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Who’s afraid of plural security?

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Favelas in Brazil, high-risk communities in Trinidad, sectarian neighborhoods in Beirut, war-torn Mogadishu, and Nigeria’s second most populous city, Kano: all of these places host multiple actors making claims on the legitimate use of force. The complexity and geographic spread of this topic provided rich substance for a recent event on Plural Security in the City. Bart Weijs provides a quick take on the event.

Governance is the key question

“In the African context, plural policing and plural security have always been the norm”: Etannibi Alemika (University of Jos) emphasized that plural security is not a new phenomenon despite the recent uptick. But traditional forms of governance previously active in regulating plural security appear to be waning. Who drives plural security, who controls it, who coordinates it, and what kind of interactions exist between actors? According to Dr. Alemika, these are the questions on which to focus future attention.

Scope for cooperation, but also competition

In many contexts, policing is a lucrative business. This can lead to situations of cooperation, but also of competition. The power to enforce laws, hand out permits, and collect taxes attracts all kinds of political interests. Alice Hills (Durham University) illustrated how plural security in Mogadishu and Kano involves actors competing for scarce resources, where bargaining is central, and practices and behavior can be erratic. Bruce Baker (Coventry University) demonstrated a case of cooperation with the example of the national taxi drivers association in Uganda, who regulated a bus station in Kampala. In such contexts, it is not necessarily technical expertise that leads to the effective maintenance of order: “much of policing is essentially about social skills”.

Blurred lines between actors

A challenge for outsiders is that the boundaries between police and nonstate actors are very ambiguous , Alice Hills underlined. Similarly, Rivke Jaffe (University of Amsterdam) described a strong involvement of political parties in security provision in Beirut, raising questions as to whether security provision should be described as plural or hybrid. And even within the formal Brazilian police force, as described by Juan Salgado (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas), different entities behave differently according to the time of day or even depending on the side of a street.

So how to engage?

The day explored the consequences of engaging with plural security providers. Working with local arrangements is often championed as a good practice, but participants also raised concerns about moral relativism and a derogation of international standards. The highly political nature of security provision ensures that any reform or engagement will be complex and results will be defined by local dynamics. Some participants pointed to the need for more realistic narratives to set out the risks and challenges of intervention.

Selected takeaways

  • Security provision is highly political and therefore engaging with security providers of any stripe requires careful approaches and a deep understanding of local power structures and how they are negotiated
  • Boundaries between security providers, politics and the private sector are often blurred, and this powerful combination of actors can skew attention away from the needs and agency of citizens on the receiving end of security arrangements
  • Though most security interventions focus on technical prowess and training forces, effective governance is more important for ensuring security arrangements are both effective and equitable

This blog post previously appeared on the KPSRL website. Key statements made during the day were posted on Twitter; the reflections of several speakers are published here; and interviews with some of the participants can be found here.

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