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Shake and Stir: Adding a Human Security Lens to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

14 Jul 2020

  • Authors: Gabriele Köhler, Des Gasper, Richard Jolly, Tamara A. Kool, Mara Simane

Shake and Stir: Adding a Human Security Lens to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
This blog post is part of the UNRISD Covid-19 series, in which authors explore the uneven distribution of impacts of both the pandemic and the crisis response, as well as the social, political and economic drivers of these disparities. The series will engage UNRISD’s networks and draw on its vast body of social development research to provide evidence-based responses to the current crisis as it develops and suggest viable strategies for a future where similar crises are not only less devastating, but also less likely to happen.

The need to accelerate action on the 2030 Agenda

2030 Agenda and the SDGs respond to humanity’s challenge to live humanely, justly, sustainably and in peace on our interconnected globe. Pursuit of the Agenda is inevitably subject to forces that “shake and stir” it, as exemplified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. So our analytical frameworks need to be shaken and stirred too, to be more perceptive and responsive to emergent objective challenges, risks and threats, as well as subjective fears, and their impacts.

This month, UN member states are meeting virtually for the High-Level Political Forum, the UN body responsible for follow-up on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The overall theme is Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development. The need for acceleration was already obvious last year, when the Secretary-General’s review of the 2030 Agenda revealed that many countries were off-track for many of the SDGs. Since the recent high point of multilateralism in 2015, when the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Change Agreement were adopted, global governance has retrogressed on many fronts and in important places as exclusivist nationalist ideologies have spread.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the myriad disparities in life chances and the multiple insecurities that people face. The pandemic and its associated ramifying crises have heightened our awareness of many, often interrelated issues: of pervasive and interconnected vulnerabilities affecting many specific and marginalized groups; of the element of surprise, and the challenge of responding to risk and uncertainty; of the need to think harder about fragility and promoting resilience; of the case for public goods with a surge capacity, and of the false economics of “just-in-time” procurement; of the necessity of intersectoral and international cooperation; and much more. It has reinforced the case made by many UN agencies to ramp up disaster preparedness – including among others OCHA, WHO, WFP, UNICEF, or UNFCCC.

The pandemic has, not least, laid bare the “violence of social inequality”. Therefore, we need to take a look at the SDG goals, targets and indicators to see whether they are conceptually, politically and technically equipped to respond to all the challenges that might prevent them from being achieved, especially if we are committed to seeing the process accelerate.

So, the pandemic has triggered a worldwide “shake and stir”, showing how serious and all-encompassing health, economic, social, ecological, political, personal and other disruptions can be. It thereby reminds us of the thinking—and decisions—on human security which, from its original formulations 75 years ago, through to the 2012 General Assembly resolution 66/290, had committed to ensure freedom from fear, freedom from want, and the freedom to live in dignity. As the Human Development Report of 1994 stressed, human security is “people-centred”—as opposed to state-centred.

Why add human security?

Measuring progress on the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets is daunting and demanding enough. Why in addition apply a human security perspective? Because risk, challenges, surprises and threats are not highlighted in the SDGs. Human security is only mentioned in connection to food security or food insecurities in the 2030 Agenda. As formulated, the SDGs largely assume a stable and steadily improving global policy and action environment, side-lining myriad complexities we can, do and will continue to encounter.

Human security thinking can help by providing relevant intellectual, operational and inspirational grounding. It can sharpen both ex ante diagnoses and ex post responses, and incorporate attention to objective insecurities, such as a lack of access to income, food, decent work, health services or education, infrastructure, or personal safety. It can also sensitize to subjective insecurities, that is perceptions of insecurity, which may or may not be correct, but which shape trust and political choices. The idea of human security thus offers an essential complement to the thinking and actions underway in the context of aspiring to meet the SDGs, because insecurities arise in diverse and fluctuating forms in the daily lives of most people, produced by local, national, international and global forces. Human security analysis helps us pursue the 2030 Agenda’s commitment to leave no one behind and would support progress towards more substantive transformative change processes addressing root causes and being prepared for crises.

One can break down human security analysis into a series of questions:
  1. Whose security? Who are the agents considered?
  2. Security of what? Within the broad framework of “survival, livelihood and dignity”, which values will receive attention, at a particular time and place?
  3. Security in respect to which challenges, risks and threats?
  4. Security and threats as perceived by whom?
  5. To be responded to by whom?
  6. Using what means? For example, through (and/or by upgrading) existing institutions, or by innovation or transformation?
  7. To what extent? What minimum thresholds and target levels should prevail?

SDGs reporting, analysis and policy decisions can benefit from principles and methods that have been articulated and applied in human security studies. Many available tools can be used to recognize and help manage threats in people’s daily lives, starting with identifying the “hotspots” where multiple threats can coincide, interact and escalate, and on that basis beginning to understand and increase human resilience. This perspective also pays attention to the subjective perceptions of individuals and groups, which are essential: listening to people, and learning through comparing and contrasting perceptions of priority values, threats and security. Use can also be made of human security indexes and flexible focusing. In tune with the aspiration of the 2030 Agenda to be transformative, the human security approach is oriented to making systematic comparisons between alternative policy routes.

So, what do we suggest?

We propose that a human security perspective be added into SDG planning and implementation processes at country level and in multilateral arenas.

We suggest that the UN system forge stronger linkages between the work on SDGs and the related areas of disaster risk reduction, human development and human security, in order to more systematically recognize and address threats and risks that can undermine the 2030 Agenda and the three freedoms at the basis of the human security approach: freedom from fear, freedom from want, and the freedom to live in dignity.

We suggest that governments adopt a human security lens to help focus their thinking about security. Various country experiences, including in the current COVID-19 crisis, suggest that a human security-oriented policy approach can promote and strengthen a social contract, help articulate and support the fulfilment of fundamental rights and responsibilities for all, and provide attention and recognition to people’s perceptions and fears.

We suggest that the policy research community mobilize and deepen the many relevant research and policy tools, and better and more proactively share research on human security.

To quote UN Secretary-General Guterres: “Human security embodies the core promise of the 2030 Agenda: to leave no one behind.” (Guterres [UN Secretary-General] 2019). To do that, we need to shake and stir.

Some further reading…
About the authors
Des Gasper (ISS, Erasmus University Rotterdam, NL)
Richard Jolly (IDS at University of Sussex, UK)
Gabriele Koehler (senior research associate UNRISD, Germany)
Tamara A. Kool (UNU-MERIT, Maastricht University, NL)
Mara Simane (Riga, Latvia)

Photo by Macau Photo Agency (public domain via Unsplash)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.