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Conceptualising human security in international aid

April 29, 2018

The aid system we know today emerged in the 1970s as a way to provide succour for people in emergencies, and to support human progress in poor countries through what became widely known as development. This article focuses on development, with particular emphasis on improving human security in fragile, conflict-prone contexts. It explores the meaning of human security and how human security has accrued in history, with lessons for theories of change today.

1. The complexity of development in fragile contexts
Development aid was initially often seem in relatively simple terms: building the capacity of the state and the economy, and poverty reduction. This was to be addressed through the transfer of capital and capacity. Indeed, the origin of the idea that rich countries should allocate 0.7% of their national income as aid, appears to have been a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation of the gap in infrastructure investment needed, to bring the developing countries as they were in the 1960s, up to par with the developed world (Center for Global Development (2005). Working paper no. 68. Ghost of 0.7%:
Origins and Relevance of the International Aid Target, By Michael A. Clemens and Todd J. Moss). This simplistic translation of the development challenge into a need for financial capital illustrates the rather technical way much of the aid world then saw its role.

Since then, the notion of development has become ever more complex. Western donors and multi-lateral institutions became newly interested in good governance and human rights after the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile a plethora of other concepts has entered the lexicon: climate adaptation, environmental sustainability, fragility, gender, human security, inequality, landscapes, livelihoods, middle and low income countries, the Millennium Development and Sustainable Development Goals, peacebuilding, political settlements, poverty reduction or eradication, pro-poor growth, reducing violent extremism, resilience, state building and value chain enhancement. Explanations for all of these – and a hundred others – are easily found on-line and in development studies primers.

Although perhaps confusing, this conceptual breadth and diversity is not a problem in and of itself. If we replace the overused and rather meaningless word ‘development’ with ‘progress’, this takes us closer to how non-experts might describe people’s improved circumstances, welfare and opportunities. It also reminds us that we are dealing with a politically freighted concept. What ‘progress’ means, who should benefit, and which path will take us there, are probably the three most important questions of politics – and questions on which people will – rightly – never agree. Karl Marx, Amartya Sen and Adam Smith have provided quite different answers, to pick just three influential development thinkers. Therefore it makes sense for the international aid sector to be pluralist, embracing diverse, often competing ideologies, analytical lenses and delivery vehicles, on the basis that no single concept or approach has so far been agreed. How does this apply to human security?

2. What is human security and how does it accrue?
Human security is a simple notion. At its heart is the idea that people’s security is a better measure of public good than state security – though state security, provided in the right way, remains an essential component (United Nations Development Programme (1994): Human Development Report). It also looks beneath the surface at underlying factors that influence people’s security, such as culture, incomes, social capital, gender relations and governance. Now, human security can in principle be achieved by suitably targeted services, perhaps provided by external organisations: services of protection and provision. But such services, while perhaps sustainable in the short-term, are unsustainable over a longer term. To start with, it is politically unacceptable for external agencies to provide them, supplanting and relieving the government and other members of society of their responsibilities, and raising questions about the legitimacy of all concerned (Eric A. Heinze, 2011. Humanitarian Intervention, the Responsibility to Protect, and Confused Legitimacy). Second, being protected and provisioned by others undermines human dignity and this is insufficient as a long-term response. And in any case, external agencies providing and funding them will eventually tire of the task, and move on to elsewhere.

In what, then, does sustainable human security consist? There is fairly wide agreement that human security is most likely to be sustained when people, irrespective of their gender, religion, sexual identity, age, ethnicity or other facet of identity, have fair access to:
• A voice in decisions which affect them
• Economic opportunity, including the opportunity to save or invest
• The means of safety and justice
• Opportunities for education, health and a decent living environment (International Alert. Programming Framework, 2017).

The more these conditions – which are essentially about fairness as well as security – are met, the more likely societies are to be characterised by functional and trusting collaboration between citizens and the state, and among citizens themselves. And such relationships are, ultimately the measure of peace and stability, and thus of human security.

