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Empowerment and Protection - stories of Human Security

All blog posts by j.aulin

On 25 February, GPPAC and the International Institute of Social Studies organised a joint book launch under the theme The Nexus of Peacebuilding Theory and Practice. The event presented three recent publications and led us to explore the nexus between peacebuilding theory and practice towards greater human security. The topics presented ranged from peoples’ perspectives on human security in different contexts, to theoretical and methodological approaches, as well as practical tools for conflict assessment and peacebuilding planning.


Here is my contribution to the event, where I presented some insights from the making of GPPAC’s latest book Empowerment and Protection – Stories of Human Security, which is available to download online from



The last time I was at the ISS was for the launch of the 2014 Global Peace Index, which turned into quite an advanced discussion about measurements, indicators and indexes. Much of the debate revolved around how we measure progress towards peace at a ‘meta level’. What I expressed at the time was that sometimes these efforts become so technical and so removed from the people that are affected by conflict, that I feel we have to ask ourselves: what good is the information - no matter how accurate - if it does not engage the people and the context affected by conflict?


This is also how I sometimes feel about the academic debate on human security; it tends to revolve around what the definition and parameters of human security concept should include or not include, how or whether it is useful, and so on.. in a debate that is very high-level, very technical, and - dare I say – quite intimidating to non-academic practitioners.


For GPPAC, and the peacebuilding practitioners in our network, the idea of human security - in the sense of people-centred security - is relevant because a society where people feel safe, secure and included, and where they have room for expressing and negotiating these issues, is more likely to be a peaceful society. And it is about recognising that there are many dimensions to what feeling safe and secure means, and that that will be different in each specific context.   


So I would like to share how our publication on human security – ‘Empowerment and Protection: Stories of Human Security - came about, because in many ways it was more about the process behind it than the final output. In fact, if you held the final product up to academic scrutiny it is probably not comparable with the other two publications you will hear about here today, because this was not the work of academics, but of civil society practitioners who were testing whether this debate on human security has any relevance to the people and communities they work with in their conflict prevention and peacebuilding work. The answer is yes - but I’ll come back to that. Secondly, we wanted to look into human security in practice; what does this approach mean for our work, what are the implications for conflict prevention and peacebuilding?


On the process behind this book: we worked with local civil society organisations from 6 different countries and regions: Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine, The Philippines, Zimbabwe and Mexico; clearly, widely different contexts and -it should be said - different types of organisations as well (this is quite obvious in the book). We formed an editorial board with the lead authors from these organisations and some additional resource persons, and together we worked out the terms of reference for the assignment, which was to discuss human security issues with a snapshot of people/groups in the context where they work.


We formulated three broad questions – then it was up to the participating organisations to adapt them and address them in a way that was suitable in their particular setting:

1.    What causes insecurity/ what is a threat to your security

2.    What do you do to ensure you are protected against these threats (patterns of coping with insecurities)

3.    Who or what do you turn to, or rely on, to ensure your security (security providers)


They went about it in different ways - for example

-       in Palestine they had focus group discussions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza

-       in Ukraine they made a sample selection in Kiev and in Simferopol (Crimea) and did individual interviews (this was before the conflict erupted and Crimea was annexed)

-       in Mexico and Mindanao, The Philippines, they worked with a smaller sample but chose to speak to leaders and activists within their networks, and matched the information with findings from the security dialogues they were already involved in as part of their ongoing work.


So it was a very low-budget, small-scale affair, where the information gathered was analysed and presented also taking into account the existing contextual knowledge of participating organisations. At the same time, it was quite the learning curve for all of us, and when the rough findings were presented and discussed in the editorial board it was interesting to see how, inspite of how different these contexts were, there were so many commonalities where the authors could relate to each other.  


I will mention some of the conclusions here, but of course there is more detail also in each indvidual chapter. For example:


-       people at all levels in all these contexts had no problem linking security to a more comprehensive or holistic definition – with elements of freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from indignity intertwined in different combinations.


-       the state was really central to the discussion on human security: it was an expected security provider; even in places where it was currently undermining rather than providing security [for example in Ukraine the issue of corruption was really marked in the interviews, there was no trust in the system but the expectation was still there].


-       Rule of Law was probably the most highlighted type of security provider/provision across the different contexts; people highlighted the need for trust in ‘the system’, accountability, justice [in Mexico one interviewee said: “through the Mesa de Securidad, we were able to tell the president that we did not want 5,000 more police or army officials, but 200 public prosecutors”]


-       We also felt that empowerment has so far been a neglected part of the human security debate, and that the stories really contributed in that sense: the stories highlighted that empowerment of the population is needed to ensure the right kind of protection (an accountable state). [for example, Indigenous Peoples in Mindanao, the Philippines, have been lobbying for the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, to safeguard their traditions and autonomy within a broader state system; of course their concern now is that this is overshadowed by the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)]


-       The achievement of human security - or human security strategies, if you will -  was linked with situations where the social contract between the state and citizens was enhanced through security dialogues, multi-stakeholder dialogues, where they were all change agents and not simply recipients of protection [In Zimbabwe, local peace committees involve a cross-section of community members and local authorities and local service providers to discuss human security issues and mediate solutions]


In conclusion: What is human security? It is not for us here to define (if we are talking about a far-away context we are involved as external actors). It needs to be defined and negotiated locally, which comes with its own challenges – and here academia has a real role to play in terms of methodology and process. The human security approach is helpful because this comprehensive lens is close to how people experience security issues, and because it makes us pay attention to the process. In the end, what matters is how people act on the information, whether that information is empowering.


Finally: we also learned that we still have a lot to learn (and I think this goes both for civil society and academia) on how to communicate about human security in a way that is accessible; where it is not about us explaining, but where we are providing a framework that can encourage the right kind of conversation, defining the problems, exploring solutions. So it is looking at human security both as a process and as an outcome.

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