Mark Downes, Assistant Director of the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and Head of DCAF’s Operations Department, explains why the past experience of practitioners can be both their greatest asset and their biggest baggage. Adapting advice to the context is crucial.
Hi, I am Mark Downes and I am head of DCAF International Security Sector Advisory Team or ISSAT as we call it. We are an organisation that provides advisors to countries and multilateral organisations that are supporting security and justice reforms mainly in post conflict contexts.
In many security sector or form environments we use substantive experts former police, former military, parliamentarians, judges to be advisors to these reform processes and they face enormous challenges. In many ways their experience is both their greatest assets and their biggest baggage because it is their experience that gives them the power to be good advisors. However, they come from a system which is well developed. They come from a position which they have clear authority to make decisions and to put forward processes. But, as an advisor their role is not to make decisions they are not asked to be police officers or be military officers in these countries they are asked to advise on reform processes. So they use soft power rather than clear decision making and this can be quite frustrating because like all people you can be quite goal oriented. You may only be in the country for 6 to 12 months and you want to see the end of the process that you are involved in, but what is important to remember is that the process is extremely important and the product while important is not as important as ensuring an inclusive process.
So as an advisor your role is to support the process and not to come up with a word perfect document. So whilst as you may be frustrated and want to take over the pen in writing a strategy for example, that should be avoided. Your role is to support the national authorities to come up with their process, their product and their implementation strategy as well.
Many international advisors have a tendency to assume first of all, that their experience has the answer to any questions that may be asked in the country in which they are working. And two, nothing works at all and they are just starting with a blank slate. These in many ways are the two challenges that advisors face. The first is yes, their own experience can provide some of the answers but it is not directly applicable. Each country develops its own security and justice institutions based on its own history, culture, political system and this can change to different the types of institutions that different countries have. What is important to remember is what are the principles, what is the goal. If you are looking for better democratic control of armed forces, even if you are looking at countries as comparable as the UK and France, they have different systems to ensure good democratic control and that is because of their own history, their own politics and their own culture. But the system is not the issue; the objective is greater democratic control. So in the country in which you are working your experience whilst useful is not directly applicable. You need to look at what is the principle you are trying to support, what exists currently and how you can build on it to ensure that you reach the objective of for example, better democratic control of the armed forces.
What is also important to remember is as I mentioned you are not starting with a blank slate. International assessment supporting security and justice reform for example, almost always focus on, where are the gaps, what are the flaws and where are the failures. But you should remember that in all countries there is a form of security injustice. Institutions do work, they may be able to work better, but they do work. So focus on what is currently working and how it can be improved to provide basic security and justice services to people of this country.