Institution building not coercion: Supporting a functional security sector that serves state and community needs.

by Patrick Hagan · March 1, 2017.
Igal Koshevoy, 2011.

Dr O’Shea’s post, Who Do We Want to Coerce?: Security Sector Reform and State Building, is a deliberately provocative call to arms for the Security Sector Reform community, focusing as it does on the aspects that reform actors are failing at, and identifying the state’s lack of a monopoly on legitimate violence as a core problem for the field. In spurring consideration of these issues it does the field a service, however I would propose an alternative framing of the issues it presents as a more useful as a path forward.

The core issue is the juxtaposition of the democratic focus of SSR against that of effectiveness. We at ISSAT would hardly disagree with a need for greater focus on programme effectiveness. Addressing both poor pay and corruption are clearly important reform activities. However we consider the “democratic” focus of reform efforts, with limitation of authority and division of power as aims, to be better described as putting a priority on the accountability of security and justice systems. This focus on accountability, rather than distracting from the effectiveness of state institutions, is required to enable effective outcomes. How can state security forces establish a monopoly on violence, and target security spoilers, when they lack the basic internal mechanism to govern their own force?

That SSR prioritises accountability should be unsurprising. Security forces are often the security spoilers themselves[1], or irrelevant to the resolution of conflicts and the enforcement of law[2].  The mechanisms of accountability and focus on governance (i.e. institution building) is fundamental to effective targeting of security forces on spoilers… including themselves. Or, to put it into more police centric language, it is a police service capable of consistently responding appropriately to counter criminal behaviour, and thus effectively protecting the population it is serving, which provides the state with a means of delivering the rule of law. Effective SSR programming is an effort to support the development of just such a police service, by building institutional governance, accountability, and capability. Even this sets aside the increasing emphasis on supporting traditional or hybrid approaches to justice and security[3].

The failures of SSR have not demonstrated that a focus on the effectiveness and accountability of the security sector is incorrect, it can more accurately have been said to demonstrate that too few programme consistently have such a focus[4]. The dominance of train and equip approaches to supporting partner security and justice systems is not a demonstration of a unbalanced focus on “democratisation”, it is a demonstration of ineffective approaches to institutional reform. This criticism of SSR, while real, should also be understood in the context that there are many political and bureaucratic reasons, involving both donor and host, why programmes do not address security organisations holistically or adopt more effective approaches[5].

As a result, recommending that reform acknowledge or engage with the coercive power of the state is somewhat beside the point. When supporting security organisations which provide few (or no) real services to the community, reform programmes should be focused on building capability to enforce the law. Doing so requires building institutional strength, to oversee and hold accountable the actions of personnel, but also to ensure that police can be hired, trained, equipped, paid, managed, directed, led, promoted, retired, and surrounded by all the other components that make up a functioning organisation. Successful enforcement of the law may involve coercion, but that element represents the fine point at the end of a system designed to get that police officer to the location and situation that requires state law enforcement, and support them in making the better decisions once they get there.  

[1] Ouedraogo, E. (2014), “Advancing Military Professionalism in Africa”, The Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

[2] Downie, R. (2013), “Building Police Institutions in Fragile States”, Center for Strategic & International Studies.

[3] Bagayoko, N., Hutchful, E., & Luckham, R. (2016), “Hybrid security governance in Africa: Rethinking the foundations of security, justice, and legitimate public authority”, Conflict, Security & Development V16, No1.

[4] Sedra, M. (Ed), (2010), “The Future of Security Sector Reform”, The Centre for International Governance Innovation.

[5] Peake, G (2016), “If This Is the Way the World Works…”, International Peacekeeping V23, No1.