In 2013, two factions of the Pakistani Taliban fought for control of Karachi's water infrastructure

Pakistani policemen carry an injured colleague after a clash between two political parties during a by-election in Karachi last week. Image: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty

With a population of more than 23m, Karachi, PAkistan is one of the world’s largest cities. It's also a hotbed of crime, corruption and militancy.

Omar Hamid was a police officer there for 12 years, before leaving to become a security analyst in the UK. In an event in Washington DC last week for the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21), he explained where it all went wrong.

Being a police officer means you really get to see the whole gamut of issues in Karachi. There are issues of sectarian violence; there are issues that any mega-city has. There are issues of political parties with the militias. There are issues of the growing presence of the Pakistani Taliban. And, of course, you have all of the regular crime.

With Karachi the commercial centre of Pakistan, control and influence within it is just too lucrative. In effect, the story of the past 25-30 years of the city is the struggle between various groups to squeeze that pie as much as possible. What you can learn from Karachi's example is exactly what not to do in any mega-city.

With the expansion of megacities, you have a situation where the central government – and in many cases the local government – has very little control. As these cities grow organically, control over scarce resources often ends up in the hands of non-state groups, political parties or organised crime syndicates. The challenge for urban governance this century will be how the state is able to impose itself, or how it can prevent resources from being taken over.

Karachi has large representations of all the ethnicities and nationalities in Pakistan. All of these various groups feel that they have a vested interest in the city, all of them have competed for that. The complex political environment comes from the fact that, over the past 25 years, Karachi’s ethnicities have been essentially pitted against each other. They form the basis for political parties.

Most of these political parties have also represented themselves through criminal militias. Those militia come to the forefront of organised crime and corruption.

What you can learn is exactly what not to do in any mega-city

As these parties fight for control of the city, the infrastructure of government – whether it’s the municipal operation of the city, or the police force – has become almost hopelessly politicised. Civil servants or police officers go to one party or another to vie for lucrative postings. The objective is to get in the good books of a certain local party, to get a good posting and to be able to recoup your expenses by making that a poster revenue generating tool. 

Everything is for sale in Karachi. The way that it filters down to the micro level, for instance, is illegal land grabbing. Political parties and religious groups, like the Taliban, indulge in illegally occupying or squatting on pieces of land. They carve slices of land up to create new squatter colonies, then they subsequently sell it off.

There is a shortage of water in the city, so control of the city's water hydrants is a very key tool in corruption. In 2013 rival elements of the Pakistani Taliban fought over control of water supplies in parts of the city. At one point last year, as the Pakistani Taliban was splintering into various groups, two of them were fighting against each other, essentially for control of water. It had nothing to do with religious ideology. It had to do with the cash that could be gained through the water.

For some time now there has been, it seems to people in Pakistan, a kind of understanding that the west was all right with the excesses of political parties as long as they were secular and talking the right talk. The fact is that the presumption ever since 9/11 has been that it was important to back groups that were opposed to religious extremists. On paper that makes a lot of sense – but the problem in Karachi is that lots of those groups are equally involved in criminal activities. 

It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing

The MQM, the largest party in the city, is an extremely secular party, totally opposed to the spread of religious extremism. Yet the MQM operates the largest criminal-political Mafia nexus in the city. It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing that has regularly taken part in politically targeted killings murders of police officers and government officials.

Something that has really turned around over the last five or six years is the growth of civil society. When you're sitting in Pakistan it feels like civil society does not necessarily have a direction. It's putting its head everywhere. But the fact it has found its voice is very important. The other thing that's aided the growth is the expansion of the media in Pakistan. The media too, at times, seems like it's a lot of heads shouting at each other nonsensically – but it has meant that, unlike in the past, the media is no longer a creature that can be controlled by any particular political party, or the country's political or military establishment.

Pakistan remains a very violent place, and in Karachi there have been a number of cases of journalists being murdered by all parties. But if there is hope, it is in this: these things are no longer controllable. The crimes or misdeeds of various groups become very public, and the growth of civil society, the growth of social media, means that the contrarian view gets out more often.

Omar Hamid is head of Asia Pacific Risk at IHS, and the author of a novel, "The Prisoner". 

He is also a global fellow at PS21, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.