feral city

I have recently discovered BBC Radio 4’s Pop-Up Ideas podcast with Tim Harford (of being “The Undercover Economist” fame). It’s admittedly a bit cheesy, with cringeworthy intros and jazz music, but the main talk is usually interesting. And yesterday, as I drove through the streets of Harare just after sunset, with no streetlights and plenty of pothole surfing in the face of oncoming traffic, I listened to David Kilcullen talk about feral cities.

David Kilcullen is a counterinsurgency expert with a special interest in guerrilla warfare, who has worked for all manner of impressive military people (there were names that even I recognised, like General David Petraeus, which is highly unusual). This particular talk must have been a punt for his new book, “Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age Of The Urban Guerrilla”, but I spent 15 minutes completely hooked on it. Here is a link if you’d like to listen to it now: David Kilcullen: Feral Cities.

Mogadishu: The Really Short Story

Mogadishu is the capital of Somalia, if you can really call Somalia a country. At one point, it was promoted as “The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, which it could well have been then:

Mogadishu old photo

But now:

mogadishu new photo

And the transition from the first photo to the second was something that I thought was fairly simple: that’s what happens when you have civil war. But actually, there is a really interesting the-perils-of-stateless-economies-AKA-completely-free-markets story in there.

The source of the Somali conflict is usually told along the following lines:

  1. The Siad Barre regime, in response to a failed coup attempt in the 1978, got progressively more totalitarian (read: “willing to execute people”).
  2. This led to various rebel uprisings.
  3. In response, the regime started bombing cities that were held by the rebels in the late 1980s.
  4. In December 1990, rival clans within Mogadishu started fighting.
  5. A month later, the Barre regime was overthrown by one of the rebel factions (the United Somali Congress).
  6. At which point, the warlords of these various rebel factions began competing between themselves for power.
  7. And here we are.

The way Mr Kilcullen tells the story is a bit more economic:

  1. The population of Somalia almost doubled from 3.4 million in 1970 to 6.3 million in 1980.
  2. At the same time, the Somali population was rapidly urbanising. Between 1970 and 1990, the population of Mogadishu was estimated to be growing at over 10% per year (from 125,000 people in 1970 to over 1 million before the civil war started) – see this paper (page 5).
  3. But there was just no way that the authorities could maintain the rate of infrastructure growth to keep up with the rapid influx of people (just think of water pipes – how long does it take to upgrade plumbing – and now try and do it for a population that is doubling in size every 7 years).
  4. So the city went feral. The authorities were around but largely demoralised in the face of so much need – it was left to the residents themselves to coordinate infrastructure, security and so on.
  5. Neighbourhoods became the province of gangs and warlords, where the residents would claim allegiance in order to have security and so on.
  6. This led to inter-clan rivalries over scarce resources.
  7. And the overthrow of the Barre regime was almost a side-line to the main conflict line in Mogadishu.

In other words it wasn’t the civil war that turned Mogadishu feral: it was the feral city that resulted in the civil war.

Perhaps that’s a bit trite, but there is certainly some macroeconomic data there that suggests that the roots of the conflict were not simply political.

Why This Is Important

Well, this graph from the UN:



The world’s population was around 5 billion when the Somali conflict got going. We’re up to 7 billion – and we’re expecting to level off in the 9 billion to 10 billion range. All of that growth and more will be located in cities.

So city infrastructure will come under strain. And certainly some (if not most) of the existing regulatory structures will fail under the pressure.

And then?

Maybe we’ll discover that we’re not nearly as civilised as we think.

Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha. Or both.