"Conversations on Human Security" by Sarah Jane Cooper-Knock

At the turn of the year, in Nairobi, the ANTHUSIA team met to reflect on a range of research methods that could be utilised in our studies. My own session explored the possibilities and challenges of arts-based methods. 

Over the years, many scholars have hoped that arts-based methods would offer an opportunity to redress the power imbalances that are often embedded in research endeavours. But whilst there are many compelling reasons to engage in arts-based approaches, there is nothing inherently decolonising about them. In fact, used uncritically, they can reinforce the very power dynamics that academics hoped they would address. Even at their best, they are just one piece in a much bigger research puzzle. 

Simply put, if you are looking to decolonise your research practice, your method (however ‘innovative’) will not do your work for you. 

When we speak of working to decolonise research projects, we  should be exploring them from their conception and into their afterlives. Decolonisation is not a discrete event nor does it carry a singular meaning. Thinking through what decolonising or ‘unsettling’ means is an ongoing project: something that is individual and collective; personal and institutional. 

For me, this is certainly a current and continuing focus for reflection. There is much I have to learn from and improve on from my past practice. And much I need to listen to, practice solidarity with, and act on in the future.

For the purposes of this blog, it is worth thinking about decolonising in relation to the conceptual framework of this consortium: human security. The fact that this concept anchors our work is, of course, a reflection of the international funding structures that shape the academy. Human security was selected during the bid writing phase because it was considered broad enough to encompass multiple projects but coherent enough to anchor conceptual discussions across the group. 

Part of any decolonising discussion will explore this emergence: what does it tell us about the power structures that shape research funding? What are the repercussions of these structures? What can we learn for future funding? These were discussions that we encouraged across our team in Nairobi, and will continue throughout the project. Another part of the decolonising discussion for ANTHUSIA will be: now that we have this conceptual framework of human security, how do we engage with it? What possibilities does it hold?

Faced with these questions, we might be tempted to focus on understanding the use of ‘human security’ on the international policy stage: What was the immediate genealogy of the concept of human security in the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report? How did the waxing and waning of the use of the term in the UN shape prospects for the concept?  What implications did the work of the Human Security Network and the Human Security Commission have in this trajectory? How has the ‘second generation’ usage of human security by the EU reformed or reified the possibilities of the concept? These are potentially interesting and important questions, exploring the space that official concepts provide to think about issues in inclusive, resonant and varied ways. In doing so, we acknowledge the diverse thinkers who have conceived, co-opted and challenged this official terminology. 

Equally important, however, is the freedom to depart or delink from official conceptions of ‘human security’ and the debates that have surrounded them. For whilst the term ‘human security’ may have a particular genealogy, there is a broad and rich body of literature from African philosophers, politicians, historians, economists, scientists and more on what it means to be ‘human’ and to be ‘secure’. This, in turn, meshes with the ways in which people understand, enact and resist the world, and their place within it, in their daily lives. 

We might be reminded by the likes of Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko or Ng?g? wa Thiong’o of the radical dehumanisation of colonialism, which must be fought both in the mind and the polity as a whole. 

We might be pushed to question the notion that ‘human security’ can be individualised, seeing interconnectedness and solidarity as both a means and an end  - from Amicar Cabral’s vision of interconnected liberation struggles to Mary Njeri Kinyanjui’s depiction of an ‘utu-ubuntu business model’ amongst informal traders in Nairobi. 

We could reflect on the writing of scholars such as Peace Kiguwa  and Pumla Dineo Gqola, whose work highlights the need to take intersectionality seriously in our understanding of security.

And, amidst all this, we might also consider the degree to which ‘human security’ can be explored in ways that are not necessarily human-centred

Expanding our discussions may confirm, extend or challenge the ideas that surround official definitions of ‘human security’. By being willing to break free of official readings, however, we are better able to understand what form of human security - if any - reflects the ways that people conceive of their own lives and act within them.