Political Engagement

Security Sector Reform (SSR) is in essence political, as it deals with power relations between various state and non-state actors and their authority to use force. This is especially true given that SSR is also related to these actors’ oversight responsibility along societal values such as freedom, security, and human rights. As such, strong political buy-in for security and justice sector reforms is crucial to success, and a means of greater ownership of the reform process. 

It is important, therefore, for donors to prioritise the need for building and maintaining political engagement within a sustainable reform process. Three key challenges are often encountered 1) translating strong political will into clear strategies to kick start reform programmes; 2) managing varying levels of political will to engage in JSSR process; 3) reviving, incentivising or redirecting political interest and engagement, when the focus of political will[1] is elsewhere.

The following lessons can help mitigate or address the challenges.

Lesson 1 Develop and maintain political dialogue

Lesson 2 – Trust and collaboration with local partners

Lesson 3 – Official agreements help create and reinforce political engagement

Selected resources

Further tips on improving political engagement can be found at the Blogpost ’10 Tips for Increasing Political Engagement for SSR’.

Lesson 1 – Develop and maintain political dialogue 

High quality political dialogue helps establish and maintain the much needed momentum for reform programmes. Interaction on political issues, rather than on less contentious equipment or technical aspects of the programmes, is necessary to, first, get a sense of the direction of the political will and second to gradually increase political engagement.


Implementation of the Paris Declaration in Mozambique

The implementation of the Paris Declaration has been tested for almost a decade in Mozambique, through a framework of mutual donor/government accountability designed around the process of direct budget support annual monitoring.  Both donors and government recognise that the progress made resulted from continuous and quality political dialogue. Among the lessons derived from the process is the need to include effective policy development at the sector and thematic level in the political dialogue, and to put more attention on devising governance indicators to adequately assess the implementation of governance measures.

International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) 

Following a complicated birth, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) faced a difficult political landscape. Improvements in the key relationship between the CICIG and the Guatemala Office of the Public Prosecutor office were based not only on capacity building and technical assistance, but also political and public support for the leadership of the Office of the Public Prosecutor.

Lesson 2 – Build trust for collaboration among local partners

Trust and collaboration with local partners helps in creating willingness to engage in JSSR processes. Trust fosters an enabling environment while encouraging political engagement in support of the programme, and can be consolidated through a third party trusted by both sides. Transparency and access to information also facilitate the development of trust with local partners along the project cycle.


Police and Judicial Reform in Mozambique

The donors and the Mozambique government were both eager to involve UNDP in the police reform programme. From the donors perspective it was important to reduce risk, to pool resources, and to choose an agency that would meet their financial and Monitoring and Evaluation reporting standards.  From the government’s side it was important that the agency was an easily accessible interlocutor throughout implementation, and could mobilise skilled experts and programme managers able to operate in respect of its sovereignty.

Lalá, A., and Francisco, L. (2008). The Difficulties of Donor Coordination: Police and Judicial Reform in Mozambique. In Managing Insecurity: Field Experiences of Security Sector Reform (pp.77-94), eds. G. Peake, E. Scheye and A. Hills, Routledge, Abingdon / New York.

Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP)

Building trust in the difficult context of the ZPSP was possible through a combination of factors, notably the specialised mediation skills of the leadership of the programme, the quality of the materials, and the continuous efforts to building a relationship between the ZPSP and the state as well as non-state security stakeholders.

Netherlands support of the SSD programme in Burundi

Involving Burundian interlocutors from the inception of the programme helped build trust early on. Early short-term objectives such as training and material developed confidence and experience, which in turn built trust for increasingly strategic objectives in later phases (OECD:34,50).  There was moreover a close, daily relationship between the political officer at the Dutch embassy and the programme manager, an independent international professional in relation with Dutch and Burundian stakeholders in equal measure. As such, he was focused on achieving the joint programme objectives rather than the donor’s political agenda (OECD:47).

Lesson 3 – Official agreements help create and reinforce political engagement

Official agreements help create and reinforce political engagement and partnership in reform programmes. Official agreements are important to define the scope of the programmes, functions of partner institutions/organisations and local stakeholders. They reinforce political engagement in JSSR programmes, even outside the scope defined in the agreements. A mix of official agreements and quiet diplomacy may be needed at times.


Netherlands support of the SSD programme in Burundi

Burundi and the Netherlands have cooperated on security sector development (SSD) issues since 2004. This cooperation was formalised through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), signed in 2009 to support SSD activities for period of eight years (2009-2017). The political agreement sets the tone for dialogue between the governments of Burundi and the Netherlands. It helps maintain the political discussions to enable the implementation of the SSD programme.

Rule of Law Advisory Mission on Moldova (NORLAM)

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) formalising cooperation between Norway and Moldova in 2007, originally only foresaw the provision of experts for a period of two to three years. Although the MoU has not been modified since, based on the intent of the original MoU, NORLAM started supporting institutions that were not specified originally, and has been active for more years than originally planned.

2009 Review of NORLAG and NORLAM, Erik Whist and Endre Vigeland.


[1] There is often a claim that there is no political will for reform: however, there is usually always political will – it is a matter of where it is focused, and how to incentivise it to focus on reform.