Cities, conflict and fragility

Gupte and Commins (2016: 7) note that there are multiple and overlapping forms of violence, and the way these interact have important consequences for understanding violence and order in future cities. Muggah (2012: vi) highlights that, while there is substantial research on the consequences of urban violence across low- and medium-income settings, as well as analysis of urbanisation, urban poverty and violence, much of this is segmented within academic disciplines and geographic settings. There are gaps in understanding the links between urban poverty, conflict and violence. UN-Habitat (2014: 31) identifies a dearth of robust research on the incidence and determinants of urban violence. Experts suggest there is a limited evidence base on what works and what does not in tackling political economy constraints to urban violence. Looking at interventions to mitigate urban violence, Muggah (2012) highlights the absence of time-series data, lack of attention to unintended consequences and weak local analysis capacities in low-income settings.

A number of innovative approaches have emerged to help fill these gaps that merit further exploration. Blattman et al. (2015) argue that self-control, time preferences, and values are malleable in adults and that investment in these skills and preferences can reduce crime and violence. In this study, half of a sample of 999 Liberian men engaged in crime received eight weeks of group cognitive behavioural therapy, fostering self-regulation, patience, and noncriminal values. Some of the participants also received grants of US$200. Cash and therapy were both shown to reduce crime and violence, but effects dissipated within a year. When cash followed therapy, however, crime and violence decreased by as much as 50% for at least a year. Blattman et al. (2015) hypothesised that cash reinforced therapy’s lessons by prolonging practice and self-investment.

Research from the Understanding the Tipping Point of Conflict project (Moser & Rodgers, 2012) has also provided some detailed analysis of how different forms of violence, triggered by tipping point processes, interact  in a ‘violence chain’. Its policy insights include the following:

  • Urban spaces have particular dynamics that can exacerbate both conflict and violence. These dynamics can facilitate instances of local conflict tipping over into broader, city-level violence.
  • The co-existence of multiple authority and security systems can be a driver of conflict and violence, and an entry-point for keeping conflict and violence in check by maintaining a ‘balance of power’.
  • Policymakers need to identify the different categories of violence beyond crime statistics, and recognise the importance of political violence as an ongoing phenomenon.
  • Initiatives to break the links within violence chains should include strengthening governance structures, addressing youth unemployment and regularising informal settlements.
  • Social cohesion, inclusion and citizen participation must be incorporated as cross-cutting urban policy themes, particularly those associated with violence reduction.

Moser and Horn (2011) comment that interventions such as those outlined above could be effectively implemented within poor urban communities as well as at the metropolitan level. This contrasts with initiatives to address ‘macro-level’ structural issues such as poverty or demographic bulges.

Recently published research identifies a growing body of evidence that indicates the diversity of security processes and outcomes within and between cities (Gupte & Commins 2016). Gupte and Commins (2016) note that contemporary paradigms of urban development fail to substantively account for the ways in which the social, political, economic and physical aspects of urban form interact and shape the mechanics of security provision in cities. Part of this gap is due to the separation between development theory, urban planning and discussions of fragility, conflict and violence. Gupte (2016) concludes that violence is likely to be both a positive and negative stimulus for governance institutions at the city and national level. The imposition of order in cities affects people differently and poses the question ‘security for whom?’. Segmentation in the treatment of issues of security and order in cities will debilitate comprehensive interventions as well as macro understandings of the processes of state-building in fragile contexts.