The New Insecurity in a Globalized World


by Elizabeth Wilke

A new conceptualization of insecurity and instability is needed in a world with greater and freer movement of goods, services and people – both legal and illicit – greater demands on weakening governments and the internationalization of local conflicts. The new insecurity is fundamentally derived from the responses of people and groups to greater uncertainty in an increasingly volatile world. Governments, and increasingly other actors need to recognize this in order to promote sustained stability in the long-term, locally and internationally.

Security of persons and property is absolutely necessary for economic, social, or political development on any large scale; people must have a reasonable belief in their own physical safety and that tomorrow they will be able to capture the fruits of their labor today. This extends not just to people in underdeveloped countries. Insecurity is a global and natural phenomenon – although admittedly undesirable – experienced by all people to varying degrees. The financial crisis has brought a large amount of uncertainty to people in the United States and the European Union about their futures and has seen a surge in political mobilization and social upheaval across the Atlantic. In an age of globalization where borders are more open, people and goods more mobile, which simultaneously facilitates the spread of prosperity as well as risk; i.e., there is greater opportunity for everyone, not just those engaged in legitimate activities. Furthermore, global openness also requires that events in one part of the world are necessarily felt in other parts. We learned this lesson all too well during the financial crises of 1998, and are still learning it after the 2008 crisis.

Fundamentally, the question is still: how can we make lives and livelihoods better? The question is not restricted to the poor anymore, although the poor generally face much higher levels of risk and insecurity than the wealthy. The question is now focused on the creation and sustainment of secure, stable environments where people can exercise personal authority to improve their own outcomes. The answer is that lives are made qualitatively better when people’s environments are relatively stable, and they have the power to exercise autonomy over them.

The absolute rise in risk and insecurity resulting from an open, global economic system has reshaped the nature of insecurity in two ways. First, people internalize more risk. The 9/11 attacks and the 2005 London bombings, in addition to news stories of “home-grown” terrorists or uncovered attack plots that came close to being enacted, remind people in the developed world that they are not entirely protected against international threats to their security. Second, the rise in risk creates demand for greater state interventions to curb the proliferation of insecurity. It does this first by placing demands on states by its constituents, and second by other states’ demands that they take action against persons or groups that promote violence or insecurity elsewhere. As demands on the state to provide greater security and stability increase, the ability of the state to establish and maintain sole authority over the use of force is constrained. In many places the state is incapable or unwilling to establish, maintain and consistently deliver a fair and impartial rule of law – i.e., provide a stable environment in which people can go about their daily lives with the reasonable expectation that the integrity of their persons, family, and property will be secure.

As a side note, the inclusion of the term “unwilling” is deliberate here. Some states are unwilling to undertake necessary measures to establish secure environments, perhaps because they lack the resources, the opportunity cost of those resources is too high, or there is insufficient political will to allocate the necessary resources. In general, establishing authority over a space is a difficult task requiring huge amounts of money, manpower, experience, and a credible commitment to maintain those efforts into the long-term. To illustrate, in 2011 the United States Department of Defense spent an estimate $159 billion USD on operations in Afghanistan, most of these to train police and maintain security. If this number were the GDP for a nation, it would be the 58th largest economy in the world, far ahead of countries like Iraq, Angola, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uruguay, Bolivia, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Mali, and many other nations that are being increasingly asked to take on greater roles of governance and responsibility within their own borders. Aside from a lack of resources, states have other agendas and demands on political energy. This has been the case in Rio de Janeiro since the 1960s. The favelas around Rio are mazes of ad hoc buildings and streets built up on hilly terrain – very easy to defend and very difficult to infiltrate for outsiders. That is essentially what the state has become for many in the favelas of Rio – outsiders. In Rio and other cities, poor areas are run by local “informal” authorities” who provide a form of governance in the absence of the state. Donos provide public security, dispute resolution mechanisms, and a clientelistic form of service delivery that acts in part as a substitute for government functions. While there have been actions taken to combat the control of the favelas by narcotrafficking donos, the government of Rio has been, in general, tolerant of their control of these areas even if vocal about their disapproval of the donos.

That “informal” groups provide some semblance of order is not to say that the lives of everyday people is secure in these areas. They are not. Yet, there are very few places in the world where there is absolutely no form of social control or order – someone is calling the shots practically everywhere. What is ultimately at the heart of growing local and regional insecurity are the dynamics at play between individuals who are seeking to reduce their personal insecurity, groups that promote or engage in illicit and/or violent activity, and states or other sovereign authorities. The social contract is being renegotiated as states compete with other groups for public authority, either because other groups are expanding into spaces formerly occupied or controlled by the state, or because the state is trying to expand into spaces formerly occupied or controlled by other groups.

