What is human security? Here is a brief introduction. As the domain of security enlarged to incorporate new threats and actors, it increasingly overlapped with the field of development. The threats from poverty, environmental scarcity, famine, infectious disease and others began to be explored in both development and security communities. The growing intersection between the two was captured under the concept of human security. Broadly, human security formalized the belief that security studies should “shift from the state to the individual and should encompass military as well as nonmilitary threats” (King and Murray 2001-2002, 588-589).
The concept of human security first received widespread attention in 1994 when it appeared in the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR). While, as Axworthy (2001) points out, the idea that populations have certain security concerns and rights is old, the HDR is the first major attempt to push the concept into the mainstream development, foreign policy, and security communities. Under the UN’s definition, human security constitutes seven security dimensions: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, political, and community. This broad definition addressed many of the main concerns of vulnerable populations, but also made operationalizing the term troublesome for two reasons. First, the expansive domain covered by HDR’s definition of human security could offer little information on how the seven dimensions should be prioritized (Axworthy 2001). Should governments, international organizations (IGOs), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focus their limited resources on public health, peace-building, or economic development? Is infectious diseases or income inequality a greater threat to human security? Paris argues the vague and expansive definition of human security was encouraged by some parties, who found it a convenient avenue to argue their area of focus (health, environment, culture etc…) constituted a threat to the security of individuals and deserved greater mainstream attention (Paris 2001). This definition of human was security was “slippery by design” (Paris 2001, 88).
Second, the imprecision of HDR’s definition makes research into the human security of populations difficult. Allowing human security to include a set of vague dimensions, often with overlapping areas of concern, limits the ability to measure and study concepts in order to make policy recommendations. Under this definition “virtually any kind of unexpected or irregular discomfort could conceivably constitute a threat to one’s human security” (Paris 2001, 89).
King and Murray highlight the imprecision of HDR’s definition through a series of off-the-record interviews with politicians and government officials. The two authors find almost universal concern “that there existed no widely accepted or coherent definition of human security” (2001-2002, 591-592). The only consensus around the definition of human security seems to be an agreement to the lack there of. Before continuing, a selection of human security definitions is reviewed below.
While sharing the concerns of other scholars regarding the HDR’s definition, King and Murray develop a similar but operationalized concept. The authors propose that human security can be thought of as “generalized poverty”. In their framework, individuals experience generalized poverty anytime they fall below some established threshold in a central aspect of “human well-being” (King and Murray 2001-2002, 585). In this way, human security addresses only the more at-risk individuals who fall below some acceptable minimum standard in a vital area. For example, a family could be considered impoverished if their daily caloric intake is less than the recommended minimum. The central appeal of King and Murray’s definition is measurability. With the proper data and a set of thresholds for each domain of well being, it is theoretically possible to construct a quantitative index of human security. For this purpose King and Murray propose a measure they call Years of Individual Human Security (YIHS) defined as “the expect number of years of life spent outside the state of generalized poverty” (King and Murray 2001-2002, 595). The disadvantage of this approach is that King and Murray’s concept of well-being suffers from the same problems of broadness found in the HDR’s definition. The authors propose including “those domains of well-being that have been important enough for human beings to fight over or to put their lives or property at great risk” (King and Murray 2001-2002, 593). However, it is clear what each of these domains are and how they can be measured. The selection and number of the domains would have a significant effect on the outcome level of generalized poverty.
Mary Kaldor’s (2007) monograph offers another conceptualization of human security. Kaldor posits a new definition of security that “is about confronting extreme vulnerability not only in wars but in natural and man-made disasters…” (Kaldor 2007, 183) and a new definition of development that goes beyond improving standards of living to include “feeling safe on the streets or being able to influence political decision-making” (Kaldor 2007, 183). Based on these new definitions, she proposes five principles of human security. First, human security places human rights above all else. Second, the local population must consider a state’s political institutions legitimate. Third, human security operations must 1) work with international organizations, 2) create and enforce common rules, and 3) focus on coordination. Fourth, human security approaches must be bottom-up and decisions must be made in coordination with the local population. Finally, modern conflict does not follow borders thus they must be examined at the regional, rather than the state level. While an impressive contribution, for empirical researchers Kaldor’s approaches offer little advantage over the 1994 HDR’s definition. It is unclear how Kaldor’s human security could be operationalized, since it covers three levels of analysis: states, conflicts, and operations. Furthermore, the approach is simultaneously a set of threats to be addressed and ideals to be achieved.
Finally, Roland Paris (2001) argues that attempts to define human security suffer from an inability to separate causes and effect. Specifically, because human security has been defined so broadly, incorporating violence, famine, poverty, social marginalization, ill-health, and others it is impossible to identify a causal relationship between any socioeconomic factor and human security (Paris 2001, 93). Instead, Paris proposes a definition of human security as a category of security research “concerned with military and nonmilitary threats-or both to the security of societies, groups, and individuals” (Paris 2001, 100). This paper follows Paris’ approach to human security; as a class of security studies examining threats to populations rather than states. Thus, while the theory addresses threats to individuals, it does not claim to offer any comprehensive measures of society’s vulnerability.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.