Want an SSR strategy? Start with capacity building at home

24. April 2018   ·   Laura Cleary

20 years of British strategies on stabilisation, security sector reform and defence engagement hold four key lessons for the new German strategy on SSR. Put strategy first, know the context that you engage in, build enough capacity and knowledge at home, and invest enough money to enable innovative programming. All of this requires investing in improved inter-agency coordination and knowledge sharing. 

2017 was marked by ever growing introspection, isolationism and populism on the international stage.  In the UK, government officials, political pundits and the media were focussed on only one issue: Brexit. This has led to mounting concern that Brexit paralysis is having a detrimental impact on UK fiscal, foreign, and defence policy, undermining the UK’s ability to project power in the future. 

In the United States, foreign policy via Twitter, increased defence spending, and the publication of  the National Security Strategy, reflecting the ‘America First’ agenda, has generated concern in Europe that for the next three years at least US national security policy will be defined and executed in black and white terms. To the East, Vladimir Putin, having initiated a ‘Russia First’ campaign some time ago, can sit back comfortably and watch the mounting disarray in European and American politics, safe in the knowledge that his defence reform programme is delivering and that his attempts to ‘weaponise’ Russia’s soft power activities are unlikely to be countered effectively by the West any time soon.

Against this background, the Federal Government’s declaration to engage in a more comprehensive fashion in conflict prevention and resolution, as evidenced by the publication of the Guidelines in 2017, was a welcome signal that liberal democratic values could still inform policy. 

There is much to commend within the Federal Guidelines, from the reference to a ‘holistic, value oriented approach’ to the desire to ‘share approaches and tools’ and the ‘requirement to develop a broad spectrum of capabilities, and the acknowledgement that those capabilities must extend beyond E2I’. But as with any such policy document, the devil is in the details. The question remains, how will the government operationalise its strategic intent?

In reflecting on approximately 20 years of British Stabilisation, Security Sector Reform (SSR), and Defence Engagement strategies, it is possible to identify some key lessons that should inform the German government’s new strategy on SSR.

Lesson 1: Put strategy first

In the late 1990s PM Tony Blair advocated a strategy of ‘joined-up government’, insisting that on matters of foreign policy the government needed to speak with one voice. Steps were taken to harness the Ministry of Defence (MOD), Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) together. This was achieved through the establishment of shared leadership, collective decision-making and pooled financial resources. If one ministry wanted to draw down funds to support an activity, it had to have the consent of the other two. To support consistency of engagement and to ensure that different delivery mechanisms were complementary and focused on achieving a desired end state, country regional and thematic strategies were devised.

Although a reasonable approach, there were initial tensions between the three departments as they sought to safeguard legacy activities. A continuing problem has been the lack of a truly strategic approach to UK engagement. This particular issue was identified as a shortcoming in the 2010 National Security Strategy, and steps were taken to provide an enhanced policy framework and improved accountability mechanisms. Nevertheless, UK engagement is still seen to veer from being value- to personality- to media-led. This makes staying on message and achieving a desired and sustainable effect challenging.

Lesson 2: Know the local context  

We would expect a country offering assistance in conflict prevention or resolution to do so based on an analysis of its strategic context: Where does country X think it can make a difference based on its available resources?  But achieving stabilisation, state building or a more limited reform requires a pretty sound understanding of the strategic context as perceived by the target nation.  Prescriptions for change need to take into account the structural and cultural contexts of the country concerned, or, to put that into military parlance, we need greater ‘situational awareness’ before we engage.  Now, as has been demonstrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the coalitions engaged in those operations lacked situational awareness and, as a result, a number of mistakes were made.  It could be argued that a failure to understand the strategic context in a comprehensive fashion leads to engagement that is supply-led (we know how to do X, so we will do X) rather than demand-led, providing a tailored response to a considered request by the country concerned. So, the question is, how do we gain the requisite knowledge prior to engagement? The answer is contained within Lesson 3.

Lesson 3: Start with building capacity at home  

SSR programmes all seek to build capacity. Some support politicians in directing security and ensuring oversight. Others assist civil servants in better administering policy, managing resources and ensuring accountability or strengthen security services to make them more professional and accept their subordinate position vis-à-vis the democratically elected government. Yet to achieve that end requires those engaged in capacity building to have the knowledge to do so. While military personnel, civilian security advisors and consultants, employed to support reform programmes, often have a sound understanding of how security is governed and managed in their own countries, they have limited knowledge of how the target country operates. Again, it comes down to situational awareness. I have, regrettably, encountered civilian security advisors who don’t understand the rank structure within the military or police, as well as development officials who do not wish to engage with the military because those forces may have committed atrocities in the past. However, as Sun Tzu suggested, one must know one’s enemy if they are to be defeated. In this case, one must fully understand the nature of the problem if it is to be corrected.

We need to select personnel carefully, train them appropriately, and monitor their delivery to ensure that it accords with strategic intent. This seems like common sense but it is surprising how frequently other agendas, often financial, undermine our ability to operate in this way.

Lesson 4: Cash counts

Back in 1998 when the Labour government established DFID and sought to provide a policy framework for conflict prevention and conflict resolution, money was not an issue. That changed in 2008. Over the last 10 years greater emphasis has been placed on accountability mechanisms. Where previously the government mantra was ‘value for money’ it is now ‘cut costs’. While I have no argument with financial prudence, it should be recognised that ‘penny pinching’ in the realm of conflict prevention and resolution leads to a lack of innovation in response to evolving situations and a reliance on off-the-shelf solutions whose successful implementation is undermined by reduced funding for horizon scanning and training. 

There are two additional challenges to ensuring accountability, one is internal, the other external.  Internally, a failure to ensure that all contributing ministries are adhering to the same accountability criteria can lead to animosity between them and increased competition for resources. Externally, the funding nation’s processes for ensuring accountability may not be understood by the recipient state, and they may therefore perceive funding and assistance to be erratic and the donor nation’s commitment to be unreliable. The UK has sought to adjust its budgeting process, so that funding for major initiatives is allocated on a five-year basis rather than annually. Although that is a welcome improvement, those responsible for accounting for expenditure have indicated that the process has become even more complex and time consuming; proving yet again that formal systems of accountability can incur high transaction costs.

Much of what I have outlined above relates to the critical success factors for interagency cooperation. Successful interagency cooperation, particularly in the field of conflict prevention and resolution, requires us to establish new ways of working across organisations, new types of organisations, new accountability mechanisms and new ways of delivering services. If Germany is to achieve lasting impact through its conflict prevention and resolution activities, it may need to reflect first on how it conducts business at home.

Security Sector Reform Politikkohärenz Friedensförderung Stabilisierung English Frieden & Sicherheit
Laura Cleary

Laura R. Cleary is Head of the Centre for International Security and Resilience and Professor of International Security at Cranfield University based at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.