3. How do we get there?

But if this is the desired vision, how can people living in insecure environments get there? How do societies evolve, to reflect the characteristics outlined above?

One place to look for answers to this question are in history, as we have not yet had sufficient time to judge whether human security improvements have genuinely been sustained, since the concept was introduced in development aid in the 1990s.

There are many uncertainties in the trajectory of a country’s development, and historians will never agree. Nonetheless, it is possible to tease out the kinds of changes that have taken place in the liberal societies which have made the most sustained progress in improving human security. These include opening up access to political and economic opportunities, developing an increasingly dynamic civil society, and establishing states which are accountable to and have a strong sense of ownership or membership by the people they govern, and which adopt progressive goals and policies. They also include the establishment and incremental extension of the rule of law, and new ways of participating in the economy, in politics and in civil society. For example, the evolution from personal to shareholder ownership of businesses, from ‘big man’ political leadership to the idea of ‘political office’ in increasingly representative and accountable forms of government. Of course sustained and shared economic growth is critical, as is the development of a culture that supports the exercise of initiative and encourages creativity. And perhaps most crucially of all, the control of organised violence should be transferred from the hands of powerful individuals or factions, to the accountable state (North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph & Weingast, Barry R. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009)). 

Drawing on a 2010 critique of aid in fragile contexts, co-written with Deborrah Baksh (Working with the Grain to Change the Grain. International Alert, 2010), I  look briefly at each of these, below. For reasons of space, historical examples are not given, but readers are invited to explore and validate or improve this thesis from their own reading.

Opening up access to political and economic opportunities, and developing an increasingly dynamic civil society
When ruling elites have relaxed their exclusive hold on political and economic opportunities, and progressively allowed others to participate, this is a signal of progress. This has usually happened when it was in the elite’s own perceived political and economic interests to broaden access. This process has generally entailed – and has been partly the result of – a restructuring of the economy, for example changes in land tenure, the commercialisation of agriculture, or industrialisation. Changes in the economy were then reflected in changes in politics, and vice versa. This was also accompanied by the growth and increasing dynamism of civil society: i.e. people from across society acting together in pursuit of what they saw as shared interests, which was an important factor in the development and opening up political institutions.

Establishing states accountable to and with a strong sense of ownership and membership by the people, and whose governments adopt progressive, developmental goals and policies
Societies that have been most successful in making sustained progress in human security have established some version of the nation-state, i.e. a well-defined polity with clear boundaries and citizenship, and with a large part of its population committed to membership of the nation as a primary identity (equal to or above other identities such as ethnicity, religion, etc.), and an accountable state with authority to act. This means that issues of identity have been resolved or are being managed in a way which prevents them from being obstacles to progress, and also that different polities and states have found ways to co-exist cooperatively out of self-interest.

Governments in such cases have focused, among other things, on purposeful (developmental) national economic policies. These have differed according to ideology and context, including for example protectionism, industrial planning, free trade, empire-building, etc. The point is not the particular policy choice – which depends on internal and external circumstances anyway – but the idea that purposeful policy choices in the perceived interests of the country were made and purposefully implemented.

Establishing, gradually extending and eventually universalising the rule of law
Another change was to extend the rule of law to more and more people, allowing them to participate in the economy with the confidence that they would be treated fairly. This extension of rights from the elites to others happened when it was in the interests of those who had initially established such rights for themselves – the elites – to do so, i.e. because it suited their own economic interests to allow others to participate. For example, land is an important political and economic resource in developing economies, and the sale of land by elites becomes a great deal more profitable when the potential pool of customers is widened because more people are deemed to have legal rights protecting their ownership of land.

This went hand-in-hand with the evolution of civil society. As people increasingly combined outside their narrow caste, kinship, gender and patronage circles, in pursuit of shared economic, social or political aims, they needed the protection of law instead of patronage and kinship loyalty in so doing. This created further incentives for widening the scope of the rule of law, which further encouraged people to combine, and so on.

