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City Spotlight: Karachi, Pakistan

With a population of nearly 20 million, Karachi is among the largest cities in the world. It has a rich cultural heritage, being home to various ethnic communities. Almost half of the population is Muhajir, referring to those who migrated (or whose families migrated) from India in 1947, while a quarter are Pashtun. Ethnic groups like Sindhis and Punjabis are represented in smaller numbers. Further, Karachi has a large number of undocumented immigrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India, along with a steady influx of new residents from different parts of the country continues.

Karachi is organised into seven districts, each of which is managed by a District Municipal Corporation (DMC). These seven DMCs – Korangi, East, West, South, Malir, Central and Karachi District West – are coordinated by and report to Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) as the city’s overarching governing body, currently led by Mayor Murtaza Wahab. DMCs are responsible for local infrastructure maintenance and provision of public services.

KMC joined the Strong Cities Network in 2023 after representatives participated in the South Asia Regional Hub’s virtual launch events in December 2022 and February 2023.

What is the local government concerned about?

Karachi has experienced significant inter-ethnic conflicts since Pakistan gained independence 70 years ago. Since 2008, ethnopolitical, sectarian and criminal violence have claimed more than 7,000 lives.

Such violence is exacerbated – in part – by the lack of integration between communities of different ethnic backgrounds, seen both between and within Karachi’s seven districts. For example, politics at the district level are largely organised along ethnic lines, where DMCs are led by the dominant ethnic group of that district. As a result, tensions between districts – whether related to resource allocation or otherwise – often have ethnic undertones. Further, with ethnic minorities per district feeling under-represented within their DMC and a lack of integration between ethnic communities overall, conflicts also frequently break out between dominant and minority ethnic groups within a district.  

This volatile situation is exacerbated by a lack of processes at the national and local levels to support and integrate migrants and refugees, leaving DMCs ill-equipped to accommodate Karachi’s growing migrant population. This is fuelling rising levels of anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment, where long-term residents feel their often-limited access to local resources and services are threatened by new arrivals. Further, many such refugees come from conflict-affected areas like Afghanistan and do not receive the necessary psychosocial support to rehabilitate and integrate them into Karachi society.

In addition to inter-ethnic and anti-migrant tensions, Karachi faces a complicated crime landscape, where homicides, extortions, and kidnappings have created an environment of fear and insecurity. Karachi has also experienced multiple manifestations of violent extremism, with some madrasas used by extremists to radicalise others, serving as training centres for militants that leave to fight in conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Sunni-Shia tensions are also on the rise, with anti-Shia sentiment increasingly mainstreamed by hardline Sunni political groups.

How is the local government responding?

KMC is responding to this complex threat landscape primarily through the following measures.

Local policing

To address violent extremism, the KMC relies on local police to gather intelligence and keep KMC abreast of the threat. While national policing bodies have stronger mandates and better funding and resources, empowering local police to carry out counter-extremism operations has given city officials a more contextualised, reliable and ‘real-time’ understanding of how extremism manifests in violence within its various districts. 

Provincial-local cooperation

Importantly, as an example of provincial – local cooperation, KMC’s police forces receive technical assistance and capacity-building support from the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), which is a partnership between the Provincial Government of Sindh, former members of the Armed Forces, retired civil servants and others to enhance crime prevention capacities across Sindh province. CPLC has supported KMC’s police in a variety of ways, including through the launch of ‘neighbourhood care projects’, which are multi-actor collaborations among CPLC, residents, local police officers and municipal officials. These collaborations serve to enhance engagements and trust between police and local residents and help to increase safety measures at the hyper-local level, including practical security measures such as street-lighting and traffic management.

Capacity building

KMC has also partnered with the Provincial Government of Sindh and the World Bank to improve urban management as a whole by building the capacities of and providing small grants to DMCs. Capacity building covers core governance topics such as grants’ management and budget transparency, investing in a robust private sector with a focus on creating job opportunities for youth, better waste management and other urban hygiene and design services to make Karachi a more liveable and cleaner environment and greater efficiency with receiving and responding to citizens’ complaints and grievances. Importantly, the project includes a gendered focus, with one of its key performance indicators an increase in the “percentage of women… who consider that their views have been taken into account… by local councils”.

KMC additionally has its own capacity-building institution, the City Institute of Image Management (CIIM), which was established in 2007 as an initiative of then-Deputy Mayor Nasreen Jaleel with the objective of developing both technical and soft skills (e.g., communication, inter-personal skills) of government employees so they can better serve the public. Under the leadership of Karachi’s current mayor, the CIIM continues to provide a variety of capacity-building opportunities for government employees, ranging from crisis management to youth engagement.

What’s next?

KMC has expressed two key priorities to the Strong Cities Network to strengthen its whole-of-society approach to addressing hate, extremism and polarisation. Firstly, KMC seeks to enhance its youth engagement efforts, particularly with young people in madrasas and non-traditional educational institutions, with which KMC officials have thus far had little direct interaction. Secondly, KMC is committed to providing citizens-centric local governance and is dedicated to the continued capacity building of city officials at both the KMC and DMC levels. This includes on all aspects of governance, from community engagement to disaster and grievance management.

Further, under the leadership of Mayor Wahab, KMC will also partner with the Provincial Government of Sindh on restoring and improving public spaces so residents can have safe spaces in which to come together, organise community activities and sports and cultural events.

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Strong Cities membership is open to local authorities at the city, municipal or other subnational level. Membership is free of charge.