Understanding the Importance of Education for Security

August 17, 2016
Understanding the Importance of Education for Security
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory
Ally Dunhill
Ally Dunhill Non-Resident Fellow in Rights Education

In the 2007 film, Charlie Wilson’s War, part of the story line is ability of the USA congressman, Charles Wilson, being able to gain agreement to commit over 500 million US dollars (co-funded by other states to a total of 1 Billion US dollars) to support mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan to resist the invasion of the then USSR in the early 1980s.  At the conclusion of the film, Congressman Wilson attempts to raise 1 million US dollars for school reconstruction in Afghanistan, and he is strongly criticised for his efforts.   In the film, his colleagues mock his efforts to rebuild schools, showing no concern that half of the Afghani population was under the age of 14 and that there existed intelligence reports of extremist individuals returning to Afghanistan and influencing children and young people.  The other members of the committee with Congressman Wilson make clear that the war in Afghanistan was over, and priorities have moved on to other security concerns.  What the movie serves to represent is the tendency of states to focus their security efforts on military issues, during and up to the completion of the military operation, and then fail to adequately address the post-conflict situation.  This failure extends to a range of areas such as taking the action necessary to support effective governance, economic stability, and education.   Afghanistan is, unfortunately, just one example of many where a lack of attention to social issues, such as education, in conflict situations, has made it more difficult for security to be realised.  A recent report by the UN Secretary General presents a disturbing picture on the impact of conflict upon young people, demonstating the need to focus more and better attention on this issue of education as an imperative of security.

There is perhaps no need to make the claim that the world is facing a number of armed conflicts and crises that are having detrimental negative impacts on children globally.  The numbers should be able to speak for themselves.  UNESCO estimates that 263 million children and young people (covering individuals 6-17 years old) are out of education globally.  Armed conflict is directly connected to 63 million children and young people being out of education.  We may not be able to directly impact the various natural disasters and other crises that impact the ability of children to access education, but we can make a difference when it comes to armed conflict.  As the Middle East is currently experiencing a number of complex, protracted conflicts, greater attention needs to be given to education as an imperative for security if long-term peace and security are to be realised.  TRENDS has previously addressed the importance of education in building security.  However, as events unfold in the region and globally, it is clear that greater attention is needed to support action that prioritises education as a security imperative.

If we are serious about security, we need to overcome the traditional view of focussing primarily on the military capabilities of states as this overlooks the broad range of factors impacting upon understandings of security.   The traditional approach to security focusses attention at the military capability of states for both offensive and defensive positioning.   However, there has been significant developments in this regard as understanding security has been broadened by accounting for a range of non-military aspects.  Barry Buzan has been the leading scholar in this regard and explains:

“Security is taken to be about the pursuit of freedom from threat and the ability of states and societies to maintain their independent identity and their functional integrity against forces of change, which they see as hostile. The bottom line of security is survival, but it also reasonably includes a substantial range of concerns about the conditions of existence.”[1]

In this regard it is necessary to see security as more than military capabilities.  Understandings of security and conflict have long been tied to matters between states.  In the traditional understandings a war/conflict will occur between two sovereign entities and their allies, and the war will end once the military ability of one of the opponents is sufficiently degraded that they seek peace.  Conflicts today do not follow this model.  The majority of conflicts are primarily intra-state in the form of civil war or violent insurgency, including sustained terrorist activity.  The changing character of these conflicts has a number of elements that make bringing about peace and security very difficult when the focus is firmly on military capabilities.

With civil war and insurgency the existing political structure is being rejected by one or more parties, often with severe strife between societies along political, social or sectarian lines.  This makes resolution of the conflict, understood as bringing security to all of the society, very difficult, sensitive and a long-term matter.  Conflicts of this character typically involve deep-seated resentments between communities or clashes over competing world views as to how societies should be organised and governed.  These conflicts are also prolonged events whereby no clear resolution comes about quickly.  In turn, this fuels a cycle of insecurity within society allowing extremism and terrorism to flourish, while poverty and economic underdevelopment persists.  Furthermore, these conflicts are appearing to be unresolvable from the military perspective. In interstate war, there will be a formal surrender and then a negotiated cessation.  With the adoption of a peace treaty or agreement the military conflict can be defined as being over.  But in the sort of intra-state wars that we see today, it is not so simple. Hostilities do not normally end abruptly, after which there is complete peace. There may be an ‘agreed’ peace but fighting often continues at a low level or sporadically, and frequently resumes after a short period. The politician may be able to claim that a “military” objective has been achieved, but this has little to do with achieving security.  There has been recognition of the need to address the social dimensions of security. The UK Army Field Manual explains

“There has never been a purely military solution to revolution; political, social, economic and military measures all have a part to play in restoring the authority of a legitimate government. …., decisions have to be made affecting every aspect of political, economic and social life in the country. These decisions have repercussions for the nation far beyond its borders, both in the diplomatic field and in the all-important sphere of public opinion.”[2]

Yet this aspect is neglected, and governments continually fail to adopt a comprehensive plan where the multiple dimensions of security beyond the military aspects are given serious consideration.

