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Oxfam responds to The Human Security Report 2012

Posted by Ed Cairns Senior Policy Adviser, Research

11th Oct 2012

Women and girls spend several hours a day collecting water often standing in baking heat. They then carry the heavy jerry cans home, either on their heads or tied to the end of poles.

Ed Cairns Oxfam's Senior Policy Adviser on humanitarian advocacy research responds to The Human Security Report 2012 from Canada's Simon Fraser University.

The Human Security Report is at it again. The latest edition from Canada's Simon Fraser University is a spirited attack on the 'mainstream narrative' on sexual violence in conflict, for exaggerating its prevalence, and for ignoring both male victims and female perpetrators alike.

The Human Security Report 2012Like many NGO workers probably, I read its summary with mounting irritation. But why? Don't we want challenging research? And perhaps Oxfam should be pleased. A tiny fraction of NGOs, the Report says, mention male victims. Oxfam is one of them. Our team in eastern Congo repeatedly highlight how men suffer violence that is not usually sexual, but is certainly gender-based, relating to forced labour and recruitment into armed groups. For more on this see our paper 'We are entirely exploitable': The lack of protection for civilians in eastern DRC.

Most victims of sexual violence are women and girls, but of course it is right to recognise that many are not. And it is certainly vital to base policy on good research - especially if it challenges untested assumptions. If that is the Human Security Report's mission, all credit to it. So just why is it so irritating? And why do some of its headline findings jar with the visceral experience of so many humanitarian workers in the field?

I guess the answer is this. Most importantly, the Reports remind us all that some peace processes work.

At one level, this year's Report, and its predecessors since 2005, challenge conventional narratives. Most importantly, they challenge the doom and gloom that can at times envelop the humanitarian world, and remind us all that some peace processes work.

But at another level, the Reports are deeply conventional. They reinforce the narrative of the global elite that we live in the most peaceful period in human history, and can focus our energy on more important things than tackling conflicts. While last year's World Development Report showed that conflict and violence drive poverty more than ever, the Human Security Reports seem driven by a different agenda: to show that war isn't as bad as we thought.

It would be tragic if its argument that 'the level of sexual violence worldwide is declining' encourages governments to stall the greater priority that sexual violence has, quite rightly, taken in the last few years.And they seem to forget that short-term trends may - sometimes - be a better basis for policy than long ones. The current Report's headline figures of the decline in conflict are true; there are significantly fewer conflicts now than in the early 1990s. But is that more relevant than the less prominent data of an upward trend in state-based conflicts in 2004-8, and no evidence of a reversal since then? 

Headline figures on the decline of conflict do more to hide than illuminate the protracted conflicts like eastern DRC where there are now more than two million displaced people, the highest figure since 2009. And they seem painfully irrelevant to humanitarian workers on the borders of Syria wondering how many more refugees are going to come next.

However, beneath its headlines, there is far more in the Human Security Report that is helpful. Its analysis of the regional trends behind different types of violence is exactly what we want to help inform difficult decisions about what we do where. And its warning against advocacy-for-fundraising is salutary: 'with funding rarely sufficient to meet humanitarian needs, UN agencies and NGOs have a clear interest in disseminating information that will highlight the dire plight of those in need.' That is absolutely true, and NGOs should be as careful as everyone else to make sure that good intentions are never an excuse for shoddy research or exaggerated claims. 

Remembering that, perhaps I should have been less irritated than I was. Parts of the Human Security Report have real value. But, to be honest, I'm not sure about the rest. If this year's Report encourages greater attention on male victims of sexual violence, domestic violence in crises, and all the other issues that it highlights, that will be very welcome indeed. But it would be tragic if its argument that 'the level of sexual violence worldwide is likely declining' encourages cash-strapped governments to stall the greater priority that sexual violence has, quite rightly, taken in the last few years.

Read more

Oxfam's work on conflict and disasters

Oxfam's publications reports on conflict and violence

Blog post written by Ed Cairns

Senior Policy Adviser, Research

More by Ed Cairns

Ed Cairns