Political studies

International Non-Governmental Organizations and Their Role in Activating the Contents of Human Security

By SAKHRI Mohamed

Abstract

Human security is a concept that encompasses a broad range of threats to human wellbeing, from economic insecurity to environmental threats. International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have played an important role in activating and operationalizing the concept of human security through their advocacy, research, and programming. This paper examines the emergence of the human security concept, the role of INGOs in advancing human security, and case studies of INGOs applying human security frameworks. It argues that INGOs have been critical actors in translating the abstract concept of human security into programs and policies that address multifaceted insecurities at national and local levels. However, challenges remain in applying human security holistically and coherently across diverse contexts. The paper concludes by assessing opportunities for further operationalizing human security approaches to promote human wellbeing in the 21st century.

Introduction

The concept of ‘human security’ emerged in the post-Cold War period as a new paradigm for understanding and addressing complex risks that threaten human safety, livelihoods, and dignity. While earlier notions of security focused on territorial defense and national interests, human security is people-centered and highlights threats faced by individuals and communities (UNDP, 1994; Tadjbakhsh & Chenoy, 2007). The expansion of security thinking to include hunger, disease, natural disasters, crime, social conflict, and other threats reflects a broader reconceptualization of international security in the contemporary era.

Academics and policymakers have debated the contours of human security and how it should be applied in policy and practice. But overall, human security is united by a concern with the multidimensional vulnerabilities people confront in daily life. The 1994 UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report defined human security as having two main pillars: ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want.’ The threats are context-specific and vary across groups, but commonly encompass food security, health security, environmental security, economic security, personal security from violence and crime, community security, and political security (UNDP, 1994). Addressing such diverse challenges requires responses across humanitarian, development, human rights, and peacebuilding domains. Thus, while the expansive scope of human security has posed challenges for practical application, it provides a valuable overarching framework for analyzing and addressing interlinked insecurities.

A significant aspect of the human security concept is its emphasis on individual and community-level perspectives. Rather than viewing security from the lens of the nation-state, it shifts focus to the lived experiences of ordinary people. Human security approaches aim to identify “who is secure, from what threats, through what means, and by what authorities” based on priorities voiced by individuals and communities (Owen, 2008, p.126). This reorientation of security towards local vulnerabilities and capacities is central to the emergence of human security and its ongoing relevance.

In parallel to the conceptual evolution of human security since the 1990s, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have played a pivotal role in activating human security approaches. INGOs were among the earliest and most consistent proponents of the human security paradigm and integrated human security into their advocacy and programming. This paper examines how INGOs contributed to the rise of human security and its integration into policymaking. It analyzes how leading INGOs have translated human security into practical initiatives in diverse contexts through their research, campaigns, partnerships, and field operations. While governments and international institutions have supported human security to varying degrees, INGOs have been vital drivers behind human security norms and their implementation.

The paper begins by outlining the emergence of human security as a concept in the 1990s, followed by an examination of how INGOs promoted and shaped understandings of human security. The next sections provide case studies of prominent INGOs that have advanced human security across different domains: Oxfam International, Refugees International, and Human Rights Watch. Their efforts demonstrate INGOs’ role in applying human security approaches to address complex crises at community and policy levels. The conclusion reflects on challenges and opportunities going forward for INGOs to further activate human security and realize its emancipatory vision.

The Rise of Human Security

The genesis of human security lies in critical reassessments of traditional state-centric notions of security in the early post-Cold War period. With the threat of superpower conflict receding, policymakers and scholars recognized that many persisting insecurities were not adequately addressed by militarized approaches centered on state sovereignty and state interests (Paris, 2001). Intrastate conflicts, poverty, disease epidemics, environmental degradation, and other transnational challenges demanded more comprehensive understandings of security that centered on human wellbeing. The 1994 UNDP Human Development Report articulated an influential model of human security focused on threats to human lives, livelihoods, and dignity (UNDP, 1994). This people-centered perspective viewed security through the lens of vulnerable communities rather than abstract national interests.

In complement to the UNDP’s articulation, Mahbub Ul Haq, Amartya Sen, and other development scholars emphasized that human security requires addressing interconnected economic and political sources of vulnerability (CHS, 2003). They argued that protections traditionally associated with state security forces are insufficient where poverty, inequality, and undemocratic governments perpetuate human insecurities. Thus, human security requires structural interventions rather than solely defending territories (Tadjbakhsh & Chenoy, 2007). By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Commission on Human Security, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, and other panels further developed the concepts and policy implications of human security (ICISS, 2001; Ogata & Sen, 2003).

