“Fragile” Cities: What We are Getting Wrong and Why it is Important to Get it Right
As migration, urbanization, and climate change transform the world, cities lie in the crosshairs—most of the world’s population will become urban. Based on the framework of “fragile cities”, scenarios of violent political instability seem imminent in cities in developing countries. While concerns of whether cities absorb disturbances introduced by these sea changes or experience instability are well founded, the “fragile city” lens falls short to the task of making sense of dynamic challenges.
Cities in developing countries have long generated images of impending chaos. Think Karachi, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro or Manila. Public services are considerably deregulated, criminal and political violence is common, at times, off the charts, and armed actors may control parts of a city. Latin America presents a microcosm—home to 8 percent of the world’s population, it reports 33 percent of its homicides; crime and violence are a part of the urban experience for many. Yet, despite this seeming disorder, there is an order—one where the state continues to remain the final arbiter. Even if life in cities, especially those at the margins, is an existence of perpetual insecurity.
Considering that cities face risks associated with climate change, migration, resource scarcity and urbanization, it is not far-fetched to imagine them as zones of potential instability. As military strategists note, ‘climate change, resource competition…demographics and urbanization’ will shape environments where future conflict may take place. Will depleting resources and poor governance combined with already existing crime and violence lead to conflict? More violence and criminality? Eco systems where terrorists, militias and crime gangs operate with impunity? Will instability in some cities embroil foreign militaries?
While these concerns are plausible, this perspective—based on “fragile” cities—presents a static approach. Unless our understanding of cities takes their dynamism and complexity in view, policies are bound to fail.
The concept of “fragile” cities that has wide currency in development, humanitarian and strategic circles offers powerful simplicity. When governments fail to deliver basic services and uphold rule of law, the social contract between citizens and the state is ruptured. Armed actors such as crime groups, vigilantes, militias etc. take control of parts of a city. They may wield parallel or shared control over local populations.
Of late, the theory of fragile cities has been stretched to connect it with the theory of conflict, especially in the backdrop of emerging threats of climate change and rapid urbanization. When risks associated with climate change, urbanization, and resource scarcity lead to strained government capacities, the logic goes, conflicts are bound to follow. A gap in demand and supply over limited resources may lead to the breakdown of government authority, creating space for armed actors, potentially also creating constituencies of support. Conditions such as these may be conducive enough to shift the battleground from rural mountainous areas to crowded, poorly governed cities.
This is a compelling framing of the problem. Yet, it reduces the complexity of a dynamic phenomenon to the simplest terms of resource scarcity and poor formal governance. This leaves policymakers ill-equipped to address emergent challenges. Urbanization is a complex phenomenon and its interaction with threats of climate change and strained government capacities is creating emergent conditions in major cities in the global south. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is important to get the framing straight.
First, identifying a city as fragile since its ground realities do not conform to an ideal concept of state and governance is a normative judgement. Evidence indicates that despite violence, crime, and deregulated service provision, the state is not losing its final authority. Partly because armed actors do not wish to upend the state. And partly because crime and violence may have become intrinsic to politics and governance of the city. To the extent that a system functions in relation to these dynamics (even if not ideally). Eradicating crime and violence then will require more than military interventions. Ground-based evidence collected by anthropologists, sociologists and many others in cities around the world lends evidence to this argument.
Second, contrary to dominant static approaches, local populations, political players, governments and armed actors learn and adapt to dynamic ground realities. In that sense, one could argue that cities are living organisms that continue to evolve over time. Every new change in the city, including misguided and ill-advised military solutions to curtail violence in cities result in metastasizing of the problem. The mega city of Karachi is a case in point. Despite several attempts by the state of reducing violence and rein in armed actors, the situation continues to get worse. Since the 1980s, the types and numbers of armed actors in the city have increased over time. Al-Qaeda fighters, for example, arrived in large numbers after 9/11 to Karachi, a city that was already home to drug gangs, armed cadres of political parties, and local variants of jihadi groups. While the presence of these actors does not indicate that the state is no longer the final arbiter, it illustrates how the urban landscape became complex over time. It is this dynamism of a system that fails to show up in the “fragile” city concept that at best, offers a snapshot frozen in a moment. But how did things get to that point? And how may we predict where things may go from there?
To map potential scenarios resulting from risks associated with contemporary challenges, we need to consider alternative explanations to scarcity-induced contention and dystopic visions of conflict in cities. If cities do become theatres of war, notes from the field report heavy civilian casualties and infrastructure turned to rubble. These seemingly academic questions then become a matter of life and death, especially for underprivileged populations that are always at the frontlines of risk and uncertainty.