Evolution from personal to impersonal forms of participation in the economy, politics and civil society
A critical aspect of development has been the move from leadership based on personal strength and patronage to leadership by legitimate, temporary occupants of permanent or semi-permanent offices and institutions of state. The same kind of move happened from personal buccaneering to shareholder corporations, from factions to political parties, and from kinship to other forms of civic association. This entailed the institutionalisation of governance and the creation of corporate organisations – in government, the economy, security, and civil society – and went hand-in-hand with an increase in freedom of association.

Achieving sustained, shared economic growth
Sustained shared economic growth per capita was essential for the growth of political and economic opportunity. This happened when capital was freed up: for example, through the development of a market in freehold land, allowing the possibility of mortgage and sale to realise capital for investment; and the establishment of corporations, partnerships and shareholder companies. A critical aspect of this was also the progressive de-linking of conjunctural political power from economic power, as a rules-based economy gave increasing confidence to investors that their interests would be protected even if political changes were to occur.

Developing a culture that increasingly supports the exercise of initiative and encourages creativity
Cultures have been shaped by, and in their turn have shaped, the historical development of societies and regions. Important elements in this have been, for example, the extent to which cultures have supported and encouraged indiviFig 1dual or collective enterprise and initiative, and progressively greater freedom of expression and action (Landes, David. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor. (Little, Brown, 1998).).

Transferring control of organised violence from the hands of powerful individuals or factions, to the accountable state
The control of violence, and especially of organised violence, is a critical aspect controlling access to resources. As states developed and became accountable to those they served, so they also took over the control of organised violence, and limited the capacity of others to use it for their own ends.

Adopting increasingly democratic, or representative and accountable forms of government
In places where the changes described above happened, they were accompanied by an increase in the extent to which the governed were able to choose and hold to account their governors. While confined initially to the elite, this gradually became more open, as the institutional rules of the game were strengthened, and access to the economy widened to include more and more people whose interests became critical to success and thus needed a legitimate voice in politics. Local democracy within a decentralised polity has also often been a critical feature of successful democratisation.


4. Cross-cutting features of change
The above list is hugely subject to challenge, and is certainly not comprehensive. But it summarises some of the most important development processes from history, all of which are critical to human security. Looking within them, we can identify four common features:
Negotiation. Most of these changes have come about largely through a process of negotiation. This includes members of the elite negotiating among themselves and thus creating bargains and systems for the effective management of resources, and members of the elite re-negotiating non-elites’ access to privileges and rights.
Relationships. Effective (functional) relationships are critical to progress. These include relationships among the elites, between the state and civil society, and within civil society.
Incentives. Changes have happened when it was in the interests of those with the most power, to make (or accept) those changes.
Leadership. As Machiavelli wrote, ‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of new order of things’. Progress happens when a number of factors come together; some of these are circumstantial, but human agency and therefore leadership are critical. By leadership, I  mean the ability and willingness to take risks, provide inspiration for change, and navigate politically towards change.

5. Implications for development aid
This summary of development processes – depicted in figure 1 – is necessarily short, incomplete and lacking in detail. It is rightly open to challenge. Nevertheless, much within it is common sense and although different ideologies interpret history differently, many of the processes summarised above are relatively uncontroversial. It seems therefore obvious that it should be reflected in ‘development’ paradigms applied to fragile of conflict-prone contexts, and in the mandate and structures of international aid institutions.

It is beyond the remit of this article to examine the extent to which this is the case. Nevertheless, we can at least draw the conclusion that successful aid programmes should:
• Frame their mandate and their policy and programme goals around historically-based theories of change.
• Use programming approaches which recognise the uncertainty of progress, centred on a long-term vision of improving human security in a given context, using adaptive strategies, rather than fixed, pre-defined pathways, to achieve this.
• Be managed by staff who are politically astute, not just proficient in technical areas of development such as health and education.
• Be willing to take risks with their own resources and reputations, while being careful not to expose others to risks they have not opted for.
• Be heterogenous and – between them – work at multiple levels and on different issues.
• Identify and leverage incentives for change, in the form of carrots or sticks.



















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