Making a case for personal security in the post-2015 development agenda

The perverse consequences of personal insecurity on development are visible to anyone who lives in a setting characterized by violent crime or political violence.

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By Robert Muggah 

The precarious state of security across the Middle East and North Africa is making development experts nervous. Is security a precondition for sustained social and economic improvement? Or is development essential for stability to take hold? This is precisely the question facing the international community as it plans the next generation of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in a few years’ time. While very few observers doubt the value of adding a security goal to the post-2015 development framework, disagreements persist over how such an objective might be framed and measured. Some United Nations member states are concerned with just how far the “security” agenda should go.

What is personal security?

While some of the challenges are semantic, others are political. Personal security is a generic concept that captures many real and perceived experiences of households and individuals. It can be narrowed down to the protection of individuals from physical and psychological violence, which distinguishes it from “national” or “collective” security of states. Personal security is not just a priority for states that are fragile or affected by war, but for all settings whether upper-, middle- or lower-income. It is a “universal” preoccupation.

Personal security is a permanent feature of life whether one lives in cities, towns, villages or the countryside. Yet it is also surprisingly difficult to distill personal security to a single metric or measure. Research carried out in Colombian, Guatemalan, Indonesian and Sri Lankan communities reveals literally thousands of distinct variations of personal insecurity. To be a useful analytical category, personal security cannot mean all things to all people. Indeed, personal security is distinct from “food” or “job” security even if all of these forms of security emerge in the context of acute poverty and inequality.

How is personal security measured?

Lethal violence is an especially powerful index of personal insecurity. A low number of violent deaths suggest a higher level of personal security. Violent death is also a “sensitive” measure of personal security, it can change rapidly and also facilitates a granular understanding of who, how, where, and why people are affected. The Global Burden of Armed Violence shows that some 526,000 people die violently each year. More than three quarters of these deaths – roughly 396,000 – occur in countries that are neither fragile nor war-affected. Just one in 10, or 55,000 violent deaths, occurs in countries experiencing outright warfare.

Another key factor related to personal security is the subjective feeling of safety and fear. Although the palatable sense of fear can be described, it is nevertheless a difficult concept to record empirically. Social scientists have long examined how people are compelled to act in ways that are different to what they might otherwise have done in the absence of insecurity. Both Gallop and Barometer polling surveys track levels of fear when it comes to “walking at night” for 98 per cent of the world´s population. While offering fascinating insights, perception data is also susceptible to political biases and highly visible events such as acts of terrorism.

How does personal security relate to development?

There is presently ample evidence that personal insecurity has negative implications for development. On the one hand, sanctity of life and freedom from fear are enshrined in the Human Rights Declaration and even the Millennium Declaration. Personal security is thus an intrinsic right. The extent of personal insecurity also has implications for the quality and quantity of human and economic development. There is compelling statistical evidence of correlations between violent death and perceptions of fear and under-development.

The perverse consequences of personal insecurity on development are visible to anyone who lives in a setting characterized by violent crime or political violence. In hours, organized violence can destroy development investments that have taken decades to mature. Specifically, the lower a country’s level of development, the higher the intensity of personal insecurity. Likewise, countries with higher income inequality also report higher incidences of personal insecurity. Not surprisingly, countries registering high rates of personal insecurity also witness reduced MDG progress.

What could a personal security goal look like?

There are a number of ways to frame a personal security goal. For example, a recent High Level Panel discussion supported by the UK, Liberia and Indonesia signaled the objective of “eliminating lethal violence from every community by 2030” or “reducing the number of people and groups affected by violence”. There is every reason to believe that a bold goal would provide decision makers with a significant incentive to invest in violence prevention and reduction.

Although people experience security and insecurity in diverse ways, a narrow focus on violence reduction would allow for more targeted action. A number of robust indicators include “changes in homicide per 100,000 population”, “reported violent crime per 100,000 population”, “willingness to walk at night” (percentage change), and “changes in sexual violence against adults and children” (changes in reporting rates). A key focus should be on so-called impact or performance indicators, though special attention to institutional and capacity-oriented metrics is also warranted.

Are there any political or technical dilemmas?

Personal security is, by definition, a highly political issue. It touches on the essential functions of the state, the nature of the social contract, and the effectiveness of service delivery, particularly security and justice entities. Discussions of homicidal violence, conflict-related deaths, extra-judicial killings, sexual violence, physical assault, property theft and population displacement are, sadly, still taboo in many countries. Indeed, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) only recently started issuing national homicide rates in its annual reports owing to sensitivities among member states.

There are many technical challenges confronting the High Level Panel in deciding on goals, targets and indicators. For example, national statistical departments in fragile and conflict-affected countries seldom collect routine data on personal security. Even in upper-income settings, reporting systems may be highly erratic or collect piecemeal data from citizens who are fearful to register their concerns with the local authorities. Data may not be coded in such a way as to allow for internal, let alone international, comparisons. These difficulties are not just limited to administrative information collected by governments, but also opinion surveys, expert surveys and other forms of data harvesting.

More positively, there is evidence of growing political and social engagement with the issue of personal security and safety both within and outside the UN system. In the past few years the UN and World Bank have repeatedly called attention to the importance of security as a precondition of development and the ways the two are intrinsically connected, including in the most recent World Development Report (2011). The International Dialogue on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF) and in particular the 17 countries that make up the g7+ indicate that there is appetite to deal comprehensively personal security and promote societies that are free of fear.

There are also indications of new ways and means of documenting and publicizing changes in personal security. Across Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there is evidence of a massive expansion in technological capacities to measure a wide range of social phenomenon, including real and perceived security. In addition to improvements in survey and polling coverage around the world, there is also something of a revolution underway in ICT and open source digital communications capacities, especially from lower- and middle-income settings.

Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute, a Principal of the SecDev Group, and a professor at the Instituto de Relações Internacionais, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro.

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