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Rethinking Security, Violence, and Development from the Margins

There is a general sense in the international development and peacebuilding fields that all good things go together—in particular, that security, peace, and development all reinforce one another. This consensus shows up in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16), which is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development” and “significantly reduce violence and related death rates everywhere.” While on its face a laudable goal, its broad strokes eclipse the various ways violence and insecurity can be experienced, as well as the multiple tensions existing between security and development and within different approaches to security itself. Critiquing mainstream thinking on these matters, the author asks what it might mean to understand security from the lived experiences of those being “secured,” especially those living on the margins of society.

The author begins by identifying and contesting the assumptions behind SDG 16: that 1) violence in all its forms is similar enough to be treated as one phenomenon, 2) violence can be measured and assessed in terms of causes and effects, 3) violence “unsettles established political and social orders” and is therefore linked to weak states, 4) violence is “the polar opposite of security,” and 5) security is a precondition of development (and insecurity its inverse). He instead suggests paying greater attention to the specificities of multiple forms of violence in different contexts, their relationships to power structures and inequality, and the far from straightforward ways in which violence and development are related.

Cataloging diverse forms of violence—from civil war to ideologically motivated “globally and regionally networked violence” to “rape, domestic violence and homophobic violence”—the author outlines seven defining attributes of violence, even if these manifest differently under different circumstances. First, violence is usually woven into moral frameworks and understood in moral terms, despite—or perhaps because of—the physical harm/terror it inflicts. Second, violence creates new social roles and relationships between people, distinct from but related to those that exist during peacetime. Third, violence is inherently unpredictable in its effects. Fourth, violence is a form of communication, so part of its “power” comes from how it is represented and interpreted. Fifth, there are inevitably tensions between the means of violence and the (often laudable) ends for which it is employed, as violence usually sets into motion its own destructive cycles that diverge from its intended effects. Sixth, violence and protection from violence are both deeply related to identity. Finally, violence—even when challenging current power structures—“often reinforces inequalities and is inherently antidemocratic” because it concentrates power in the hands of those wielding its tools.

After distinguishing between different forms of violence, the author outlines opposing approaches to understanding the relationship between development and violence: the mainstream one, which sees violence as the antithesis of development, symptomatic of fragile state/institutional structures, and the critical one, which sees violence as actually “inherent in the development enterprise,” capable of creating as well as destroying wealth, and implicated in the state itself.

Similarly, the author sets out two conceptions of security that are in tension. The first is state-centric security, focused on simply reducing overt violence—but without transforming the underlying causes, thereby reinforcing unequal power structures. The second conception is what the author calls “security in the vernacular,” focused on people’s protection from violence and other “existential risks” and the transformation of the conditions that enable these, as judged by the everyday evaluations of those who are “secured” or “developed.” While the author argues that marginalized people’s own definitions/experiences of security should be foregrounded, he also contends that state-centric visions of security are necessary for providing the minimal social order needed to ensure “security in the vernacular.” While in some ways it might seem obviously “good” to focus on the needs of regular people, doing so is fraught—in part because different voices might tell very different, even contradictory, security stories with which policy-makers must contend. Some of these voices may even support activities that put others’ security at risk, as when communities reinforce traditional practices threatening women or minority groups. So, while the way forward is not entirely clear, attention to the questions “whose security?” and “whose peace?”, as well as to local, national, and global power structures, is necessary to facilitate more inclusive and transformative approaches to security and peacebuilding.

Contemporary Relevance

This article encourages us to examine what we mean when we talk about “war prevention” or “security,” as well as the unspoken assumptions that may inform our beliefs about fundamental relationships between violence, security, and development. It prods us to investigate why we might privilege “war” as a special concern over other forms of violence like gang-related gun violence or domestic violence—or forms of structural violence, like malnutrition or death from preventable disease. Furthermore, it makes us think critically about the effects of seemingly benign interventions for “development” or “security,” such that we must always ask, “security or development for whom?” as follows: “Recent cases of Chinese dam construction and mass displacement or U.S. oil/gas pipeline construction on historically Native lands highlight ways in which “development” and “security” do not always go hand in hand; it depends on where you stand and who you are, as there are always winners and losers with such projects. So, on the one hand, this is why attention to “security in the vernacular” is so important, as it foregrounds these marginalized realities. On the other hand, as the author notes, it is not this straightforward—simply look at security from the perspective of affected people—because these affected people may themselves disagree and experience security effects differently. Who actually represents “local” security concerns, and how should any conflict or disagreement over what constitutes “security” be adjudicated? Thinking back to the Arab Spring, there were multiple cases where different local activists (in Syria or Libya, for instance) were in turn calling for external military intervention or entreating foreign countries not to intervene, lending local legitimacy to arguments in the international community both for and against military intervention. So, the real importance of this research lies in its reminder of the inherently political nature—meaning to do with conflict and power and decisions about who wins and who loses—of security and development, matters that many of us would assume transcend politics.

Talking Points

  • Questioning assumptions about violence, security, and development draws attention to multiple forms of violence as manifested in different contexts, their relationships to power and inequality, and the far from straightforward ways in which violence and development are related.
  • Diverse forms of violence still share defining characteristics, including the way violence is often understood in moral terms; its unpredictable and unintended effects; its role as a form of communication; and its antidemocratic and inegalitarian nature.
  • Contrary to mainstream views on the relationship between violence and development, violence can actually be seen as inherent in both development and the state and as capable of creating as well as destroying wealth, depending in part on who benefits from wartime economies.
  • Greater attention is needed to the questions, “whose security?” and “whose peace?” and to “security in the vernacular”—people’s everyday assessments of their own security needs and the transformation of the conditions that enable violence and other threats.

Practical Implications

The most apparent practical implication of this research is to help people think more critically about the assumptions they make about violence, security, and development and pay greater attention to the experiences and judgments of those being “secured” or “developed.” Peace activists, journalists, policy-makers, and educators can encourage their colleagues, readers, and students to examine their own assumptions along these lines, to ask how violence, security, and development might be experienced differently by those differently positioned in local/global power structures, and to encourage discussion based on the author’s seven defining characteristics of violence. Many of the characteristics of violence the author identifies upset widespread, but little-investigated, assumptions about the operation and effectiveness of violence—assumptions that make military action (and other forms of political violence) a default and seemingly necessary tool in conflict. Broader critical discussion of these flawed assumptions—and of the author’s findings related to violence—will make more apparent the practical failings of military action (Exhibit A: the U.S. war in Afghanistan—broadly viewed at the time as a necessary response to the attacks on 9/11—now in its sixteenth year, stalemated, with the terrorism it was meant to combat still going strong), depleting the force of arguments in favor of its use.


Luckham, R. (2017). Whose violence, whose security? Can violence reduction and security work for poor, excluded and vulnerable people? Peacebuilding, 5(2), 99-117.


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