Security is about how threats to a defined social unit (be it the state or other social units) are understood, and how responses to those threats are formulated and pursued.  There are no clear objective categories for determining, defining or measuring what is a supporting factor of security or a threat to security.  What we consider security or a threat to security is a human construction; everything or nothing could be a threat to security, depending on how actions and developments are perceived.   Considering the forces and factors of activity within the political, military, economic, social and environmental spheres, it is possible to see that these categories cover much of what we understand about security.  However, even if we see an expansion of how security is understood the primary emphasis remains on the military dimensions in terms of operations, resources and priorities.  Social dimensions of security are put in a different category such as humanitarian aid and development which directly impacts the resources provided and the operational strategies adopted.  As a result of this and broader tendencies in economic and political thinking in the world today, education and similar social programmes regularly see a decrease in support, but defence spending remains a priority, a clear indication of the endurance of the military focus on security.

Giving more attention to education as a security imperative works to create self-sustaining communities able to contribute to the overall security situation and hopefully prevent further conflict.  Not only do educational programmes and schools provide children and young people with a sense of belonging and personal development, but evidence from the field also show that practical life skills can be developed, such as hygiene, landmine awareness, health, further contributing to security.   Education not only supports individuals but also helps communities to come together and allows for attention to be given to the future, after the conflict.  Furthermore, as stated above, threats to security are social constructs and education plays a role in how we construct our understandings of security or threats to security.  Education needs to be part of strategic thinking and how we resolve conflicts by providing both conceptual thinking and skills-based development that contribute to the security agenda. Education becomes something you can do while in the conflict at the local community level, thereby providing a platform for communities and personal development to build and grow and support the overall effort for security.[3]

Education as a process works to build resilience in children and young people, which has the potential to lessen the prospect of future conflicts and give them and society a positive future.  UNICEF defines resilience as, ‘the ability of children, communities and systems to anticipate, prevent, withstand, adapt to and recover from stresses and shocks advancing the rights of every child, especially the most disadvantaged.’ Furthermore, in the post-conflict security context education supports social cohesion, a necessary element of long-term development.    For building social cohesion educational processes and programmes address dimensions of mutual respect and trust, shared values and social participation, life satisfaction and happiness as well as structural equity and social justice.  Effective education brings communities together, gives children and communities aspirations for a better life creating communities more resilient for overcoming conflict.  The World Bank has provided substantial research on the importance of resilience in society, establishing that the characteristics of a society that is resilient to violent conflict include:

  • Political and social institutions that are inclusive, equitable, and accountable;
  • Economic, social, and ethnic diversity rather than polarization and dominance;
  • Growth and development that provide equitable benefits across society;
  • A culture of dialogue rather than violence.

This research has established that education is a key social institution that is able to develop and support the above characteristics, making children and young people are integral parts in building peace and security.  It is recognised that education has the potential “to instil new values, attitudes, skills, and behaviours, as well as help, promote new social relations that will build resilience to conflict.” Education also works to build cultures of dialogue and peacebuilding, making it clear that violence is not the way to go.

Effective education is part of the infrastructure that allows for the construction of security architecture that better understands and analyses threats to security.  Education contributes to security by showing children and young people that conflict, violence, hatred, extremism are not the only paths to follow.   The value of education should be self-evident, and any national leader will likely agree on this point in isolation.  However, education in times of peace is often underfunded and in times of conflict it remains at the periphery of funding priorities.  This must change.  A March 2016 report from UNICEF The Impact of War on Syria’s Children and Their Childhoods explains that promises of funding to support children and young people impacted by the war are not being delivered, with less than 10% of the needed funds being delivered.

Ensuring all children and young people have access to effective education enhances stability and creates a sustainable, peaceful future – true priorities for any understanding of security.

[1] Barry Buzan, “New Patterns of Global Security in the Twenty-first Century” International Affairs 67 (1991) 432 – 433.

[2] UK Army Field Manual, Operations Other Than War, vol. V, “The Conduct of Counter Insurgency Operations,” (London:  Chief of the General Staff, 1995), 3-1.

[3] Evidence from the TAMKEEN project in Syria demonstrates how local communities are able to institute local governance structures able to deliver services.  This is occurring while the conflict is ongoing, for further information see http://www.project-tamkeen.org/.