No easy way out: Three trade-offs the German SSR strategy needs to address

30. April 2018   ·   Erwin van Veen

It is time to go beyond the rhetoric of governance and ownership. A good SSR policy lays out how SSR initiatives can achieve a balance between short-term security- and long-term governance improvements; between operational work and political strategy; and between achieving results and working adaptively.

Security Sector Reform (SSR) aims to bring about greater levels of ‘human security’, referring here to the safety that ordinary citizens perceive and experience in their daily lives. It usually focuses on fragile states because it is here that insecurity is greatest and a key barrier to development. ‘State security’ in the classic sense is less relevant because conflict between fragile states is rare. The level of human security in fragile countries tends to be a function of the priorities, accountability and effectiveness of the totality of actors capable of exercising coercive force. Ideally, SSR initiatives support such actors to deliver on citizen priorities, develop functioning forms of accountability and realize performance improvements.

If only life was this simple. Several problems typically arise. First, the organization of security tends to be instrumentalized by elites for their own political benefit. It is these same elites that tend to be in charge of the state and this makes them uneasy bedfellows for externally-sponsored SSR efforts. Second, state-provided security often has a strong urban focus in fragile countries and tends to be both mistrusted and corrupt. In reality, so-called informal, hybrid or non-state actors do most of the work. As a result, an exclusive focus on the state security apparatus in rural societies will deliver little tangible progress in the short-term. Third, external funders of SSR usually have their own citizens’ interests in mind. Their security priorities – migration, organized crime and terrorism - are often different from those of citizens in fragile states – corruption, abuse and urban violence. In consequence, external SSR support risks promoting unpopular objectives that reinforce ineffective and/or abusive state security organizations. Consider, for example, Iraq’s ‘checkpoint army’ from before the fall of Mosul in 2014 that benefited from substantial US-support while being widely perceived as corrupt.

What makes for a good SSR policy?

This year, Germany intends to develop a fully-fledged SSR policy. This is good news for two reasons. To begin with, much of Germany’s security development work is of a train-build-and-equip nature that – if evidence on such initiatives also applies to Germany – is largely ineffective. More broadly, high-quality SSR is sorely needed given the contrast between the massive human security challenges of fragile states and the limited SSR progress of the past 15 years. Realizing SDG16 and making peacekeeping more effective in part depend on better SSR. However, developing a good SSR policy is not an easy task.

Fortunately, useful lessons can be gleaned from accumulated SSR practice. The key is to operationalize politically correct notions like ‘governance’, ‘ownership’, ‘work with informal providers’ and ‘it’s all political’ in ways that work both locally and in donor capitals – instead of affirming them rhetorically and then reverting to training and equipping state security forces in practice. While no SSR policy of any DAC-country will ever be fully altruistic and local - which is what agreed principles suggest should be the case - doing the opposite renders an SSR policy ineffective. Arguably, a good SSR policy enables initiatives and programs to strike a balance on three trade-offs:

Trade-off 1: Balance short-term security- with long-term governance improvements

More focus on governance in SSR work in fragile states means less delivery against short-term ‘homeland’ security objectives of external funders - but less focus on governance means storing up larger ‘homeland’ security problems for the future. ‘Governance’ is shorthand for efforts that try to shift security priorities, accountability and capabilities from an elite-focus to a citizen-focus. Ignoring governance typically means reverting to ‘train, build and equip’. In turn, this usually amounts to improving the performance of state security forces to address, at least in part, security problems that external actors worry about.

The current enthusiasm about the ‘force conjointe’ of the G5 in the Sahel fits this logic. This force is mostly about fighting terrorism and organized crime while also improving border surveillance. Security governance and development have remained afterthoughts. Yet, as recent UNDP work made clear, it is the abusive performance of state security forces that can be the tipping point towards violence and radicalization. The key policy question here is what mix of capacity and governance improvements is doable. As a rule of thumb, a good SSR policy makes regular and external political-economy analyses mandatory for all SSR interventions – it enables assessing what objectives are feasible – and allows for SSR programs of 6 to 8 years, which are needed to develop linkages between the short- and long-term.

Trade-off 2: Balance operational work with a political strategy

Engaging in SSR as a political change effort will mean slower progress that is less tangible – but engaging in SSR only at the operational level will jeopardize its sustainability. SSR must be designed as a political change management effort in societies where coercive force remains a common currency in political competition. Yet, the personalized and politicized nature of security in such places makes it difficult to implement SSR in this manner. The often-used shortcut is that SSR programs tend to ignore the politics and focus on operational engagement. However, diplomatic footwork to shift incentives and bring key actors on board is critical for effective SSR just as much as good operational work that realizes practical improvements and generates momentum through activities.

It took the Burundian-Dutch SSR program 2 years to start talking seriously about governance, and 3-4 years to get the security forces to accept that citizens (including parliament) have a legitimate stake in setting security priorities and resources. Choosing a more operational focus for an SSR program can be a fast way to achieve short-term capacity improvements, but long-term improvements in human security will be elusive. Also, when external funders stop paying the bill, the entire effort easily collapses – as it might when the next political crisis occurs. The key policy question here is how a political strategy can drive operational work while the operational work is designed to stimulate broader political discussion of security issues. As a rule of thumb, a good SSR policy requires every SSR initiative to feature a political strategy and to be supported by adequate diplomatic capacity to drive it forward.

Trade-off 3: Balance the achievement of results with an adaptive way of working

More rigid ways of working will deliver clear results that can, however, be artificial - but more adaptive ways of working will deliver fuzzier results that can be more meaningful. In fragile contexts, SSR initiatives need time to find out what security priorities matter and how they can be achieved. Trial and experience play a large role. When results are set in detail up-front, they tend to reflect the ideal outcome through the eyes of the funder. Sticking to them brings rapid irrelevance in the face of inevitable political change and actually impedes creating joint-ownership of SSR work. Yet, this approach does create the reassuring feeling that ‘plan’ equals ‘delivery’.

Being more adaptive means accepting significant changes to the objectives of an SSR program while it is being implemented. This inescapably produces a more complex story about achievements, but also helps a program to adjust to the political realities that determine its chances of success. For example, sticking to the development of a national security strategy because it was mandated to do so, rapidly reduced the SSR work of the UN mission in Timor-Leste to irrelevance once the government no longer considered this a priority. The key policy question here is how much adaptiveness political leaders in donor countries can stomach and how creatively bureaucrats can design adaptive programs that still deliver results. As a rule of thumb, a good SSR policy spells out under what circumstances adaptive programming is encouraged, and what its key constituent components look like.

Ultimately, SSR policy effectiveness arises from the ability to combine short- and long-term requirements that are often at odds with each other. Because the political and developmental horizons of external funders are usually measured in months, short-term requirements typically prevail. This can create poorly informed activity with little impact. It is the task of a policy to safeguard against this risk by shifting the horizon just a little further. It would be a wonderful contribution if German SSR policy could lead the way.