Tag Archives: Urban violence

The “humanitarianization” of urban violence

In the article ‘The “humanitarianization” of urban violence’, NCHS members Simon Reid-Henry (PRIO) and Ole Jacob Sending (NUPI) discuss how international humanitarian organizations accommodate their operations when working in urban settings. The research on which the article is based has been carried out under the NCHS project Armed Violence in Urban Areas: New Challenges, New Humanitarianisms, funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The article is published in one of the world’s most highly ranked environmental and urban studies journals, Environment and Urbanization.


This paper describes how international humanitarian organizations (IHOs) are adapting their operations to working in the urban environment. When levels of armed violence in urban areas are sufficient to trigger international humanitarian law, organizations such as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) may argue that they have an important contribution to make by offering a set of skills and experience gleaned in conflict and non-governed settings. This paper reflects on this humanitarian turn to the city and uses it to problematize certain assumptions within the existing understanding of “urban violence” and the nature of humanitarianism itself. What does it mean to “humanitarianize” urban violence? What is the value-added that humanitarians might bring? And in what ways might such engagements be changing the nature of the problem itself? Drawing upon a wide range of literature that sets the local structures of violence in light of wider national and international processes, we analyze the “humanitarianization” of urban violence as a cross-scalar governmental assemblage that is likely to play an increasingly important role in cities in the global South in the future.

The article, published in Environment and Urbanization, is available here.

Estranged violence in Tegucigalpa

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Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world. With 82 homicides per 100 000, there are more than 4 times as many murder victims as there are people who die in traffic accidents. Almost one out of one thousand suffers a violent death every year. In some of the more heavily hit districts the number is up to 3 per thousand. The intensity of violence is higher than in many wars. Despite this, there is very little evidence of violence in everyday life. At first glance Tegucigalpa seems much more peaceful and safe than cities like Beirut. There are no bullet-holes in buildings, no bombed out buses besides the street – the people seem generally relaxed, friendly and happy. The rate of violent deaths in Lebanon was 2.2 per 100 000 in 2012, compared to 82 in Honduras. First time visitors to the two cities could easily assume that Beirut was the more violent of the two.

When speaking to people in Tegucigalpa, the violence is usually described with a strange sense of distance. “La Violencia” is something that happens to other people; either in other areas of the city or to other social and economic classes. Even in the worst hit districts of the city, when talking to the lower echelons of society, people claim a distance to the violence: “The violence is between competing Maras and Cartels, as long as I stay out of it, they will not bother me.”

The distance to “la Violencia” is also evident in its origin stories. One popular narrative goes something like this: Two Latino gangs in the United States, and in particular in Los Angeles, were driven to brutality by fierce competition over the drug market. Their tolerance for violence was further enhanced by the extreme measures of the LA Police Department. In the 1990s a gang crack-down resulted in mass deportations of gang members – the majority of which ended up in Honduras. They brought with them their gang identities, their conflicts, their high tolerance for violence, and their dependence on drug money. This narrative has also been put forward by prominent social scientists (see eg. Rodgers 2009).

Another narrative ascribes the violence to Mexican drug cartels that have moved into Honduras to control key territories for cocaine trafficking. According to this narrative, the cartels have upped the ante in the drugs game – and introduced a new element of bestiality to the violence in Honduras. Unlike most murders in Honduras, Cartel-killings are grisly and seem motivated by a desire to cause general terror.

Both these narratives propose that “la Violencia” is caused by some external entity – or an “Other”. However, these narratives don’t conform to the numbers. The statistics from Observatoria de la Violencia paints another picture entirely. While the context of the murders is usually (51,2 % of cases) indeterminable, only 3,2% of the homicide can be credibly tied to the Maras. The most common form of homicide, where the context is determinable, is murder by hired killers (29 %). Additionally, it seems as if murders happen to all classes, throughout the day, and all week (with a small peak in the week-end). The cartel-murders, unlike the rest of the violence, are very visible both in terms of immediate surroundings (gruesomely manipulated body parts left in public etc.) and in terms of press coverage. Despite their high visibility they constitute a relatively small portion of the total number of homicides. I’m not saying that the popular narratives are untrue – merely that they do not account for the majority of the violence.

The story told by the numbers is that the source of the violence is not some external Other – despite the popular perceptions of its source – rather it seems to be a consequence of a habitualization of violence in society in general. The problem is not, at least not directly, an invasion of foreign elements from abroad. Rather it seems as though the threshold for using violence has been lowered throughout most of the Honduran society. Murders are being committed to settle personal grudges, to commandeer a bus route, or to remove the owner of a competing kiosk.