However, some governments pushed back against aspects of the human security agenda as intruding upon states’ sovereign authority over security matters (Paris, 2001). The expanded scope of human security also posed challenges for coherent implementation within foreign policies used to narrower security frameworks (Krause, 2004). Ongoing debates emerged around whether human security should focus on shielding people from immediate threats or empowering people to realize their full potential. Thus, while human security gained significant discursive traction after the 1990s, its translation into policy and practice remained partial and uneven.

It was within this contested space that international NGOs asserted a crucial role promoting and applying human security. INGOs adopted human security as a key framework for their advocacy even as governments wavered. Given the expansive redefinition of security implied by human security, INGOs’ research and programming became critical mechanisms through which human security moved beyond abstract theory into concrete initiatives. The next two sections analyze how INGOs shaped evolving understandings of human security and drove its implementation through their campaigns, partnerships, and field activities.

INGOs Promoting Human Security

International NGOs were among the earliest non-state supporters of reconceptualizing security around human development and human rights. During the 1990s, groups such as the Arias Foundation, WOMEN, Inc., and the Nobel Women’s Initiative organized conferences and publications highlighting connections between disarmament, human rights, and human security (Bunch & Reilly, 2010). Transnational NGO networks collaborated to advocate for ceasefires and peace processes protecting civilians in conflict regions. Groups working on humanitarian crises, poverty reduction, and democratization initiatives increasingly framed issues in human security terms. Rather than segmented ‘issue silos,’ they argued human security provided a holistic lens incorporating peace, rights, justice, and development (Florini & Simmons, 2009).

INGOs asserted that sustainable solutions demanded going beyond crisis responses towards empowering vulnerable communities and addressing underlying inequities fueling insecurities.

For instance, Oxfam International’s 1995 report introduced its ‘rights-based approach’ declaring that “Poverty and vulnerability are not primarily the result of resource scarcity but of intense inequality” (Oxfam, 1995, p.2). This aligned with human security arguments that political, social and economic structures reproducing poverty and marginalization must be transformed to enable human development. Through the 1990s, Oxfam became a leading proponent of rights-based approaches to poverty and justice issues utilizing human security frameworks.

Similarly, groups such as Refugees International, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors Without Borders increasingly documented threats facing civilians in conflict zones in human security terms. They framed humanitarian crises as not just requiring short-term relief, but also necessary political solutions to enable lasting security and justice (Gomez & Christensen, 2010). Through field research, direct advocacy, and media campaigns, these groups gave visibility to acute insecurities confronting vulnerable populations. They positioned human security as aligning local people’s interests and rights with international humanitarian norms (MacLean et al, 2004).

Thus, INGOs translated human security from a scholarly concept into an advocacy agenda shaping policy debates on international responses to conflict, displacement and poverty. Their reports and advocacy legitimized attention to acute downsides of previous narrowly state-centric approaches when these violated human rights and failed to provide actual security to people (Thomas, 2001). Through the 1990s to early 2000s, INGO promotion of human security exerted significant influence on legal and normative frameworks including the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines, the creation of the International Criminal Court, and the Responsibility to Protect principle (Bellamy, 2010).

INGO programming and partnerships further mainstreamed attention to human security in development initiatives throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Groups like CARE, World Vision and ActionAid explicitly adopted human security approaches for their poverty reduction and crisis response projects (Thomas & Wilkin, 1999). UN agencies partnered with them to design programs addressing multidimensional vulnerabilities at community levels. For instance UNICEF collaborated with World Vision, Plan International and other NGOs on community projects applying human security approaches to protect children (Chenoy, 2005). Through on-the-ground programming, INGOs moved human security from theory into practice to address intersecting insecurities shaping everyday lives.

INGOs also facilitated networks and campaigning platforms where vulnerable groups could directly voice their human security experiences and priorities. For example, NGOs supported the founding of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in the early 1990s based on humanitarian and human security arguments (Williams & Goose, 1998). The ICBL connected NGOs to landmine victims, doctors, and community advocates who provided direct testimonies of landmines’ human impacts. By channeling voices from affected communities, the campaign galvanized public pressure that led over 100 states to endorse the landmark 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning landmines. This demonstrated the role of INGOs and civil society networks in grounding human security policymaking in realities and perspectives of insecure people.

Thus, in the 1990s and early 2000s, INGOs were instrumental in translating human security from academic concept to practical policy frameworks and programs. INGO advocacy and collaboration with vulnerable communities mainstreamed human security approaches within humanitarian and development fields. They also pushed governments to endorse human security-based norms and treaties protecting civilians. However, questions persisted about how to implement human security coherently given disagreement over its scope and relationship to state sovereignty. The following case studies of Oxfam, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch illuminate leading INGOs’ ongoing efforts to activate human security strategies from global to local levels.

