in, building social capital and augmenting the capacity of the state where it is limited.