This dynamic inevitably creates insecurity for individuals at the micro-level. People come under competing jurisdictions, and have to learn to negotiate blurry lines of authority and safety.  As security increases, the incentive to take sides rises. This happens globally. The aggregation of personal responses to insecurity generates the instability that policy-makers seek to mitigate. When the state cannot provide protection or opportunity, unemployed, disenfranchised young people join street gangs across the globe – Chicago, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Kinshasa. They join organized criminal networks that will offer employment and protection throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa. They join rebel movements, taking up arms against a state that cannot make credible promises of opportunity, equality, or personal security. They join terrorist groups that can offer them immediate protection, access to resources, and a sense of belonging and identity – a buffer against an uncertain world and a framework for organizing and making sense of one’s environment.

Moreover, these decisions also have implications for conceptions of personal identity. Personal identity is a fundamental human need. People seek a sense of self, a way of organizing their world and the environments in which they find themselves. Instability necessitates changes in how people view themselves and their place in the world. As group, ethnic, regional, and national identities are redefined in the face of conflict or altered sovereignty, people are forced to renegotiate personal identities to incorporate these changes. In the face of dissonance between how they see themselves and the opportunities they have, people often adapt different identities to reduce this disconnect. This renegotiation comes through practice; as people practice new behaviors, they adopt their new identities. Hence, as people in areas of contested authority or beyond the reach of the state practice informality or criminality, this becomes a part of their identity over time.

Even for those that are not willing to commit to sides, the insecurity caused by ill-defined or blurry lines of authority within a political, economic or special space leads civilians to hedge their bets against a clear victor and pay tribute to both sides, to the extent that they can. Civilians must learn to talk out of both sides of their mouths, so to speak, to appease one authority without offending the other. This must necessarily weaken the ability of the state to exert authority in contested spaces and confound efforts to establish authority in these spheres.

The presence of criminal groups absolutely promotes this dynamic. Illicit, violent or other criminal groups have benefitted from the freer movement of goods and services at least as much as those in legitimate business. They have large stores of cash that they can use to buy favors and loyalty, as well as power and weapons to enforce order within their spheres of influence. In some parts of the world, illicit groups are the only groups with public authority – Jamaica, some of Rio’s favelas, most of Sinaloa, Mexico, the shantytowns of Mumbai, Nairobi, and even today, after a huge effort on the part of the Colombian government, parts of Calí and Medellín. These groups benefit from this kind of uncertainty on the part of civilians. They offer employment and an identity to young men, and favors, medication, and even some public services to the community. In return, they receive support – sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit – which builds legitimacy, which translates into authority. The more a non-state group can make state forces appear inept, corrupt, or unwilling to provide basic security to the people, the more people will turn to the group to provide it.

The result is that, in the course of trying to promote their own personal stability – access to resources, a sense of identity, employment, safety –people either actively engage in activities that promote instability for others, or they acquiesce to a system that sustains insecurity.

Furthermore, as boundaries become more fluid, formerly local or regional conflict takes on an increasingly international flavor with some unintended consequences.  Global supply chains for illicit goods and services imply an opportunity for many new types of illicit groups to participate. Hence,  the lines between types of violent destabilizing actors, activities, and events are blurry and becoming more so. Local street gangs in Latin American countries are being used by transnational drug-trafficking supply chains to enforce order in their zones of control and move drugs, people and weapons throughout the region. Similar gangs in megacities in India, Africa and Asia are being used like Tammany Hall-style political coercion delivering votes for local bosses. Formerly local gangs in the United States and elsewhere are adopting increasingly organized, hierarchical structures as their focus grows and their range of activities extends from local protection to drugs, prostitution, extortion and weapons trading. Some of them now resemble the top-down tiered structure of organized crime syndicates. Rebel groups use youth gangs in countries from Colombia to Nigeria as mercenary fighters, who then take their skills learned back to their neighborhoods with them. Rebel groups also are becoming less distinguishable from terrorist groups, and vice versa. As well, all of them are becoming indistinct from organized criminal networks and organizations as they turn to the movement and sale of illegitimate goods and services to finance their operations. Paramilitary groups and other violent non-state groups from across the globe convene in the Tri-Border Area of South America to laundery money and trade expertise and illicit goods. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had well-known ties to the Cartagena and Medellin Cartels in Colombia, as well as the FARC, during the 1990’s. Previous demarcations between types of violence and insecurity as well as their perpetrators no longer apply as neatly as they used to.

