It’s natural for security professionals to think of their duties in a traditional sense. They’re trained to defend borders, protect the nation, and repel internal and external threats. But beginning in the early 1990s, a new term began to gain currency: human security.

In 1994, the United Nations codified this concept, saying security needs to include protection from disease, hunger, crime, social conflict, unemployment, political repression and environmental hazards. Security “has been related more to nation-states than to people,” the U.N. wrote in its annual human development report. “Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people.”

This is an important time to try to understand human security and put it into action. Africa is experiencing unprecedented growth that could lead to a doubling of its population by 2050. The generation coming of age today is ambitious, creative, tech-savvy and promises to take the continent to new heights. However, if young people do not see employment opportunities or avenues to pursue their dreams, they could become frustrated. Recent trends show that disaffected young people become migrants or fall prey to recruitment by extremist groups.

There are other challenges. A changing climate and unpredictable weather patterns are amplifying natural disasters and decimating farmland. Herders are traveling farther afield in search of grazing land, which puts them at odds with farmers. Large migrations of people from rural areas to urban centers already are changing the landscape of the continent. Competition for access to energy, water and food promises to be a major factor in human security in coming years.

The role national militaries can play in addressing these human security challenges will vary by country. Some countries will ask their militaries to take part in national health initiatives, plant trees to fight climate change and work on infrastructure projects to improve access to water. Sometimes the military will be asked to play a leading role; other times it will support civil society efforts.

One thing is certain: Military strategists need to understand the ways human security can drive conflict so they are better able to respond when called upon. With a focus on the individual, none of the security challenges of the 21st century will be too big to overcome.

—-U.S. Africa Command Staff