While the narratives seem off the mark, the routines of daily life are not. People are generally wary of public transports, and the middle classes avoid the official taxies – preferring the use of private drivers. The presence of the private security companies is even more prevalent than that of the police. Armed men in diverse private uniforms stand guard outside any major business. The upper echelons of society keep armed personal bodyguards. So while the public narrative creates a distance to the violence, the daily lives of most people are still structured according to security considerations.

Narratives and policy

A narrative is an account that connects subjects and events in a coherent manner – and given the complexity of social phenomenon, such as violence, any cohesive narrative must necessarily be selective. As Scott reminds us in his Seeing Like a State, any formulation of social policy necessitates a certain simplification of reality. When these simplifications of reality become too formulaic and thin, the results can become disastrous. This is what seems to have happened in Honduras.

The state apparatus has bought into the narrative that the violence is an external phenomenon to Honduran society. Framing the violence in this manner makes it logical to oppose the violence with violence – as one would oppose an invading army. The resulting policy is the “Cero Tolerencia” approach, very similar to the more famous “Mano Dura” from El Salvador. Utilizing an underpaid and corrupt police force, reinforced with elements of the army, the state is seeking to reinsert its monopoly on the legitimate use of force by confronting the Maras (and to a lesser extent the Cartels). People can be arrested for showing gang signs or having gang tattoos. Youths can be sentenced to up to 12 years for having gang affiliations – without need for proof of any other crime.

The consequence of this approach is that the streets in the poorer districts of Tegucigalpa are patrolled by heavily armed policeman and soldiers, shabbily dressed and riding in the back of beaten-up pickup trucks. They give the impression of a hastily mobilized militia. In the more well-off districts armed men in diverse private uniforms stand guard outside any major business. The upper echelons of society keep heavily armed private bodyguards around them at all times.

If, as the statistics seem to indicate, the narrative is only a thin partial truth; and if “la Violencia” is a consequence of naturalization of violence – then the chosen response would seem to be the worst possible approach to solving the problem. Norbert Elias wrote of how European society was gradually “civilized”:

“If we consider the movement over large time spans, we see clearly how the compulsion arising directly from the threat of weapons and physical force gradually diminish, and how those forms of dependency which lead to the regulation of the affects, of self-control, gradually increase. “

His main point is that the importance of self-control slowly evolved via the influence of the upper classes (moving from knights to courtiers) and the state. When the upper classes engage heavily armed private security and the state engages heavily armed thugs – this does not encourage self-control or regulation of affect. On the contrary, if Elias is a good fit, the chosen policy would only reinforce a culture of violence.

Humanitarianism and urban violence – another narrative

There is a potential for humanitarians committing the same type of mistake as the Honduran state when engaging with urban violence. In recent years, several works have gone into developing repertoires for what humanitarian organizations should do in violent urban contexts. While the Honduran state has based its policy on a narrative specific to Honduras, the tendency is that humanitarian organizations are basing their work on a generic narrative of the urban.

Even the term “urban violence” itself, implies a commonsensical, yet erroneous, narrative: Traditional, peaceful and rural societies, with closely knit community ties (gemeinschaft) have been supplanted by urban societies. Unlike the rural societies, there are few community ties and little solidarity to be found in the city. The anonymity, lack of solidarity, and close physical proximity of different social actors breeds a new form of violence. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized the new challenge for humanitarians is to mitigate the consequences of the violence, or even seek to reduce the violence itself.

As with the narrative of violence in Honduras, it is very difficult to dismiss this narrative as completely untrue – and yet it doesn’t fit well with the empirical data. To begin with, the traditional rural societies, a few hundred years ago, were generally a lot more violent than our contemporary urban societies. It has been argued convincingly, that urbanization has actually been a vital factor in reducing violence in society (at least as a general trend over long time spans). Many of our assumptions about the urban way of life have been repeatedly disproven when investigated empirically (see eg. Saunders 1981). Many of the traits ascribe to the urban way of life are actually better described as aspects of modernity. They apply equally to both rural and urban settings.

I am not saying that there are no new operational challenges to humanitarian projects in urban settings – but I am saying that building a new form of humanitarianism centered on a generic narrative of “urban violence” could be a mistake. The urban narrative is too simplistic to capture the full complexity of violence in cities – violence which often takes the same forms as violence in rural areas – and often with the same root causes. Violence, and the ways violence is mitigated in society, has been the most central theme in social science from Hobbes to Tilly. Reducing violence to its urban causes, or framing projects to reduce violence around an urban narrative, will lead to important aspects of the reality on the ground being ignored. As we saw with the example of the Honduran states engagement with violence – the temptation to frame policy in cohesive and simplified narratives can lead to unfortunate consequences.

