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Beyond Armed Conflict and Emergency: the Role of Education and Training in Tackling Urban Violence By Jovana Carapic and Luisa Phebo

By Jovana Carapic, and Luisa Phebo, Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) Programme, NORRAG.

Urban spaces are going to be the locus of future armed conflict and organized violence. The signs are inescapable.

One reason for this is that the nature of armed conflict is changing. Traditionally conceptualized as conflict between or within states, the number and intensity (in terms of battle deaths) of armed conflict has decreased since 1990. Although armed conflict is not going to disappear – as illustrated by the recent events in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine – evidence suggests that it is no longer necessarily the most important source of insecurity affecting the majority of individuals around the globe. Instead, ‘everyday’ forms of lethal (often armed) violence in non-conflict settings accounts for the highest proportion of insecurity.

There has also been a change in where organized violence occurs. Although historically armed conflicts tend to take place in rural areas, contemporary warfare, insurgencies, and other forms of organized violence are increasingly concentrated in cities. The ‘urban’ nature of organized violence is also evident in non-conflict settings.  Indeed, when national homicide rates are disaggregated, it becomes evident that lethal violence is now more prominent in urban areas than rural areas, and that it disproportionately affects certain sub-sections of the population like women and youth.

Another reason is simply that the world’s population is rapidly urbanizing, especially in the Global South. In 2025, the urban population in Africa is expected to be larger than in Europe and Latin America; although half of the world’s urban population already lives in Asia, urbanisation in the region is expected to continue and lead to the creation of at least five mega-cities; finally, and even though Latin America is considered to be the most urbanised region in the world, the region is seeing a rise in city-to-city migration resulting in the proliferation of medium-sized cities.

Uneven urban development is yet another reason. Urbanization is often considered to be an indicator of development. This of course begs the question: whose development? Historically urbanization was closely associated with the formation of the state, consolidation of the use of force, and economic development. This was especially the case in Europe. Today, many low and middle-income countries which are undergoing the highest rates of urbanisation are not experiencing these benefits.

Arguably, one of the main reasons for this is that many developing countries are unable to deal with the rapid demographic shifts resulting from rural-urban migration. National and municipal government have only a limited amount of resources for fostering civic engagement, economic growth, and social inclusion in urban settings. To make it more explicit, while urban spaces are expanding (both in population and territory), this has not necessarily been met with an expansion in municipal institutions and capacities – especially those related to the provision of services such as security and education.

Consequently, political, economic and social policies tend to be unevenly implemented resulting in the ‘fragmentation’ of urban space which leads to cities becoming sites of socio-economic inequalities and characterised by pockets of insecurity. Together these changes have been found to lead to social and political crises – including in Brazil, Egypt, Tunisia, and Venezuela – but also have the possibility of transforming into full-blown armed conflict – like in Libya and Ukraine.

In other words, as a result of the various dynamics of global urbanisation – from where armed conflict is fought, to increased rural-urban migration, to uneven and fragmented cities – it is likely that in the future more conflicts, violent or not, are going to occur in cities.

The recognition that urban violence is a considerable threat to the stability and development of states and the wellbeing of their citizens has led international researchers and policymakers to tackle urban violence. This is often been done through the support and implementation of various armed violence prevention and reduction programmes (AVPR) or citizen security programmes. Central to many of these programmes is the provision of various types of education and training to youth – especially young males who are the main perpetrators (but also victims) of urban violence.

Arguably, the ‘theory of change’ behind many of these initiatives is two-sided: on the one hand, it aims to provide ‘tangible skills’ which allow individuals to find valuable employment (getting them off the streets and out of the reach of gangs); on the other hand, it aims to change behavior by providing ‘life skills’ which would foster productive civil engagement and reduce the resort to violence.

Thus, education – conceptualized broadly to include formal, non-formal and informal schooling, training, and learning – is potentially a central feature of any comprehensive effort to reduce and mitigate violent conflict in society and its potential escalation into collective violence. A significant portion of the globally implemented AVPR and citizen security programmes can be found within a handful of countries.

Brazil and South Africa are particularly good examples. In the past two decades, these countries have not only been characterized by high levels of socio-economic development, but also acute urbanization, inequality and high levels of lethal (mostly urban) violence. Thus, rather than being something new or a possible scenario for the future, urban violence is a ‘constant’ in these societies. This is important because it means that the development of various programmes and initiatives for dealing with organized violence have not been developed from scratch – like they are in conflict or post-conflict settings – but have organically evolved as the rate or urbanization and urban violence increased.

Consequently, Brazil and South Africa have been described as ‘laboratories ’for the prevention of urban violence, highlighting both scenarios of success and failure.

Experiences in these contexts allow for an examination of existing AVPR and citizen security programmes that focus on education (broadly conceived), but also for insights into their successes and failures (given the availability of evaluation studies and data). Insights from these two countries are important for they not only pave the way for current (and future) cross-national cooperation and learning, but also can feed into the international policy dialogue on the role of education and training for dealing with urban violence.

In this context, NORRAG’s most recent Programme of Work – Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) – aims to critically engage in the debate and examine the role of education in situations of urban violence. In view of the need to further understand what education programmes and initiatives are being implemented to tackle (either directly or indirectly) violence in the urban context, the programme will engage in a ‘mapping’ exercise of projects in Brazil and South Africa. The initiative aims to foster the development of research on the relationship between conflict, violence, and education which will be able to feed into the development of effective educational policies in urban settings – both from an international and national perspective.

Jovana Carapic is Research Officer for NORRAG’s Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) Programme. She has extensive expertise in the field of conflict studies, in particular on urban violence and the relationship between various forms of armed groups and the state. Her research has taken her to East Timor, Nepal, and Serbia. Email:

Luisa Phebo is part of NORRAG’s Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) team. She has previously worked at Viva Rio’s project management department in Brazil, and recently spent one month in Haiti visiting the organisation’ programmes as an independent researcher. Email:

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3 Responses

  1. Take a look at Medellin’s innovative approach to tackling this very issue. Their Antioquia; La mas Educada campaign and building of public libraries throughout the city has shifted paradigms and invested in human capital which has taken many out of the grasps of gangs. Although imperfect, it has tackled some of the root causes of urban violence which tends to be inequality and lack of opportunities. Here is a link to some of my research.

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