Human Security

The following is adapted from my forthcoming book – ‘The Challenge of Global Poverty- a personal experience of international aid’

As a person with more than the basic necessities of life, what are my concerns in relation to global poverty? The concept of Humanity is a good starting point. As used by the Red Cross and others it denotes concern for people who are not only poor but suffer distress because they are poor. With ample global resources and huge inequalities, this is naturally a concern for those who already have enough.

The problems lie in defining the limits of Humanity and in identifying the means to express it. In my view, poverty in general is not a matter for acute concern. Some people are poorer than others and by living uncluttered lives without the plague of endless choices they may be quite happy. The point at which an outsider feels drawn to think and respond is when poverty is associated with fear and distress. Poverty may arise from lack of basic necessities or ‘want’ but in its extreme forms there is also fear arising from the vulnerability that comes with poverty. This may include the fear of losing what we already have such as life, health, family, identity and so on. Poor people often lack the power to control risks and many of them live in societies in which institutional controls are also lacking. In many poorer countries, democratic governance is weak and patronage systems can be arbitrary and exclusive. Insecurity is an integral part of the experience of poverty and it is the part of poverty that may be most likely to cause distress.

This recognition has led me to the concept of Human Security. Initially this was an attempt to focus on the security of people rather than nations. The 1994 UN Human Development Report1 noted that ‘security’ has ‘for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of territory from external aggression, or as protection of national interests in foreign policy, or as global security from a nuclear holocaust. It has been related more to nation states than to people.’2 The UN set up a Commission on Human Security which published its report in 2003.3 In the Commission’s analysis, Human Security takes two forms based on Amartya Sen’s concept of human ‘freedoms’ as expressed in his book Development as Freedom. These are ‘freedom from want’ and ‘freedom from fear’.

In theory at least, Human Security can only be assessed subjectively. Only the people themselves can decide if they have achieved Human Security. This has the advantage of giving the views of poor people a prominence that has been lacking in the aid system.

Measuring ‘freedom from fear’ is difficult. Estimates for numbers of people living in insecurity can be based on the total populations of fragile states, as in Paul Collier’s book The Bottom Billion.4 The World Bank Development Report ‘Conflict, Security and Development’ in 2011 includes a wider range of causes of insecurity, concluding that- ‘One-and-a-half billion people live in areas affected by fragility, conflict, or large-scale, organized criminal violence.’ 5 But, as the Bank has recognised, poor people experience fear in countries that fall outside these definitions including those that are considered quite wealthy. The concept of Humanity implies that the insecurity and fear of the people of North Korea, for example, should be a matter for our global concern because, from what we understand, many people live in a state of fear that is not linked only to poverty.

In recent years, the concept of Human Security has been muddled up with the interests of institutions and Western donors. Firstly, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan extended the notion further by adding ‘freedom to live in dignity’ which was even more difficult to measure than ‘freedom from fear’ and implied a considerable widening of the concept. Secondly different UN organisations have institutionalised the concept of Human Security into their own mandate. Each has developed its own frameworks and principles and this has caused confusion and rivalry across the UN.6 Thirdly, donors muddled the term with their own concerns about Western Security. In Canada, Human Security was co-opted as an opportunity to extend the notion of Western security to local level.7

A UN Trust Fund for Human Security was set up following the World Summit in 2005 but it has too many purposes, including peace-building in conflict situations, climate change and climate-related hazards and sudden shocks that might lead to insecurity such as the global spike in food prices and the global financial crisis.8 Secretary-Generals have continued to argue that the Fund can address threats that have both local and global dimensions but in any case the Fund has not attracted much support and the concept itself lost traction especially after the Global War on Terror and the co-option of the security agenda around Western interests. But it is still a useful way of looking at the issues and for defining and focusing our moral concern.

With so many purposes for aid being cited by Western governments today (including as a ‘force multiplier’ for military invasions) it is important to focus our attention on the two fundamental problems of ‘want’ and ‘fear’. ‘Human Security’ is a useful approach to examining whether we are making progress.


1 This report is credited to Pakistani Foreign Minister Mahbub ul Haq working in association with Amartya Sen
2 Op cit
3 Commission on Human Security (2003)
4 Collier(2007)
5 World Bank (2011) Overview p1
6 Jolly, R and D B Ray (2006) The Human Security Framework and National Human Development Reports: A Review of Experiences and Current Debates, IDS, Sussex. See also Kaldor, M (2007)
7 Maclean, S, D Black and T Shaw eds (2006) A Decade of Human Security –global governance and new multilateralisms, Ashgate
8 Report of the Secretary General: Follow up to General Assembly resolution 64/291 on human security, April 2012