The second consequence is that local, regional, or national crises have spillover effects across borders. There is little true “global” insecurity. Rather, local, national, or regional instabilities have spillover effects that affect people beyond the area where the instability originates. Porous borders, low state capacity, and poorly guarded information can cause leakages of weapons, people, and goods that can decrease security everywhere. Regional conflicts create power vacuums where local, violent terrorist groups can set up operations and perpetrate instability not only in their own areas of operation, but also far-off targeted countries. Intrastate conflicts in Africa directly affect the probability of war in neighboring countries. Drug trafficking and violence in Central America filter through even the heavily guarded US-Mexico border. However, these sources of instability are not, in themselves, global in origin. Rather they are the organizational, and in some cases societal-level, responses to insecurity and instability locally that contribute to global insecurity.
Third, insecurity breeds insecurity. Insecurity motivates people to take steps to reduce the insecurity to themselves – to exercise, or regain, control over their environment. Sadly, this often manifests itself in competition rather than cooperation, resulting in zero-sum approaches to reducing instability. If groups cannot cooperate effectively to reduce risk, which is often the case where insecurity exists, then one’s actions to reduce one’s own insecurity generates insecurity for others. As a simplified example, a man who burgles a home has generated insecurity for the homeowner even as the sale of the stolen items generates income for him.

Fourth, unless credible commitments can be made on the part of all groups involved, the third issue cannot be overcome.  In the absence of credible commitments, the actors fall into a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. None of them can credibly commit to provide security for one another. This can be the case between any combinations of states and non-state groups or actors.  In some parts of the world, there is no actor who can enforce societal contracts in which all sides agree to cooperate. States may not have either the capacity or the willingness to police their borders, ensure fair and enforceable dispute resolution, provide a fair and uncorrupt police force, or ensure tight control of the movement of goods and services – legal and illegal – within and beyond its borders. Partly, in an age of globalization, the sheer magnitude of movement and the increase in demands on the state makes this near impossible. Partly, despite rhetoric to the contrary, some states have not taken effective steps to try and a globalized world has made these places even more dangerous. However, the fact remains that without either a mechanism between competing parties, be they individuals, groups or states, or a third party who can credibly commit to enforcing contracts of cooperation over competition, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the problem of the third observation noted above.

Fifth, many things promote insecurity, and they cannot all be thought of as separable. Environmental degradation and pollution, climate change and constrained natural resources, porous borders and weak state capacity, social or economic exclusion, and structural or institutional exclusion all exacerbate problems of insecurity and incentivize individuals to seek alternative situations that increase their short-term security and stability. Groups in resource-depleted areas can often also face ethnic or sectarian violence over access to resources. People in areas where unemployment is high turn to illegal or informal modes of income generation. Additionally, these problems all exacerbate one another. Lack of state control over resources or their distribution permits poor custodianship of those resources. Porous borders make illegal economies more lucrative. Conflict weakens state capacity. Globalization itself worsens insecurity by amplifying its effects across borders.

Sixth, responses to insecurity can be seen as rational attempts to reduce insecurity. If a neighborhood has a high rate of crime and no police protection, it makes sense in the short-term to join a gang for protection. Unemployed, young men who face challenges in securing legitimate livelihoods join gangs to traffic drugs, or join rebel armies for a steady supply of food and pay. Socially excluded groups with no political means of securing access to resources will organize rebellions and wars to gain access. Related to this, steps to crack down on groups that cause insecurity may generate new problems, as the insecurity for the groups itself is increased. A notable example is that, as a result of the Mexican government’s crackdown on narco-trafficking groups, some groups have splintered off and begun extorting schools and other local officials. These are rational, if awful, responses to increased instability in the lives of the former traffickers. Attempts to crack down on insecurity should be ready for its expression in alternate forms.

While it is undoubtedly the case that policy-makers and academics have begun to prioritize efforts to mitigate the spread of the kind of insecurity discussed here, too much emphasis is still placed on actions and reactions at the group and national level. Daily insecurity happens at the micro-level, beginning with individuals’ perceptions of and reactions to the environment in which they find themselves. While insecurity and conflict are all connected at the micro-, meso-, and macro- levels, there needs to me more analysis of risk and insecurity that recognizes the effect of these societal dynamics in individuals as well as groups, and understand how the effects at one level aggregate or disaggregate to levels above and below.

Elizabeth Wilke is an economic policy analyst working on social and economic dynamics in countries affected by conflict and high levels of violence, alternative governnance structures, and state-society interactions.

Image source: bass_nroll