Who Do We Want to Coerce?: Security Sector Reform and State Building

by Liam O'Shea · March 1, 2017.

The views and opinions expressed in the following blog are those of the author, and are not necessarily the same views held by ISSAT, DCAF, or their Governing Board Members.


SSR programmes are commonly criticised for assuming that technical inputs (skills, knowledge, equipment) will improve security actors’ performance and security (e.g. last year’s IATI report on stabilisation and a recent ODI/DFID review). A more fundamental critique is that practitioners often assume the existence of a viable state and prioritise the democratisation of the security sector in contexts where a functioning state barely exists. Successful SSR, however, depends on the nature and extent of state building. At its most basic, it requires an executive authority with the capacity to control the security sector.

This post summarises the outcomes of over 3 years field research on security sectors and state transition and challenges some of the assumptions implicit in SSR. It argues that for the next generation of SSR programmes to be effective, the SSR community needs to engage more with how to incorporate state building into programming. A state building approach suggests that SSR, at its most basic, must: 1) ensure security actors are paid adequately; 2) purge the security sector of its most corrupt elements; 3) crack down on spoilers. In short, we need a greater focus, not only on democratisation of the security sector, but on establishing the state’s control of it. 

Security sectors in weak states

The state is key to the functioning of the security sector because it controls it via the following mechanisms: (1) the legal and regulatory frameworks which specify security actors’ functions, powers and mechanisms of oversight; (2) state leaders’ direction of strategy and, often, operational and tactical options; (3) state leaders’ recruitment and promotion of personnel; (4) the state’s economic leverage over the security actors.

In fragile states, these mechanisms have broken. Where the state is absent or weak, internal security functions may be performed by organised crime groups, vigilantes and private/community security groups. Low state capacity also creates ideal conditions for active collaboration between organised crime groups and state security actors. In conditions of economic scarcity, the distinctions between the two, and between political and criminal agendas, can easily blur. Security forces in low capacity states are also often deeply involved in ‘predatory policing’, where state security forces are involved in racketeering, extortion and control of lucrative legal and illegal sectors of the economy.

SSR, democratisation and state building

The literature on SSR rarely acknowledges the importance of state weakness, while programmes often assume state capacity. More broadly, the literature is imbued with a distrust of the state and the need to improve the performance of security actors and security by making state power more diffuse. This is not a new phenomenon. As the American political scientist Samuel Huntington noted, in 1968:

When [a Westerner] thinks of the problem of government-building, he directs himself not to the creation of authority and the accumulation of power but rather to the limitation of authority and the division of power...[he] is so fundamentally anti-government that he identifies government with restrictions on government. Confronted with the need to design a political system which will maximise power and authority, he has no ready answer. 

The result is that, in the field, many reform programmes seek to weaken the traditional hierarchy of security organisations.

As an alternative to democratisation of the security sector, a more circumscribed, state building version of reform, may be more realistic in low-capacity contexts. This approach is based on the idea that, in its early stages, reform is more dependent on creation of an effective security sector, which observes the rule of law, perhaps even prioritizing this before seeking to improve the security sector’s legitimacy and make it more accountable.

Three elements are key to the state regaining control from predatory and corrupt elements, and reforming it. First, security actors must receive an adequate living wage. Surprisingly, the need for such provision is rarely acknowledged in the SSR literature or in programming. Democratisation, of course, is not necessarily incompatible with improving police pay, and better accountability mechanisms may ensure that pay actually ends up where it should do. Nevertheless, even where careful consideration has been applied to the institutional democratisation of the security sector, without adequate pay, security actors will not uphold democratic principles. A decentralised but inadequately paid security sector under local ownership is less likely to obey the rule of law and, possibly, to observe human rights, than a well-paid, non-transparent one.

Second, a state building approach must instigate strong measures to counter corruption. The rare and relatively successful process of police reform in Georgia, in 2005, provides an example of this. Enhancing executive power and increasing state capacity enabled the state to re-establish hierarchical authority over the police. Increasing police wages and purging the old police of corrupt officers to break the back of patrimonial economic practices addressed predatory policing and links to organised crime. Furthermore, there was a suppression of lower-level corruption, whereby institutional measures, such as competitive examinations, were introduced to reduce opportunities for corruption and economic patronage.

Third, democratic police reform requires the state to consolidate its authority vis-à-vis other non-state police actors and establish a monopoly of violence. SSR requires effective security actors with authority, which necessitates state actors asserting their own authority and eliminating that of organised crime groups, vigilantes and other elements operating outside the parameters of the law. There may well be various means of co-opting non-state actors into the reform process, for example by the state licensing them or ensuring that they are accountable. However, the existence of some non-state actors can be a direct threat to SSR principles, so the state may have to use coercion to achieve reform goals. It is rarely stated clearly, but successful SSR may therefore require the state to seize, detain, imprison and, in extremis, even kill spoilers who use violence in direct opposition to legitimate security practices based on human rights norms and democratic processes.

Incorporating state building into SSR

There are two huge caveats which need to be asked before adopting a state building SSR approach. First, is it desirable to increase the power of elites who are patrimonial, corrupt or whose values are antithetical to human rights? Second, and to what extent, state building be prioritised over democratisation? No one approach is going to address the issues raised by these questions but, unfortunately, they are often not given sufficient attention during in the planning and execution of programmes. 

These caveats aside, to enhance the possibility of success, in future research and policy guidance, we still need to examine how to adequately incorporate building state capacity into the SSR agenda. The current status quo is we have much technical assistance and democratisation without state building, and the latter is a key component of reform. Incorporating state building into SSR entails a broader conceptualisation of how to enhance the state’s control mechanisms and implement the three measures described in this post. This is by no means an easy task but it is a necessary one.