Urban Humanitarianism: Accessing informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya

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This blogpost is based on the first phase of my PhD fieldwork in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Over the next four years you can follow the developments of the NUPI/PRIO project Armed Violence in Urban Settings: New Challenges, New Humanitarianisms on this site. Our goal is to explore the humanitarian engagement in the field of urban violence.

Access is a critical issue for any humanitarian organization making their entry into a new field. Often, the question of access is purely physical:  During the rainy season, populations in villages connected to rest of the world by a single dirt road can be impossible to reach. The informal settlements of Nairobi do not fall into this category. Huruma can be seen from the Northeastern corner of the UN compound. Resident expats catch an excellent view of the Kibera Slum from the 11th hole at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Nevertheless, short physical distance is no guarantee of easy access.

Urban access. If access to an informal settlement is not granted by the local residents, there will be no security for staff and no project. Negotiating access to such informal urban settlements can be daunting, as humanitarian actors  must navigate several layers of formal and informal governmental structures. While permission from the central government is required, nothing will happen without the seal of approval from the presidentially appointed chiefs, assistant chiefs and village elders who hold key positions at the local level. The loyalty of these elders is primarily to the community, including at times those engaged in criminal and violent activities.

While the police might have achieved some sway in Mathare, the law is enforced by youth gangs in many of the Kibera villages, where The twelve disciples and Yes we can! are among the groups providing protection.  While  the defeat of the dreaded Mungiki is widely proclaimed in Mathare, the gangs remain a formidable force in this settlement. Financed by “taxation” of the community they ensure that the residents’ property and lives remain safe from external and internal threats. Any organization setting up projects in Mathare will need their tacit approval. Landlords are also important actors. Rents are rapidly adjusted to changing circumstances; a local water and sanitation project can result in increased prices that force the residents into financial exodus. Any structures or renovations in the slums need approval of the de jure owners, who are not known for their philanthropic nature.

The INGOs interviewed for this project have almost exclusively relied on a Community Based Organization (CBO) to negotiate first access. This, however, is not a fail-safe plan. These organizations are often centered around a charismatic leader, whose politics can compromise neutrality. There are also several “suit-case CBOs” with few real ties to the community and no actual projects. Selling projects to the humanitarian and human rights organizations is potentially very good business; a fact that creative entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on.

Having managed to work with and around these political structures, humanitarian actors still face a real risk of involuntary involvement in the tribal and ethnic conflicts that dominate Kenyan politics.  Tribal suspicions run high, and skewed representation of one tribe among the staff could potentially be enough for the INGO to be seen as a partisan.  Rumors run fast through the settlements and any organization wishing to operate in this area must keep one ear constantly to the ground: Catching and disproving rumors early is of vital importance for staff safety.

Put to the test? While the conflict during the 2007-08 elections was between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, the current political drama is playing out between the Kikuyu and the Luo. Prior to the 2013 election,  the graffiti “No Raila: No Peace” could be found everywhere in Kibera, including at the gates of the MSF Belgium clinic. In 2007-08, the violence spread from the city to the country side – eventually engulfing most of the country. The death toll rose beyond a thousand and estimates of the number of displaced vary between 180 000 and 600 000.

Despite the large number of humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, the humanitarian community was caught off guard. Evaluations of the response indicate that while IDP camps received the necessary aid, the humanitarians were largely incapable of aiding those who settled elsewhere. Those who sought shelter among family and friends in the settlements were hard to identify and support.

At the time of writing, it appears that in 2013, the  humanitarian community has been better prepared. OCHA has initiated a hub-based coordination system that ensures that actors know of each other and the relevant government structures in the areas where they operate. Nairobi has been divided into seven sub-hubs, each of which is led by an organization with solid local knowledge. The responsibility for the life and dignity of Kenyans rests with the Kenyan government. Making government actors aware of the resources they can call upon from the humanitarian community, and making sure that humanitarian response complements the government efforts, has been a cornerstone of the preparation.

The move from a sector-based to an area specific coordination of humanitarian action and the inclusion of the CBOs and Faith Based Organizations in the disaster preparedness plan are approaches which on a general basis could enhance access to urban populations during crisis and   strengthen the humanitarian response.

Update April 2nd: In the end there was no test. The Kenyan Supreme Court decided against the petition fronted by Odinga, confirming the election of Uhurru Kenyatta as the president to succeed Kibaki. Raila Odinga held a speech reaffirming his commitment to the constitution and thereby also the decision of the Supreme Court. There was no outbreak of political violence, though two deaths were reported by Kenya Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.