Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Cities, conflict, and state fragility: Reflections on a five-year research programme

Tom Goodfellow, Dennis Rodgers & Jo Beall [1]
For a fleeting moment during the final decade of the twentieth century, the general trajectory of conflict across the world seemed straightforward. With the Cold War over, the number of interstate wars was in free-fall and the dominant form of violence was internal, within fragmenting states no longer propped up by their superpower sponsors. The age of ‘total war’ between states had thus been largely superseded by a wave of civil conflicts, often characterised as ‘new wars’ and widely considered as limited in scope and scale.
Over a decade into the new millennium, however, the trajectory now looks far from obvious. Like international wars, civil wars too have been steadily declining in number. Yet from Colombia to Cairo, Brazil to Baghdad and Kenya to Kandahar, each month brings new manifestations of what Arjun Appadurai (in)famously termed the ‘implosion of global and national politics into the urban world’. Although riots, gang crime, and terrorist attacks have afflicted cities for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the increasing ubiquity of such events – even if not ‘wars’ in any conventional sense - suggest that the hallmark of the contemporary period is one of rising ‘urban conflict’ rather than ‘peace’. 
The Cities and Fragile States project of the Crisis States Research Centre, a research programme funded by the Department for International Development, recently finalised five years of research that aimed to explore the link between the urbanisation of violence and debates concerning a category of countries often described as ‘fragile’, ‘failed’ or ‘failing’ states. What, if anything, is the link between weaknesses at the level of the state in particular parts of the developing world, and changes in the spaces in which violence plays out? What, moreover, can be said about why some cities in troubled regions remain remarkably peaceful and resilient, seemingly against the odds?
These are some of the questions we address in a new Special Issue of Urban Studies on ‘Cities, Conflict and State Fragility in the Developing World’. In our analysis we turn to history, reflecting on the central role that cities played in building states in early modern Europe, as discussed extensively in the work of Charles Tilly. Too often today it seems that cities are where state-building projects in the developing world unravel rather than consolidate, and our research explores why this is in a diverse range of cases. Through comparative analysis, moreover, we find that in fact cities can be (and sometimes are) still central to processes of state-building – messy and protracted though these may be – when the conditions are right.
To understand contemporary forms of violence in many parts of the world we deploy a concept of ‘civic conflict’, which is both distinct from civil war and eschews the simplistic tendency to think of forms of urban violence as being either ‘social’, ‘political’, or ‘economic’ in nature. The word ‘civic’ is suggestive of cities on the one hand, and of citizenship (and by extension, the state) on the other. From sectarian riots to gang violence, terrorism, and ‘turf wars’ between urban landlords, these forms of conflict are all linked both to the city as a distinct space and to contestation over citizenship and entitlements, often reflecting a sense of neglect by the state. 
These forms of conflict are quite different from ‘conventional’ civil war, which generally involves an effort by a rebel organisation to fully take control of the state. Civic conflicts instead represent expressions of discontent, demands for attention, claims of entitlement to the resources of the city, and sometimes the establishment of parallel structures of control that take the place of (or fill the gaps in) state institutions.
In many parts of the developing world, both of these forms of conflict exist simultaneously. In others, however, civil wars have largely ceded to civic conflicts, which may be equally or more devastating but which do not require formal peace settlements so much as new political settlements in cities - and between urban and rural communities. As the world becomes more urban, our understanding of violent conflict and routes to its resolution must keep pace.
Some of the countries discussed in our Special Issue are still mired in rural-based civil conflicts, where cities and towns have for long periods remained relative havens of peace. Even in such cases, however, there is reason to doubt that these cities will remain peaceful when civil wars draw to a close. All too often, urban havens can become flashpoints of violence later on, precisely because they attract people in droves but their governments neglect to ‘think urban’ in post-war reconstruction efforts, usually perceiving urban growth as temporary.
Our research explores how struggles over urban citizens’ needs are managed by political elites, and how this has crucial impacts on both the incidence of violent conflict and prospects for long-term development. It examines cases in Colombia and South Africa where elites have risen to this challenge with relatively impressive results, as well as examples from Pakistan, Nicaragua, and East Timor where urban violence was precipitated or exacerbated by elite strategies. In other cases we discuss, including Mozambique and Rwanda, we see the possibility that latent urban conflicts are simply being ‘deferred’ to a later date.
Through these and a range of other cases including Afghanistan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Special Issue explores how civil conflicts become civic ones, and assesses different government strategies for managing civic conflict in states that simply cannot begin to fulfil all their citizens’ demands.
Critically important, we argue, is the evolution of systems of institutionalised bargaining between urban groups that cohere around socioeconomic identifiers that go beyond ethnic, religious or racial ones. Making demands on the state is vital for state-building itself; yet when demands are based on fixed exclusionary categories and individual patrons, a likely outcome is either violence or the kind of unproductive rent-sharing that does little to bring development.
Actively increasing urban citizens’ capacity to make collective demands in ways that are non-violent – rather than denying them political agency by hoping either that they will return to the countryside or that economics will somehow save the day – is now in order.  This means a reinvigoration of urban political contestation in fragile states: something that has largely been ignored in the policy debates on fragility over the past decade.
 [1] Respectively Lecturer in Urban Studies and International Development, University of Sheffield; Professor of Urban Social and Political Research, University of Glasgow; and Director, Education and Society, British Council.

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