Oxfam International: Rights-Based Approaches to Poverty and Justice

Oxfam International exemplifies influential INGOs advancing human security by linking local vulnerabilities to national and global policy change. Since the 1990s, Oxfam framed its rights-based approaches to poverty and injustice around human security concerns (Oxfam International, 2009). It argued that poverty stems from exclusion, marginalization and inequality interlinked with violence, conflict, and humanitarian crises. Therefore, sustainable solutions require empowering people to claim social, economic and political rights fulfilling their human security and dignity.

Through the 2000s, Oxfam expanded application of rights-based approaches across its programming areas. Reports like ‘Towards Ending Violence Against Women in South Asia’ (Oxfam, 2005) highlighted multilayered insecurities women face from domestic abuse to societal discrimination. Oxfam called for comprehensive legal and attitudinal changes to transform gendered power relations. In another example, following the 2004 Asian tsunami, Oxfam emphasized supporting displaced communities’ long-term recovery by campaigning for policy reforms around land rights, disaster prevention, and equitable reconstruction (Oxfam, 2006). Rather than narrowly delivering aid, it worked to address political and socioeconomic roots of human insecurity exacerbated by the disaster.

Oxfam also applies human security frameworks in its climate justice advocacy connecting local hardship to global inequalities and governance failures driving climate change. Oxfam’s 2020 report ‘Climate Finance Shadow Report’ exposed how most international climate funds fail to reach vulnerable developing country populations (Oxfam, 2020). It outlined an alternative ‘people-powered climate finance’ model that invests directly in locally-led adaptation and emissions reduction driven by climate-impacted groups’ needs. This represents a human security approach reshaping climate policies based on frontline communities’ voices and security priorities.

Through such campaigns, Oxfam positions local interests within broader arguments about global responsibility for addressing interconnected threats people face. It links grassroots projects to national and international advocacy promoting policy and normative changes that uphold human security. For instance, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign called on multinational corporations to improve supply chain transparency, labor rights, and environmental sustainability. This connected consumer advocacy to supporting secure livelihoods for smallholder farmers and factory workers (Oxfam, 2016). Oxfam’s model combines research, advocacy, public mobilization and development programming to translate human security principles into practical protections at multiple scales.

Refugees International: Advocacy for Displaced People’s Rights

Refugees International (RI) demonstrates INGOs’ role mobilizing human security approaches to defend displaced people’s rights amid complex crises. Since its founding in 1979, RI has carried out hundreds of missions to conflict zones documenting threats confronting refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other vulnerable populations. Grounded in evidence from the field, RI advocates for policies and humanitarian responses protecting civilians’ basic rights and dignity. Its model links first-hand testimony and data from affected communities with direct lobbying of governments to transform policy based on human security imperatives (RI, 2020).

For instance, RI’s long-standing work on internal displacement crises exemplifies applying human security frameworks to overcome gaps between humanitarian action and political solutions. Reports like ‘Left Behind: Displaced Haitians Seek Protection and a Way Home’ (RI, 2021) document acute insecurities confronting IDPs unable to return home due to ongoing violence, poverty, environmental threats, and lack of essential services in areas of origin. RI demands policymakers fulfill obligations to IDPs by addressing root causes of displacement through peacebuilding, development and climate resilience alongside emergency relief. Otherwise, displaced groups remain marginalized, excluded from society, and denied human security.

Similarly, RI’s 2020 report ‘Brutal Choices: Vietnamese Refugees Flee Danger at Home Only to Face the Threat of Illegal Detention in Thailand’ highlighted refugees trapped in long-standing limbo in Thailand without legal status or basic rights protections (RI, 2020). Based on interviews with refugees, RI called for legal reforms to enable integration and prevent indefinite detention. This frames refugees’ insecurity as a policy failure rather than inherent vulnerability, pressing governments to uphold human rights. Across cases, RI’s model shifts discourse towards solutions guaranteeing long-term security and dignity.

RI also advocates directly to major donor governments, UN agencies and NGOs to prioritize displaced groups’ needs and rights in humanitarian response. Reports like ‘Still at Risk: Restrictions Endanger Rohingya Women and Girls in Bangladesh’ (RI, 2018) document protection gaps and guides policy improvements grounded in evidence from the field. RI further connects officials directly to displaced communities’ perspectives through hosting delegations with refugees during field visits. This bridges local realities with national and international decision-making to align policy around communities’ human security priorities.

Through research, advocacy and policy counsel, Refugees International has played an influential role translating awareness of displaced peoples’ rights into more accountable humanitarian policies. Its approach linking grassroots testimony and data to high-level lobbying provides a model for activism upholding human security above partisan interests.

