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The Value of a Life: Peace and Human Security in a Post-2015 World

Is a life in one country worth less than a life in another?  Paul Okumu poses this question as he explores why there are more than 190 conflicts endangering lives and affecting communities across the globe . . . and why there is not greater outrage.

If 1.5 billion people don't matter, who does?

In the short travels that I have made to 'developed' countries across Europe, North America and some parts of Asia and Latin America, I have noticed one common denominator:

People value life.
Each life.
Individual life.

People in these countries do not speak of numbers. They mention names and relationships for every life lost. I marvel at the value that is attached to life, how one lost life moves a country to tears and stirs up an entire chain of response from the community to the national level. And it does not end there. The search for answers costs as much, if not more.

So why is it that the lives of billions of people affected by conflict -- fathers, mothers, wives, children – do not seem to matter to the world?

As you read this, women, men and children in 59 countries are unable to lead a normal life due to insecurity resulting from over 190 conflicts. Today, in Africa and Asia alone, 34 governments are torn between the need to focus attention on the well-being of their citizens or spend resources addressing conflicts, which are largely internal and almost always related to political or corporate greed.

The nature of violent conflicts has changed dramatically in recent decades. The predominant form of violent conflict has evolved from national armies fighting each other to countless little wars with no front lines, no battlefields, no clear conflict zones, no distinctions between combatants and civilians.

Sadly, nearly all countries affected by conflict also have one common denominator: vast natural resources. In fact, many could easily produce enough food to feed their entire population . . . and the rest of us as well. But they have resources they cannot enjoy and schools they cannot attend. Innocent citizens are caught in a web of corporate greed, politics, natural resource exploitation, ideological conflict and poor governance.

Development is impossible without peace, just as peace is impossible without development.

Simply ask a mother, who struggles to feed her children while wondering whether it is safe to allow them to go to school or even the hospital. Or ask a young man – torn between looking for work in a conflict-prone city or staying in the impoverished countryside, where the government hasn't even given a thought to providing electricity.

The ability of society to live in peace, safety and security is not just a fundamental right; it is foundational to any development agenda. No society however advanced or endowed can develop in an environment of fear, insecurity and failed structures. And a single conflict can set a country back 15 - 20 years, as the World Bank reminds us in the 2011 Development Report.

Conflict deepens poverty. Rampant poverty and inequality increases bitterness and desperation. Human rights abuses perpetuate fear and hatred, endangering both peace and development. It's a vicious cycle we cannot allow to continue - for the sake of our society. Peace and development both require respect for human rights and the rule of law.

We need to sit and honestly reflect on what we are telling the children and mothers and fathers living in conflict-affected areas.

As civil society, we ask that the world reflect on the damage we are doing by believing that conflict is only something that happens to other people. Our elders know better: "an island of wealth amidst a sea of poverty soon pollutes the island," states a popular African proverb. Deficits in one country impact others, be it through economic and financial linkages, migration, refugees, displaced populations, terrorism, piracy, organized crime, narcotics, human trafficking or the arms trade. Progressive globalization increases the likelihood of these cross-border spillovers.

For all these reasons, it is imperative that the Post-2015 development agenda be centered on peace, human security and freedom from fear. We should aim to make justice and prosperity a reality for everyone, not because these are fundamental - they are - but because we respect life and decency.

Peace and security, development and human rights are the central pillars of the United Nations system and the foundations for collective security and well-being. So why should they not also be the central pillars of a UN-driven development agenda?

To this end, the Post 2015 agenda must foster:

  • functioning institutions that respond to people's needs with dignity and social justice
  • mechanisms to support countries facing struggles for resource control
  • accountability by all development actors
  • effective society participation in the affairs of the state
  • job creation and economic justice
  • systemic structures that enable human security and social cohesion
  • inclusive state-society dialogue
  • an enviroment in which people can live in freedom and enjoy ownership and control of their own resources

Peace and Security matters for a post 2015 agenda not because of 1.5 Billion people.

It matters because every life is important.

And if we miss this opportunity, we will reverse the gains of the past 20 years.

All because we ceased to care about one life . . . and yes, 1.5 billion people.


Paul Okumu leads the Secretariat of the Africa CSO Platform on Principled Partnership (ACP) and is a member of the Core Group of the Civil Society Platform on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. Learn more about how Peace and Human Security should be integrated into the Post-2015 agenda in this civil society document that Paul facilitated and submitted to the UN High Level Panel. You can also endorse the statement here.