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Global Crime Governance and Capitalist Development

by Tom Chodor on March 3, 2020
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Crime is not generally considered a key concern of global governance. However, as Jarrett Blaustein, Nathan Pino and I argue in recent articles in The British Journal of Criminology, and Criminology and Criminal Justice, attempts to govern crime at the global level date back to the nineteenth-century, and since the founding of the UN in particular, criminological issues have been part of the global agenda. Throughout this time, crime governance has been deeply entwined with the uneven progress of capitalist development, giving rise to what we call the ‘crime-development nexus,’ which is now a key part of the global developmental agenda encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we enter the ‘decade of action’ for implementing the SDGs, our articles explore the emergence of the crime-development nexus, whose interests it serves, and what it means for the struggles over sustainable development going forward.

Crime as a Consequence of Development

The first efforts to govern crime globally occurred in the late nineteenth-century, as concerns about the transnational, criminogenic consequences of capitalist development, core-periphery relations and ‘anarchist outrage’ spurred ad-hoc international meetings and conferences such as the 1898 Anti-Anarchist Conference. After WWI, the League of Nations established committees which dealt with less ‘controversial’ issues such as drugs, child exploitation and the treatment of prisoners.

However, it was with the founding of the UN that crime truly became a ‘global’ issue, and its links to capitalist development were clearly articulated. The larger geopolitical context was significant. With decolonisation leading to the emergence of a number of newly independent nations in the Global South, the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) commissioned an empirical study on ‘the prevention of types of criminality resulting from social changes and accompanying economic development in less developed countries’ in 1953. The study, carried out by prominent Western criminologists, described the criminogenic consequences of key aspects of capitalist development, including rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, framed through a Modernisation theory lens, which postulated that economic and social development in recently decolonised nations would follow the trajectories of their former colonisers. The concern was that this trajectory would generate social instabilities and anomie, that were in-turn conducive to rising levels of urban criminality. Given the broader Cold War context and the privileging of the interests and agendas of Northern countries and capital, it was feared that such criminality would foster instability and undermine social cohesion, opening the door for a ‘communist takeover.’ This led to the establishment of the Social Defence Section within the UN Secretariat, ‘to assist the underdeveloped countries through making available to them the experience of countries more advanced in the prevention of crime.’

However, this is not to suggest that this hegemonic project remained unchallenged. Indeed, as scholars such as Craig Murphy have argued, global governance, and the UN system in particular, is not only a site of hegemony, but also contestation. As developing countries were pursuing a more autonomous route to prosperity through the New International Economic Order (NIEO), the UN adopted a more nuanced stance on the issue, arguing that ‘[d]evelopment is not criminogenic per se’ but rather, ‘unbalanced or inadequately planned development contributes to an increase in criminality.’ The implication was that the root of the problem poorly implemented development models rather than development itself.

Crime as an Obstacle to Development

In the end, the NIEO never resulted in structural change, as the 1982 Debt Crisis crippled economies in the South. In any case, the emergence of neoliberal globalisation was soon transforming the ways in which crime was governed. This became particularly clear in the 1990s, as the UN’s focus turned to combating transnational crime. Neoliberal globalisation was understood to create new opportunities for transnational crime to flourish, particularly in the South. At the same time, as a 1995 working paper highlighted, ‘the tendency of transnational crime to subvert the benefits of globalisation and liberalisation, on which industrialised as well as developing countries are pinning their hopes on economic growth.’ Thus, globalisation was understood simultaneously as a driver and a casualty of transnational crime.

In response, the UN’s crime programme worked with member states to develop an international legal order to address this problem. This led to the creation of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP) in 1997 as ‘the centre of the United Nations fight against uncivil society, i.e. those elements which take advantage of the benefits of globalisation by trafficking human beings and illegal drugs, laundering money, and engaging with terrorism.’ UNODCCP took charge of the negotiations over the international conventions to address these issues, leading to the adoption of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime and its Protocols (UNTOC) in 2000 and the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003. The Conventions remain the central legal instruments for the UN’s fight against crime, and a key source of funding for projects worldwide.

Nevertheless, by the 2000s, the focus on transnational crime was fading, particularly as the issue became ‘securitised’ and linked to the global war on terrorism, an area in which the UN had little capacity. Under Kofi Anan’s leadership, the UN instead became ‘developmentalised,’ mainstreaming the promotion of ‘human development’ throughout its operations. This reflected a larger concern with the nature of capitalist development. As the purported benefits of neoliberal globalisation failed to materialise in many developing countries, its proponents began focusing on the potential obstacles to unleashing the ‘magic of the market,’ in order to counter a brewing backlash against the whole project. In this context, UNODCCP, now renamed UNODC, began to posit crime as an obstacle to development. In 2002, its Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa identified ‘honest and open markets, absence of corruption [and] human safety’ as the ‘software’ of development, necessary to complement the ‘hardware’ such as infrastructure. Reflecting the shift towards the ‘post-Washington Consensus’, this framed combating crime as part of a larger discourse regarding the importance of ‘rule of law’ and ‘good governance’ for securing the benefits of neoliberal globalisation.

In this context, a narrative linking crime and social instability with the lack of development was appealing to Northern interests concerned with making the world safe for neoliberal globalisation and confronting the backlash against it. To the extent that UNODC could provide an explanation for such failures, and offer technocratic solutions to them, it found receptive listeners – and more importantly, donors – in the North. Accordingly, when the UN began negotiations on the next stage of its developmental agenda, what became the SDGs, UNODC was well placed to ensure fighting crime was included. The result, was SDG16, which commits the international community to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.’ The Goal includes a number of specific targets relating to promoting the rule of law, fighting corruption and bribery, and increasing transparency, amongst others. While certainly laudable, these targets represent a continuation of the focus on technocratic fixes for contending with continuing instability in the South rather than fundamental transformation, in line with Northern and capitalist interests. Thus, the crime-development nexus continues to privilege the interests and perspectives of the North and global capitalism, over those of the world’s most vulnerable. As organisations such as UNODC roll out programs trying to implement these goals, however, they may find that these actors have different priorities and agendas.

Tom Chodor
Tom Chodor is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the School of Social Sciences, Monash University. His research focuses on the global governance of the global political economy and the role of non-state actors in contributing to and contesting global policy agendas. He has published articles in Review of International Political Economy, Globalizations and Global Governance, and is the author of Neoliberal Hegemony and the Pink Tide in Latin America: Breaking Up With TINA? (Palgrave 2015).

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