Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Putting human security at the heart of public policy-making

Governments’ core objective of providing a secure environment for their people is traditionally understood to mean ‘national security’. This column advocates replacing that idea with a broader concept of ‘human security’. Such an approach can provide a consistent framework for handling multiple challenges, including natural disasters and global crises as well as military threats.

In a nutshell

Replacing ‘national security’ with a broader concept of ‘human security’ will enable policy-makers to deal with problems that require government attention within a consistent framework.

Such an approach will strengthen the soundness of the decision-making process by making trade-offs among various components of human security.

This approach can also shed light on the theoretical problem of analysing an economy with multiple public goods.

It is generally accepted that the primary function of any government is to establish a secure environment for its citizens and residents. For historical reasons, security is typically understood to mean ‘national security’ or defence against military threats.

In public economics, national security is thought of as an almost perfect example of a public good. All governments consider supplying the public good of national security as their responsibility. In general, this view is shared by the people and allocating resources to national defence has tended to face relatively few challenges.

But recently the de facto superior position of national defence over other government services has been subject to various criticisms. On the one hand, a considerable share of voters, especially in democratic countries, raise concerns about sustaining national security through rising military expenditures.

On the other hand, people have come to understand that military security is only one dimension of a more general concept of ‘human security’ (IP-DCAF, 2003), and that the costs of ignoring other key dimensions of security may be unacceptable. Government strategies that overemphasise national security may fail to satisfy the needs of society in these other areas.

Human security can be thought of as a composite public good. Its components are the means to prevent or reduce damage from a variety of threats, including natural disasters (such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods), man-made disasters (such as forest fires, environmental degradation and epidemic diseases) and economic and social threats (such as global economic crises, uncontrolled mass migration, poverty and organised crime).

There have been some illuminating examples in recent times. In 2008, China experienced enormous difficulties in helping people suffering in the aftermath of the earthquake in Wenchuan County, Sichuan. Despite the country’s military might, its capability (military and otherwise) for dealing with such a threat was far below the required level.

Other countries such as Turkey in 1999 and Iran in 2003 have had similar experiences. In contrast, Japan, a country that is well organised for natural disasters, has performed much better in containing the loss of human life as well as material damage.

Similar observations can be made for containing the human suffering due to a hurricane. The relatively poor performance of the US system in dealing with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 compared with Cuba’s success when Hurricane Ike hit the island in 2008 demonstrates that it is not necessarily a matter of a country’s level of development nor the relative strength of its military. Rather, it is the result of attaching more importance to the natural disasters dimension of human security.

A framework for promoting human security

Switching the focus from national security to human security is not an easy task. First, people need to be convinced that non-military threats may be as serious as military threats. For example, the 1999 earthquake in Turkey led to a much higher loss of human life as well as material damage than any external military threat that the country has faced since its independence.

But the importance of taking action against such threats is still not sufficiently understood by the public. As a result, governments do not enjoy the same level of support as they get for national defence. The privileged status of national defence (without a sound base) remains a major obstacle to the optimal allocation of resources for human security.

It is vital to define a concept of human security that is broad enough to address major threats but not so broad that can have no operational meaning. Expanding the concept of human security to cover all public goods will not serve the purpose. One approach may be to pick the most relevant security threats and leave others out. That will enable policy-makers to estimate the relative contributions of each component of human security and value them accordingly.

A public policy exercise could be conducted in the following way:

  • First, a change in the resources allocated to one of the components of human security could be calculated in two stages. The first stage would estimate the effect of the change on the designated component of human security. The second stage would take account of the relative share of the component in the overall effect on human security.
  • Second, this exercise would be repeated for all components and the results compared. The component that contributes most to human security would be chosen for public policy purposes.

Such comparative evaluation of the relative contributions of components of human security would enable policy-makers to base their resource allocation decisions on more solid ground. It would also enable them to consider such diverse issues as military threats and global financial crises within a unified framework.

At the technical level, there are difficulties in measuring the components of human capital and their respective contributions. But these are neither more difficult nor more unrealistic than dealing with problems stemming from military threats. Approaches developed to deal with global problems such as climate change can be fruitfully used to analyse the problem at hand.


Replacing national security with human security will enable policy-makers to deal with problems that require government attention within a consistent framework. Such an approach will strengthen the soundness of the decision-making process by making trade-offs among various components of human security. It may also shed light on the theoretical problem of analysing an economy with multiple public goods.

Further reading

IPU-DCAF (2003) Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector, Inter-Parliamentary Union – Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

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