Human Rights Watch: Protecting Human Dignity in Crisis

Human Rights Watch (HRW) demonstrates INGOs advancing human security by investigating abuses and pressing for accountability to protect human dignity. Since its origins monitoring rights violations in the Americas in the 1970s, HRW has grown into one of the world’s largest human rights research and advocacy organizations (HRW, 2020). It exemplifies a model of witnessing and exposing violence and oppression through meticulous factual documentation. HRW frames its work around upholding equal dignity, justice and security for all people against repression and discrimination. This emphasis on defending human rights to enable human potential closely aligns with foundational principles of human security.

HRW’s reporting covers the breadth of human rights abuses occurring amid armed conflicts, political repression, social inequalities and more. It spotlights direct and structural violence that denies human security, from extrajudicial killings to everyday discrimination against minorities and women. For instance, HRW’s series of reports on abuses against Rohingya people in Myanmar gradually documented escalating rights violations culminating in genocidal violence (HRW, 2020). By sounding early warnings before atrocities occur, HRW draws attention to threats to human security that states often ignore.

In other cases, HRW demands accountability where impunity for past abuses perpetuates conflict and insecurity. Its extensive reporting on transitional justice processes in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe connects restoring dignity for victims to societal reconciliation and violence prevention (Roht-Arriaza, 2006). HRW emphasizes that human security requires not just ending active hostilities, but also addressing underlying injustice and unhealed grievances between groups. Otherwise, oppressive systems and denial of people’s humanity fosters conditions for resurgence of conflict.

A cornerstone of HRW’s approach is centering evidence from affected communities and amplifying their voices. Its field research is grounded in hundreds of interviews to document abuses from multiple perspectives, emphasizing victims’ narratives. HRW accompanies reports with campaigns featuring testimony from survivors and families to compel action on human rights violations. This foregrounds local realities in its advocacy on global platforms.

By exposing abuses, HRW generates international pressure for governments and non-state actors to end violations, hold perpetrators accountable, and remedy policies enabling oppression. It utilizes “naming and shaming” to push for legal and political change based on human rights norms (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). HRW also engages in private dialogue with officials, provides expert testimony, and advocates before intergovernmental bodies to argue for policy shifts grounded in human rights and respect for human dignity. Through extensive advocacy from local to international levels, HRW presses for changes that enable greater freedom from fear and want.

While HRW focuses predominantly on civil-political human rights, its work forms an essential foundation for cross-cutting human security. Its documentation upholds the principle that protecting human dignity and empowering people against violence and abuse is the starting point for both physical safety and self-determination. By giving visibility to marginalized voices, HRW asserts the agency of ordinary people to demand accountability and justice as critical dimensions of human security.

Conclusion

This examination of human security’s evolution and INGOs’ role activating it reveals complex achievements and persistent gaps. The emergence of human security reflected growing recognition that narrow state-centered paradigms inadequately promoted human wellbeing and dignity. INGOs were pivotal in translating human security into a governing framework advocating multilateral policies upholding individual and community needs. Through campaigns, partnerships, and field programs, INGOs mainstreamed human security globally across the 1990s and 2000s within humanitarian response, human rights and development sectors.

However, tensions remain regarding human security’s scope and applicability. Practical implementation often remains siloed or privilege physical safety over wider freedoms. Moreover, while INGO advocacy promotes human security norms, states’ and corporations’ responses frequently fall short or trade-off some dimensions of human security against others. Nevertheless, INGO initiatives firmly establish human security as an alternative policy lens grounded in the multidimensional, interdependent vulnerabilities and capabilities people experience.

Looking ahead, further operationalizing human security requires concerted efforts to connect local realities to national and global policymaking. INGOs like Oxfam, RI and HRW provide models of research, advocacy and partnerships that compel state and non-state actors to address acute insecurities based on evidence from below. However, translating local participation to binding policy change remains challenging (Pingeot, 2014). Stronger legal frameworks, accountability mechanisms, and people-centered global governance can enhance human security implementation. INGOs also face internal challenges living up to practitioners’ responsibilities within human security approaches (Duffield, 2010). Nevertheless, civil society remains essential to overcoming state centrism and putting human security priorities into practice.

Two decades since its rise to prominence, human security retains emancipatory power to reorient policy towards people’s needs and aspirations. INGOs helped catalyze this paradigm shift by placing those most insecure at the center of advocacy and action. With escalating transnational crises, resolving complex insecurities demands even greater movement participation and human solidarity. INGOs continue to play vital roles making human security real through research, programs and campaigns led by and accountable to vulnerable communities. The cases explored above provide models and lessons for advancing human security amid shifting threats in the 21st century.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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