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Taking aim at transnational organised crime

20 June 2014 - Tim Midgley, Ivan Briscoe

Transnational organised crime is a complex phenomenon, which is deeply embedded within social, political and economic systems at the local, national and international levels. As such, it is inherently connected to development processes. Tim Midgley and Ivan Briscoe explore the implications for governments, civil society and multilaterals attempting to tackle it, both at home and abroad.

Transnational organised crime (TOC) is big business. According to the UN, it generates around $870 billion per year in revenue – roughly equal to the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 93 of the world’s smaller economies.[1] TOC encompasses a vast array of cross-border activities: from drugs, arms and people smuggling to prostitution and cyber-crime; from flows of illicit finance to the market in illicit animal and plant products, conflict diamonds, and counterfeit DVDs, handbags, cigarettes, medicines, cars, and so on. There is not a country in the world that is not in some way touched by TOC.

Organised crime – a development issue?

Until recently, efforts to understand and address TOC have been almost entirely driven by law enforcement agencies. Development actors meanwhile have tended not to prioritise it. However, TOC networks can pose a serious threat to development, for example by capturing or corrupting government institutions and systems. TOC can also fuel extreme levels of insecurity and violence, as has been seen in Mexico’s drug wars, the illegal extraction and export of natural resources from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the nexus between organised crime and armed groups in Northern Mali. Furthermore, certain aspects of TOC, most notably drug production and transport, often gravitate towards the contexts least able to manage or repel such intrusions because of their weak institutions and high levels of social fragmentation. As such, TOC can exacerbate many of the conditions that perpetuate poverty and under-development.

This has led a number of development agencies to recognise TOC as a critical issue for poverty eradication and wider development processes. For example, the 2011 World Development Report drew significant attention to TOC. This is a welcome advance. However, the relationship between TOC, development and insecurity is complex. Actors such as the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development (as well as police forces, judicial institutions, UN agencies, and Interpol among others) therefore need to develop a nuanced understanding of how TOC interacts with the wider context within which it operates.

Organised crime as a ‘dartboard’

A new report by Saferworld, Clingendael and Small Arms Survey’s lays out one way of understanding the links between TOC and wider social, political and economic systems. It depicts these links as a ‘dartboard of crime’:

  • At the centre sits the ‘business’ of TOC. This is the money making activities associated with TOC, such as drug production, arms smuggling, and human trafficking.
  • These activities are made possible by the existence of a surrounding facilitation network, made up of corrupt politicians, customs officials, judges and so on.
  • These inner-circles are reliant on a degree of social acceptance, or at least permissiveness, for the activities of TOC from within the communities in which they are embedded. We term this the support network.
  • A wide range of social, political and economic vulnerabilities make communities and individuals more susceptible to acting as support networks. These factors are likely to differ from context to context, but may include high levels of inequality and marginalisation, or the absence of effective state presence.
  • Finally, the prevalence and power of TOC is only made possible because it is so well suited to the global political and economic system: the deregulation of global markets, coupled with enormous expansion of trade and the lack of harmonisation between national legal and judicial systems, allow TOC networks to operate with extreme efficiency and near-total impunity.

Designing holistic responses

It should not be assumed that any development progress will automatically result in a decrease in the power and prevalence of TOC. In fact, the spread of organised crime in Latin America over the past decade has coincided with high growth. However, since TOC is dependent upon the interaction of the elements shown in the diagram, development processes that are aimed at any part of this ‘dartboard’ could offer opportunities to address organised crime and its impacts on communities.

Donor agencies and governments that wish to shape effective, holistic anti-TOC strategies need to develop and clearly articulate robust theories of change for their interventions. This new report identifies six theories of change that guide the majority of interventions aimed at different parts of the ‘dartboard’, and analyses their effectiveness based on the existing evidence. It finds that many interventions are based on theories of change and assumptions that are not supported by a robust evidence base. For example, our analysis suggests that the results of interventions driven primarily by ‘deterrence’ based strategies (those that seek to intercept and punish actors engaged in criminal activities, thereby raising the opportunity costs associated with crime) have been mixed at best. Other, less commonly employed theories of change, such as those that seek to undermine support networks through promoting cultural change at the community level, appear to offer better results.

The analysis suggests that more rigorous testing of the theories of change that underpin approaches to TOC is required. Much of the evidence base underpinning these approaches remains weak, meaning that lines of causation between variables (between homicide and employment rates for example) remain highly contested. More research and better data is therefore urgently needed.

In the bigger picture, success will also depend on significant improvement in co-ordination and co-operation between donors and national governments, as well as within the donor community. Donor governments will also need to adopt a global and developmental perspective in the design of policies and programmes that seek to limit the domestic impacts of TOC. For example, strategies that seek to limit the supply of illicit drugs may curb drug production in one place, but at the cost of heightened violence and the destruction of livelihoods. These strategies can feed into longer term conflict and may simply displace drug production and trafficking to the next vulnerable context. Ultimately, strategies that are shaped by, and contribute to wider objectives of sustainable peace and development are more likely to be effective in the long-run.

Moving forward

Future policy must avoid the risks of displacing or exacerbating conflict and insecurity while doing little to help communities escape from cycles of poverty and vulnerabilities. Instead, it should be informed by better evidence and data providing a nuanced and integrated understanding of how TOC interacts with wider peace and development processes. An increase in the number of donor-supported programmes, strategies and interventions explicitly focused on TOC, especially in conflict affected contexts, would be a welcome step towards developing this greater understanding.

Tim Midgley is a Conflict and Security Advisor for Saferworld.

Ivan Briscoe is a Senior Research Fellow at Conflict Research Unit at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations.

[1] Based on World Bank data for 2012.

Saferworld, Clingendael Institute and Small Arms Survey latest paper, Identifying approaches and measuring impacts of programmes focussing on Transnational Organised Crime, identifies and analyses a broad range of approaches and intervention strategies that have been applied to tackle Transnational Organised Crime (TOC). It focuses on the impact and effectiveness of these approaches in breaking the links between TOC and violence, conflict and insecurity, and challenges associated with measuring the impact of these approaches. It also includes possible indicators (with relevant datasets) that could be used to capture impacts of programmes. It is intended to act as a useful resource for development practitioners responsible for the management of existing, or development of new, programmes aimed at tackling the destabilising impacts of TOC on development objectives.

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Ultimately, strategies that are shaped by, and contribute to wider objectives of sustainable peace and development are more likely to be effective in tackling organised crime in the long-run

Tim Midgley, Ivan Briscoe