The Global Initiative teamed up International IDEA and Clingendael to produce a paper series known as ‘Protecting Politics’ which examines the different strategies by which organised crime infiltrates into political systems.
With colleagues Marcena Hunter and Adam Rodriques, we were pleased to author and contribute to two of these papers:
Public service delivery is one of the main tasks citizens expect from their governments. Democracy is a political system that should improve service delivery as it offers the building blocks for equitable resource distribution and sustainable development. Indeed, in the frameworks of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the democratic principles of transparency and accountability play a key role in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
However, in many contexts, public service delivery is fraught with corrupt practices, leading to less accountable and less effective public services that are not adequately reaching those they are intended to serve. Particularly in fragile and conflict affected states, corrupt practices can sometimes be linked to organized crime. These illicit groups and networks increasingly form parallel structures that compete with the state to provide services, either in open conflict with the state, or sometimes working with the explicit or tacit agreement of the authorities. In other cases, however, organized crime does not become a service provider but instead hinders the state’s provision of services by leeching off state resources through corruption in public contracts. In all of these cases, organized crime perpetuates poverty and inequality, while threatening economic growth and, by extension, democracy itself. Furthermore, organized crime challenges the state’s legitimacy by profiling itself as a viable provider of services to the population, while the state’s capacity to provide services is undermined.
Citizens are consequently left with hollow democratic state institutions that are not capable of delivering better lives for them. Growing discontent with politics, as reflected in a number of public perceptions surveys and massive protests around the world, are important wakeup calls to implement serious strategies to prevent and mitigate political corruption linked to organized crime.
The heart of democracy lies at the local level. Citizens’ direct experience of political participation and deliberation mainly takes place in the context of city councils, associations and local branches of political parties. The local government’s capacity to provide basic services fundamentally shapes the relationship between citizens and their representatives. Decentralization reforms, migration and increasing levels of urbanization in recent decades have changed how local governments cope with citizen demands—and which avenues they offer for people to engage in the political decision-making process.
Other global trends, however, threaten to erode this relationship between local democratic actors and citizens. The presence of organized crime works as a catalyst for political corruption, hollowing out institutions at all levels of government. The goals of, and relationships between, organized crime and politicians may overlap in several ways—for example, through mayors involved in money laundering, community police turning a blind eye to trafficking corridors or local political parties supporting candidates with criminal linkages. While such illicit networks may also affect national-level politics, a number of specific factors—including lower levels of media attention, tighter economic interests, fewer oversight mechanisms and local authorities’ reduced capacity—make local democracy particularly vulnerable to the interests of organized crime.
These reports are part of a series of four papers that examine how organized crime affects political parties, elections, service delivery and local democracy. Together, these reports provide a unique and detailed overview of democratic systems’ capacity to deal with complex security threats such as organized crime.