New report on human security in war-torn societies contrasts local views with outside personnel

06/08/05

Village elders, destitute widows and students in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone weigh in

A new study by researchers at the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University found that local people in war-torn societies view peace and security in vastly different ways than international military and aid personnel serving there.

The report, entitled "Mapping the security environment: Understanding the perception of local communities, peace support operations, and assistance agencies" notes that local people within such settings identified jobs and education as a priority, in contrast to international military and humanitarian personnel who put protection from physical harm at the top of their own wish list. The study highlights the need for moving more quickly beyond physical security to provide a range of social benefits if the gains of peace are to be consolidated.

The report contrasted the views of local people with those of international military and aid personnel serving in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The views conveyed come from 350 persons interviewed individually and in focus groups earlier this year. Interviewees included, in addition to the military and aid personnel, a broad cross section of people such as tribal elders, destitute widows, and university students in Afghanistan; ethnic Serbs and Albanians from four cities in Kosovo; and war-wounded and civil society representatives in Sierra Leone.

The study found marked differences between the views of each of the three groups, and also within each group. For example, while all the military personnel interviewed were concerned about security, the American contingent serving in Afghanistan took a much more restricted approach to engaging the local population than did other troops, who sought security in part precisely through such engagement. On the aid side, some agencies sought security by "blending in" with the local population, others through maintaining their distance.

Attitudes also evolved over time. As conflicts receded, local people moved quickly beyond their need for protection from violence (physical security) to articulate a wider range of needs, including employment, health care, and education (human security). "Peace is jobs and electricity," said an illiterate shopkeeper in Kabul. Local people seemed to appreciate what they received rather than debating whether it came from military or civilian institutions.

Reflecting on the report, Larry Minear, director of the Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts, found the gap between popular perceptions of security and international aid programs ominous. "This report sends a warning to donors: short-term investments in keeping the lid on through military presence and keeping the wolf from the door through stop-gap economic aid need to give way to the serious pursuit of a wider human security agenda if durable peace is to become a reality."

"There seems to be a major disconnect in how outsiders and local people look at security issues," added team leader Antonio Donini, a senior researcher at the Tufts' Famine Center who led the research in Afghanistan. "If aid agencies and peacekeepers want to be more effective, they should spend more time listening to what communities have to say."

Other members of the team were Ian Smillie, a Canadian consultant based in Ottawa; Anthony C. Welch, a former British military officer; and Ted van Baarda, an instructor in ethics of the Netherlands Armed Forces. The report was commissioned by the United Kingdom Non-Governmental Organization--Military Contact Group and was funded by the UK Department for International Development.

The report, which includes maps and photos as well as quotations from the interviews, will be available shortly on the Feinstein International Famine Center's web site (http://famine.tufts.edu). It has been the subject of debriefings in London and New York and will be featured in upcoming discussions with governments and aid agencies in Geneva and Washington, D.C.

The Feinstein International Famine Center, part of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, engages in research to promote new models of effective humanitarian action. The Center is currently involved in work in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya and Uganda and in the past year has also worked in Kosovo and Bosnia.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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