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The more than 55 million confirmed cases of COVID worldwide in 2020 presented an unprecedented security challenge. The crisis has further blurred two approaches to social welfare — traditional security and human security – which can no longer be considered separately. This Expertise Note outlines the transition from the traditional, national level conceptions of security to human security’s individual and community components. It explores how the global pandemic positions us to think of human welfare more holistically. 


Whose security?

The classical definition of security used to be rather simple — it was freedom from risk. Until the late 20th century that meant the risk of foreign invasion and interstate violence. The term human security first arose in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War. In efforts to unify the globe, two dominant strands of foreign policy became interwoven: military security and economic development. 

Former Soviet states, and most developing countries regardless of their alliance, could not maintain their own national security. Their challenges were clear during the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, widespread food shortages across East Africa, and human rights crises in Haiti, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and North Korea. This inability called for internationalisation of security in which Western countries could buttress the internal security of weaker states (Jones and Stedman, 2017). This created the first crack in the traditional, sovereignty-based conceptualisation of security.

Western leaders touted economic growth as the singular way to rebuild states and improve lives. They pushed the collective idea that by cultivating capitalist free markets, former Soviet states would become productive participants in the world economy. Thus, they could provide for their citizens and ensure future peace and prosperity. However, evidence soon indicated that economic growth does not equate to improved human wellbeing. GDP and per capita income measurements can hide gross inequalities, and even inequality indicators such as GINI coefficients can mask widespread poverty rates (Adeleye et al., 2020). Those arguing for expanded capitalist markets conflicted with critical development economists on a best way forward (Easterly 2006). Yet, for the first time, both sides of the global conversation agreed that people’s individual well-being matters as much as national security. 


A definition of human security

The concept of human security was entrenched after the United Nations published the 1994 Human Development Report. The report equated security with people rather than territories, with development rather than arms. It enshrined four basic principles of human security: (a) universal concern, (b) interdependency, (c) early prevention measures, and (d) people-centred and context-specific approaches. The report also delineated seven key types of human security:

1.    economic (e.g. living wage)

2.    food (e.g. adequate quantity)

3.    health (e.g. disease prevention)

4.    political (e.g. free and fair elections)

5.    community (e.g. preservation of language)

6.    environment (e.g. protection of waterways)

7.    personal (e.g. freedom from gender-based violence)


With these principles, the report emphasised Johan Galtung’s (1969) notion of positive peace or the idea that freedom from fear and want was not enough. People need choices and should be able to exercise those choices. In turn, global development policies switched from an emphasis on state-level economic growth to poverty alleviation, or addressing human needs and capabilities.

Figure 1: Conceptions of security prior to COVID-19 focused either on traditional or human security. The pandemic has revealed overlaps and interdependence of these conceptualisations.
Figure 1: Conceptions of security prior to COVID-19 focused either on traditional or human security. The pandemic has revealed overlaps and interdependence of these conceptualisations.

Two significant steps forward for the human security approach came with the Ottawa Convention in 1997 and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in 2005. The former was a widely supported ban on landmines recognising that the tactical use of landmines in warfare does not justify their victimisation of the civilian population. The latter is a global political commitment endorsed by all UN member states to address genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It arose in the wake of global inaction during the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s. R2P maintains that when a state fails to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take timely and decisive collective action to intervene on the population’s behalf. Both watershed agreements announced that state sovereignty would no longer excuse human rights abuses. 

Yet, some development scholars have called for a narrower definition of human security than that proposed by the UN. King and Murray (2001) suggested we measure human security as the number of years spent outside generalised poverty, or Years of Individual Human Security (YIHS). Sabina Alkire (2003) called for human security to foster long-term human fulfilment by safeguarding the vital core of all human lives, reliant on basic functions of survival, livelihood, and dignity. For Roland Paris (2001), human security should not be a foreign policy framework but primarily a category of research. He argues that it offers so little practical guidance to applied academics or policymakers that it should become the label for a broad research category within the security studies field. Such critics of the human security paradigm see it as without definite boundaries, making everything a risk to security and therefore policy formulation nearly impossible. However, this Expertise Note argues that traditional security and human security can no longer be seen as a binary.


Human security in the coming decade


Traditional and human security are mutually constitutive. In my teaching at African Leadership University in Rwanda, I explain that individuals cannot earn reliable incomes under continued threat of armed attack, and militaries cannot offer protection if citizens cannot earn reliable incomes to pay the taxes that fund those militaries. My African students often give me examples of how national security issues have infringed upon their local communities, and how unrest at the community level has challenged their countries’ national security. Never has this interaction between traditional, national and human security, as a community and individual concept, been more clear than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mass casualties from diseases can destabilise populations. Healthcare costs can detract from expenditures on traditional security measures such as border controls, military salaries, and expensive technologies. Infectious diseases limit military responses to international and external security threats, including if members of the armed forces become infected themselves. Many security measures require physical proximity, which should be limited during pandemics (Oshewolo and Nwozor, 2020). It may force military personnel to abandon traditional security tasks in favour of public health ones, like screening incoming travellers or keeping order at health clinics. In such circumstances, state security forces act as health and human security providers. We saw examples of this militarisation of health in the 2014 Ebola outbreaks in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. 

Economic depressions due to pandemics threaten national security. Poverty is linked to outbreaks of civil unrest, particularly among those who believe in resource-driven conflicts. Rates of violence are inversely proportional to employment levels in a variety of contexts (Cramer, 2011). Political economists point out that unemployment lowers the opportunity cost of engaging in violence and incentivises looting behaviour (Collier and Hoeffler, 1998; Oyefusi, 2008). According to this line of thinking, death and illness among family breadwinners may increase the likelihood their dependents seek alternative resources (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2005). In short, the inability to forecast one’s financial future can make group and individual behaviour unpredictable. Economic uncertainty can then create further political and social uncertainty.

In this aggregate sense, COVID-19 response is a test of overall state capacity in maintaining both traditional and human security. The country where I conduct my research, Rwanda, is often heralded as an African success story for both types of security, and its COVID-19 response shows this. Rwanda approached the pandemic as a national security issue from the beginning. In March 2020, it was the first African country to order a complete lockdown. Public spaces were closed, masks and handwashing mandated, and it has had limited movement ever since. The army soldiers who check buses for interprovincial travellers and the police who pull over drivers without masks are evidence of this enforcement. The government provided food aid and tax relief at the local level to ameliorate the financial impacts of the lockdown. Rwanda’s capable reaction to COVID-19 intricately connects to its state strength, as seen in its ability to competently manage state revenue (use of tax dollars), monitor its citizens (e.g. the national census), and enforce rule of law (e.g. low crime rates).

The global pandemic has revealed the interdependence of national and human security. No nation can enjoy wellbeing if the individuals who compose it do not. 

Laine Munir is senior faculty in the Global Challenges program at African Leadership University and serves as a Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholar in Rwanda. 



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Last update : Apr 23, 2021