The evolution of research on human security and personal security since 1994

Gasper, Des; Gomez, Oscar A. (2014). 'The evolution of research on human security and personal security since 1994' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

This paper aims to clarify the role of human security analysis in relation to human development thinking and work on 'personal security', and the rationale and streams of work within research on human security since the 1994 Human Development Report.

  1. Human security analysis is an essential part, or partner, of human development thinking. If the latter includes attention to basic needs and to threats, disruptions and fluctuations, as it should and typically does, then human security analysis is a wing or dimension within it. If human development analysis is considered as only about creation and expansion of valuable capabilities, then human security analysis adds special attention to the counterpart concerns: vulnerabilities, risks, and forces of disruption and destruction.
  2. The human security concept covers both deprivation and vulnerability. These two aspects largely correspond to, respectively, human security analysis's 'equity dimension' (a focus on persons and how they live and can live; and a focus on fulfilment of basic needs and rights) and its 'connectivity dimension' (its study of how people live within a total context constituted by numerous interconnecting systems, and of the threats and opportunities that can arise from factors in various parts of this life-environment and from their intersection and interactions). Multi-dimensional poverty analysis takes up concerns in the equity dimension; human security research examines in addition the nature and operation of threats in interconnected systems, notably the 'downside risks' and spirals of damage and disadvantage that the conjunctures of diverse factors can bring for vulnerable people. It studies vulnerability in combination with deprivation, not threats, vulnerability and fluctuations per se. The theme of vulnerability is part of a richer picture of the human being than only capability and reasoned choice. Issues of security, insecurity and threats link to fear, emotions, and partly subjective perception. Compared to the term 'vulnerability', the term 'insecurity' may help in better bringing out the essential subjective dimensions.
  3. The 1994 Human Development Report's listing of seven leading categories of frequently threatened values (Personal, Health, Economic, Food, Political, Environmental, Community) was not intended to entrench a silo-approach in which each category is considered in isolation. The categories often linked though to existing policy portfolios, which helps to explain the list's durability despite lack of exact conceptual basis. The categories like food security which fit existing policy portfolios have often not become leading foci for in-depth work that uses a human security language and framework, even though work in those areas can be readily accommodated and enriched within a human security framework. A large exception to this pattern concerns environmental change, where a major human security literature has emerged despite the existence already of a standard policy portfolio, since we are not concerned with the environment in isolation but for its impacts on how people live.
  4. The paper highlights six major strands in work since 1994 that have explicitly used a human security framework, focused respectively on:- violent conflict and its prevention and resolution; crime and 'citizen security'; psychological insecurity; environmental change; comprehensive identification and comparison of all major threats; and case-specific identification of what are priority threats in a particular time and place. Significant work in other fields, such as migration, refugee studies, and minorities studies, exists too.
  5. A major research stream in relation to the 'personal security' category addresses situations of ongoing, feared, or recent armed conflict. Human security thinking here has served to frame peace efforts that go beyond military victory, to focus on root causes of conflict, and to consider how state security systems could be transformed as armed conflict in many cases mutates into a more complex, low intensity phenomenon. A second such stream, on 'citizen security', addresses threats to citizens in everyday life from physical violence and crimes against property. This formulation has helped to inspire transformation from an agenda focused on conflict to one of institutional consolidation dealing with an expanding agenda of types of crime and social pathology that affect ordinary people.
  6. The theme of psychological insecurity—or more broadly, attention to perceptions and emotions of security and insecurity—should be combined with every type of sectoral focus. Biases and over- and under-estimations are endemic. At the same time, perceptions studies capture public opinion on institutional performance, help to identify biases in official statistics and include voices of the affected populations, and help to grasp the complexity of situations, how insecurity and agency interact, and the causes and consequences of exaggerated or misplaced fears.
  7. A broad treatment of threats and of potential responses is essential: threats interconnect, the relative importance of threats changes over time, and comparisons are required between different ways of responding to a given threat and of the returns from responding to different threats. Any threat can become the most critical, depending on circumstances. Comprehensive or comparative human security analyses allow mapping of the occurrence and perception of a wider pool of threats, so that traditional personal security issues can be understood in their deserved dimensions but not disproportionately.
  8. The required flexibility of analysis and response runs counter to processes of institutional ossification, vested interests, and established patterns of social inclusion/exclusion. These support persisting emphasis on the familiar means of security, over the ends of human freedoms and well-being. Security/insecurity keep being associated with certain specific means instead of with the changing agenda of threats. Narrow views of threats and of means for realizing human security reflect also a too limited picture of the human person. We propose that a useful and feasible principle will be to regularly alternate, first, broad-horizon studies that help to identify what are priority areas and their linkages at a particular time and place, with, second, narrower-horizon studies that explore in depth the threats and alternatives within selected prioritised fields.
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