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Beyond the police: security provision in cities

Time (GMT +01) 16:00 18:00

Beyond the police: security provision in cities


Craig Valters - Research Fellow, ODI


Lisa Denney - Research Associate, ODI

Keith Krause @IHEID - Director, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding

Megan Price @CRU_MeganPrice - Research Fellow, Clingendael Conflict Research Unit


In countries with a weak or corrupt police force, people often seek security from a range of alternative actors. From gangs in Nairobi to mukhtars in Beirut, these actors are known as “plural security providers”. Until recently, much of the focus has been on plural security providers in rural contexts, assuming they fill the gap of an absent state provider. However, in recent years, security challenges in cities have been exacerbated by rapid urbanization. This has culminated in a complex, less recognised, phenomenon: the increasing role of plural security providers in cities. Recent research by the Plural Security Insights network examines this phenomenon, producing city profiles of Beirut, Nairobi and Tunis.

In this, the final seminar of the series, presenters shared findings from the research and discussed strategies for future engagement.

Lisa Denney (ODI, Research Associate) discussed the findings from Nairobi. Keith Krause (Centre on Conflict, Development & Peacebuilding, Director) explored the urban dimension, reflecting on Tunis. Megan Price (Clingendael Conflict Research Unit, Research Fellow) provided recommendations for how governments and donor programmes can engage with these plural providers in practice.



The presentations threw up some complicated findings, replete with issues surrounding accessibility, legitimacy, identity and social capital. In both Nairobi and Beirut, where the police can be absent, unresponsive or even violent, people ‘hustle for their security,’ meaning they draw on their networks to achieve a sense of safety. These networks tend to be hyper-localised – right down to the neighbourhood – and preventative rather than punitive. In Nairobi where violence is highly prevalent and accepted, these networks adhered to a loose mantra that ‘it’s fine to be involved in crime and violence – just don’t bring it back to the community.’ Because these networks are so local those within them tend to have common identity, which can create quite powerful ‘in/out groups.’

These may provide personal and factional security, but do they add up to cooperative security arrangements? And what does the prevalence of these networks mean for state building and national police reform agendas? People interviewed in the research actually often showed an appetite for the police to take on more security responsibilities, but how can plural systems give way to a single provider when trust in the police is so low? Is pluralism a stepping stone or a barrier, and what sort of time scales can be expected to transfer security functions sensitively between different providers?

Perhaps these are the wrong questions. When states fail to provide security as a public good, often another provider will fill the gap. So maybe security and justice (S&J) work should focus more on the quality of those providing security, eschewing larger notions of state building altogether? The presenters framed this as ‘instead of focusing on responsive institutions, focus on who responds.’ This would carry risk, but as it was argued by the presenters, so do the typically large train and equip S&J interventions – but we still do them. Instead, better analysis about which providers offer protection and which are predatory might clarify who people in the cities themselves deem amenable to work with.

These presentations challenged the state centric, donor-led S&J work that can slip into isomorphic mimicry in their quest for strong institutions, or even do harm by reinforcing existing predatory state security mechanisms. They also challenged donor work to take account of the distinctive security realities in cities. S&J work can often slip into generalisations, failing to take account of the diversity of different rural and urban contexts.

However the presenters also made clear that cities are no more or less inherently violent or fragile than more rural settings. They are uniquely complex, and the S&J field could to more to understand and respond to that. For example, one need only glance at the mélange of soldiers, police, political militias and municipal police on the streets of Beirut to see one size fits all approaches are not going to get donors very far.

There were some final thoughts on plural security provision that the presenters left us with. Firstly, networks and identity matter – and can lead to group assertion that can be negative as well as positive. Secondly, pluralism can resist oversight, leaving little room for people to stress their security needs or take issues to higher levels of authority when unhappy with an outcome. And finally, elite or criminal capture of security provision networks (both in the formal and informal sectors) can make systems exploitative, and illegitimate. In response, the researchers offered five recommendations:

1. Stimulate long term shifts towards rule based systems that are locally appropriate rather than frontloading the police and state institutions. Do not think that only the state can provide security – they never fully have and never will.

2. Use Community Security/Policing approaches to build public and state support for closer work with plural security providers. Focus, too, on gentle expansions of who is in the ‘in group’ within personalised networks and therefore receives security.

3. Recognise it is highly political which providers are co-opted, confronted or co-existed with. Let people in cities be the judge of this rather than donors.

4. Try to support public oversight of any provider, whether state or otherwise. That appeared to be the best guarantee of quality and relevance.

5. Think about the role of gender in many of these systems, in particular notions of masculinity where systems are predatory.

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