Taking Security Seriously

Robert Muggah on why the MDG High-Level Panel needs to take conflict, violence, and fragility seriously.
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April 18, 2013
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The post-2015 development agenda will shape the direction of aid policy and practice for decades. And for the selected goals to be useful, they must also be perceived to be legitimate and universal. The very fact that they are being subjected to wide-ranging global debate is testament to the ways in which the tectonic plates of aid are fundamentally shifting. For its part, the High Level Panel is playing a critical role in guiding the form and content of future goals, targets and indicators. Its diverse membership of international leaders and experts is intended to ensure tomorrow’s aid architecture accounts for the latest insights from around the world.

A signal question confronting the High Level Panel is the place of conflict, violence, and fragility in the post-2015 development equation. For the past two years this issue has preoccupied thousands of diplomats, activists, and practitioners. Their concerns were given voice most recently during United Nations-supported consultations in Monrovia, Panama, Jakarta, and Helsinki. Routinely highlighted at these meetings was the central place of “peace” – whether conceived narrowly as the absence of violence or described in broad terms as safety, security and freedom from fear. For his part, the United Nations Secretary General also declared that the transformation of “violent conflicts and fragility into peace, justice and shared prosperity” must be a cornerstone of the post-2015 agenda.

There is solid empirical evidence illustrating the correlations between conflict, violence, fragility and development. Statistical research demonstrates how persistent insecurity leads to underdevelopment and improvements in safety contribute to sustainable development. Countries and cities exhibiting the highest rates of violence also register the lowest gains in social and economic progress. Moreover, where low levels of human development persist, the incidence of real and perceived violence also tend to be high. These are hardly novel findings. They are clearly outlined in the World Development Report, the Global Burden of Armed Violence, and countless studies issued by the United Nations, research institutes and non-governmental organizations. 

There is also growing support among some governments for ensuring conflict and violence prevention and resilience to fragility are elevated as key pillars of the post-2015 agenda. The so-called g7+ and dozens of other states have stressed the importance of security and justice promotion together with armed violence reduction and peace-building as critical for the future of sustainable development. As Larry Attree observes, European Union members explicitly highlighted peace and security as core priorities for the post-2015 framework. What is more, a recent poll of over 200,000 people highlights how the “protection against crime and violence” ranks as among the top priorities for future goals. This has in turn prompted the Beyond 2015 coalition to include peace and security as a red flag issue in judging the recommendations of the High Level Panel.

Given widespread global support for ensuring conflict, violence and fragility are included in post-2015 development framework, why the hesitancy on the part of the High Level Panel?

For one, it seems that anxieties among some Panel members are less academic than political. Certain emerging powers are uneasy with the underlying assumptions and practices of conflict prevention, violence reduction and measures to redress fragility. Indeed, while conflict prevention is undergoing a renaissance in the United Nations, views are still mixed about the direction of the armed violence and fragility agendas in the General Assembly. A small but significant clutch of governments are wary of the ways in these issues might sanction intervention and trespass on national sovereignty. Some diplomats also feel that these themes fall outside of the remit of “development” and should be reserved for other forums in the United Nations (or elsewhere). The more orthodox among them insist the post-2015 agenda should be restricted to staples such as poverty reduction, social and economic equality, and the environment. According to John McArthur, stalwarts even contest the introduction of “governance” to the discussion. 

Another obstacle is semantic. Although there is clearly appetite among many member states for including conflict, violence and fragility priorities in the post-2015 development framework, there is still disagreement on the basic terminology. Even well hewn concepts such as “peace” and “security” are disputed. In spite of considerable enthusiasm registered during global consultations in the Americas, Africa and Asia, there is still a surprising lack of consensus on how these expressions are defined. Such doubts raise obvious challenges when it comes to their translation into practical strategies. Discussions around the world have revealed a remarkable diversity of terms ranging from citizen, civilian, and personal security promotion to peace-building, peace-making, and peace consolidation. The High Level Panel would do well to acknowledge and celebrate this diversity and their unambiguous linkages with wider questions of development.    

In light of these above mentioned tensions, it is hardly surprising that there are still ongoing debate on the appropriate metrics by which to measure improvements in conflict prevention, violence reduction and efforts to mitigate fragility. Certain governments wish to confine indicators to “output” measures such as the strengthening of institutions. Fortunately, considerable thinking by governments, thanks tanks, and researchers has gone into setting out a number of impact indicators to real and perceived outcomes. Many experts agree that reductions in the number of violent deaths, rates of displacement, the incidence of rape and sexual violence and the proportion of people feeling unsafe are a solid starting point. Other indices include changes in the confidence of citizens in security and justice institutions, access to judicial services, the proportion of victims reporting crime, and the extent of pretrial detention. These are all widely accepted and measurable indicators and could be considered in the deliberations of the High Level Panel.

There is ample public support and scholarly evidence to back a progressive approach to the post-2015 development agenda, including one that explicitly accounts for conflict and violence prevention and reduction. There are also practical reasons to take a bold approach since virtually no low-income fragile state is on track to achieve Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Fortunately, federal, state-level and municipal governments and civil societies around the globe are already developing programs that privilege the safety and security of citizens, mindful of the ways in which routine violence undermines development. There are promising innovations in Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. Many of these were designed with the understanding that the prevention and reduction of conflict and violence are not just a means to development, but worthwhile ends in their own right.

The High Level Panel has an historic opportunity to set out bold recommendations in its report to the United Nations Secretary General in May. To its credit, in November 2012 the Panel acknowledged the central role of conflict, violence and fragility in disabling development. But they can also take practical steps to making the world safer. At a minimum, panelists should reach out to diplomats and allay political concerns, clarify semantic disagreements, and propose metrics grounded in evidence and focused on improving the lives of civilians. They must make clear that peace is not the preserve of a small number of fragile countries, but is a universal public good for all United Nations member states and their citizens. This is the least the Panel can do on behalf of the half million peopled killed annually and millions more suffering from violence around the world.  

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