10 Tips for Increasing Political Engagement for SSR

29 September 2016   ·   Thammy Evans

In a recent post on the ISSAT blog, Thammy Evans explains what a more political approach to security sector reform requires. The problem is not a lack of political will in Host Nations per se, she writes. It is much more a matter of where existing political will is directed, and how it can be incentivized to enable effective and accountable reform of the security sector.

I often find myself saying at workshops and conferences on Security Sector Reform (SSR) that there are two things people need to know about SSR. First, that it is political, and secondly, that it is political (polite laughter usually follows). I then go on to explain that SSR is political firstly in the Host Nationnot least because SSR programs can touch on the very core of power arrangements, and therefore creates winners and potential spoilers. Secondly, and equally importantly, it is political at home in the Donor Nation – in part because an SSR program will be subject to the whims of political spending when the appetite for risk is low.

I hear many practitioners bemoan the ‘lack of political will’ in a Host Nation (rarely in the Donor Nation it seems), as if this gives an appropriate excuse for why a program is not advancing at the pace hoped for. However, there is always political will, it is much more a matter of where that political will is directed, and how it can be incentivized to enable effective and accountable reform of the security sector. It is not easy to do so, and requires a broad ‘insurance policy’ to manage the many risks associated with SSR programs. It is for this reason, among others, that the third principle – the first two being local ownership and effectiveness and accountability – of a security sector reform approach is itself composed of three dimensions: political, technical and holistic. (I can already hear the sighs of resignation at reading the word ‘holistic’ – how is it possible to do everything encompassed in holistic? I hear you ask.)

It is difficult to be completely holistic – but it is possible to take a more balanced approach that is conflict sensitive and manages risk better. In response to the dilemma of how to improve political engagement, de-risk single track approaches to reform interventions which depend on a potential single point-of-failure, and incentivize political will, a number of the following tips were put forward at a workshop not so long ago, which we have rounded up here to 10.

1.    Don’t subcontract the politics of SSR – it requires long term engagement and confidence building from trusted partners both at home in the Donor Nation, and with the Host Nation. Aid contractors cannot be expected to hold the same political relationship, nor share the same intended political end goals.

2.    Build political will across three interlocking spheres:

  • Within the Host Nation
  • Domestically in the supporting Donor Nation
  • Internationally with other supporting nations, and regional bodies

particularly in order to work on joint assessments, identify and manage gaps and potential spoilers, as well as to provide mutual support when needed. Communication of progress will be crucial across all three spheres to keep all stakeholders engaged.

3.    Within a Host Nation, work across several levels of political engagement:

  • Government institutions
  • Security and justice providers – both state and non-state
  • Other public bodies and civil society organizations
  • Media, think tanks and academia

If this can’t be done within the programs, then consider working with other supportive nations and bodies (see point two above).

4.    Ensure the program builds resilience to uphold community needs when political winds change, to ensure sustainability when donor support draws down, and by harnessing local capacity at a pace that builds on their strengths.

5.    Identify drivers of change within patronage politics – a power/interest mapping of stakeholders, both local and regional/international, can help with this.

6.    Search out entry points at the right rung of the right ladder – where there is a balance of willingness and traction, options for conditionality (i.e. ensure that train and equip or infrastructure programs don’t end up a freebie without bridging to accountability), and makes good use of potential capacity.

7.    Balance the desire to achieve political institutional goals with the need to provide tangible service delivery to citizens.

8.    Take a stand not a side – supporting the political process in a country, and needing to be a reliable partner, does not mean needing to abandon principles when counterparts veer away from the interests of the program.

9.    Use a mix of political diplomacy and public statements and agreements, depending on the state and confidence of bilateral and regional relations.

10.   Build multiple platforms for dialogue, space for consensus building, and options beyond violent conflict which will strengthen a positive political process.

Further details and examples of how these tips have been conducted in practice can be found on ISSAT’s Principles in Practice page on Political Engagement.