Global security as a public good: a call to action for the international community


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The former frontline area of Kobani, where Kurdish fighters battled ISIS in 2014, lies in ruins nearly five years after the conflict. The Turkish border wall, which now marks the new front line between Kurdish Syrian forces and Turkey, is less than 200 meters away at points.
© Ivor Prickett/NY Times/Panos Pictures.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has so far resulted in thousands of deaths and millions being pushed into poverty globally, it has also laid bare the porous nature of country borders and the need for global cooperation to contain the epidemic and overcome the economic calamity threatening every country. Similarly, as world economies have become more integrated, we have seen conflict, crime, and violence crossing country borders hence becoming more international in their scope, causes, and impact. Domestic political stability and law enforcement capacity have, therefore, become regional and global public goods. A new World Bank Policy Research Report, Violence without Borders: The Internationalization of Crime and Conflict, documents how permeable country borders have become, identifies the factors influencing this transition and evaluates the policy toolkit the international community has available to intervene.

In 2017, 40 percent of armed conflicts in the world involved international intervention. Violence from armed conflict now generates larger flows of refugees, who travel greater distances to seek protection and are distributed widely across many more receiving countries. In just 10 years, the number of transnational terrorist attacks has quintupled. The global trade in opium, cocaine, and other illicit drugs has reached a 30-year high, with production concentrated in a handful of countries. Elephant and rhinoceros killings are far above their 2000 levels because of persistent demand for wildlife products, and piracy in international waters is still a significant threat. This increasing transnational nature has intensified geographical spillovers and regional political instability with the impacts flowing both ways: failures of enforcement in one country have dramatic effects on neighboring countries, and events or forces outside influence local stability and security.

However, individual nations often do not have the expertise or the fiscal space to address these challenges entirely on their own, and this warrants assistance from foreign countries or institutions in the form of financial or technical support. Further, given the possibility of regional or global spillovers, the case for foreign assistance is even starker. Moreover, because events and policies adopted in one country can affect the fragility of another, the security challenges a country faces might be best addressed not with any domestic policy instrument at its disposal but with policy coordination.
In a world where individual countries are sovereign, this report examines the two main instruments that the international community has at its disposal; development assistance and military intervention. It finds that each has differing levels of success in fostering stability and security depending on the specific context but work best when deployed in conjunction with each other. There are, however, additional challenges associated with international cooperation: when countries wait on others to act first, global idleness ensues; on the other hand, diverging interests between donor and recipient countries or between two donor countries could result in a stalemate. 

Multilateral institutions can play an important role in institutionalizing such collective arrangements while recognizing the possibility of competing interests between nations permeating multilateral institutions. The report identifies areas of relevance for multilateral institutions:

1. Generating data and knowledge for better policies. 

The systematic collection of data on crime and conflict is a cornerstone of policy and research analysis for evidence-based policymaking. Given the public good nature of data, multilateral organizations have a comparative advantage in collecting data on crime and violence, and in making it available for academic and policy research. Innovation should be encouraged to alleviate the difficulty of data collection in violent or illegal settings.

2. Delivering financial aid and technical expertise. 

An individual country’s political stability and the ability to enforce laws have positive regional or global spillovers. In such cases, regional or global organizations can be suitable institutions once they are empowered by member states to mitigate the collective action problem. Appropriate financial and knowledge instruments should then be designed to reflect the needs associated with and spillovers stemming from the provision of security and the rule of law. This report also highlights the challenges associated with upholding the “do-no-harm” principle in volatile contexts and underscores the complementarity between aid and security as an important aspect of development assistance in fragile settings.

3. Providing a forum for policy coordination.

In an increasingly interconnected world, policies in one country can have a “beggar-thy-neighbor” effect on other countries with implications for the levels of conflict, crime, and violence, hence giving a transnational dimension to the “do-no-harm” principle. When policies are interdependent, multilateral institutions can provide a platform for coordination and collective bargaining to identify policies that are most desirable from a regional or global standpoint, so that diverging interests between countries find a resolution away from the battlefields.

Although this report was completed before the spread of COVID-19, its findings are highly relevant to the current pandemic. Like the forms of violence analyzed in the report, infectious diseases such as COVID-19 cannot be contained within borders, further highlighting the global impact of policies implemented within each country. The benefits of international cooperation and shared global strategies, as noted in this report, are necessary to help address and mitigate the consequences of global threats from security to health.


Quy-Toan Do

Senior Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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