Back to the Roots: Security Sector Reform and Development

by Thammy Evans · February 15th, 2012.

Last week I attended a presentation of DCAF’s new book Back to Roots: Security Sector Reform and Development by Albrecht Schnabel et al. Having mostly worked at the coalface of SSR, I was buoyed by this book’s leap into some of the existential surroundings of SSR. It explores opportunities for strengthening positive reinforcement loops in the SSR-Development nexus and, in my humble opinion, the book is a much needed airing of questions about the vision and direction and methodology of SSR. This is what I got out of the presentation:

SSR and development are mutually beneficial, especially if SSR is rooted in a community-based  assessment of security (human security). The current weak linkage between the two areas seems to be largely born out of a mutual fear of the other. The SSR community fears a dilution of its core product, while the development community sees that SSR activities are largely purely of a technical nature – as per the militarization of SSR in places like Afghanistan; and that it tends to avoid tackling the overarching issue of security sector governance (SSG). This type of 'partial' SSR could be termed "SSR-Light".

SSR in many countries risks remaining very state-centric, lacking input and participation at the local level. Thus, reform is light on gender mainstreaming, and on inclusion of marginalized groups/tribes/societies. Generally, there is an hesitancy on the part of SSR practitioners to get involved in community-based assessments (with the rare exceptions of UNDP and Saferworld) and to conduct a more participatory approach to envisioning security sector governance at the front end of the reform process.  I certainly see this reflected at several levels: by donors who are reluctant to be seen to get too involved in state sovereignty and the democratisation of security; by the recipient state actor who might prefer to keep security state-centric and firmly within their control; as well as by a country’s civil society, which might be weak, not understand its role in SSG, not believe in its potential power to oversee SSR, nor be empowered to do so.

The book also looks at SSR and disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration (DDR). Again DDR often fails to look at governance of this issue in the wider perspective and over the longer term. And there can be false linkages – for instance SSR doesn’t necessarily follow on from DDR. The interaction between these two areas is becoming a focus of attention, however, in part because of the ‘holding pattern’ that is emerging in Afghanistan. Indeed, many of us have asked ourselves, where does the collective ‘we’ move on to from a fragile and non-sticky DDR?

The book is far from doom and gloom, although positive examples, such as Liberia, Uganda, Mozambique and Kenya are not always explicit (I’m reminded of Brig (ret’d) Kellie Conteh’s explanation of the community based review of the security sector done in Sierra Leone).  DCAF acknowledges up front the lack of empirical data from which to track the development dividend of SSR. But every weakness is an opportunity as well as a challenge. And so DCAF is taking up one of its own recommendations from the book by moving the debate on from the focus on the weak links of the SSR-development nexus. One of DCAF’s next projects is to search out and track the development dividend of SSR. Examples will be greatly welcomed, so post them in the comments section below.

This SSR-Development discussion has clear implications for the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in terms of the legitimacy of both current and future actors, be these donors, revolutionary militias, or the plethora of new voices emerging. Questions will arise as to whether to bring in ‘best practice’ (from traditional donor communities) or ‘best fit’ (perhaps looking at the cross-over from South-South cooperation); and what are the best entry points for SSR/G?

Back to Roots: Security Sector Reform and Development will be available from Amazon from June 2012 (for a price). Or you can download half the chapters now for free direct from DCAF’s website (the remainder should be available there in March). I’m looking forward to the Kindle option in due course. 


Thammy Evans
26 Mar 2012, 10:48:04

Dear Ross,

Thanks for your comment. The number one principle of SSR/G is local ownership, in other words it can not take place successfully without a desire for it from the beneficiary country. So in the case of Libya, whilst ideally the conditions would be in place to allow SSR/G to start as soon as possible, it is not something that can be imposed by NATO or any other outside country. However, an agreement to conduct SSR/G might be able to be put in place as part of a package when additional assistance is requested by the beneficiary in other areas. This type of agreement may yet come for Libya.

NATO already has a mechanism in place, the Mediterranean Dialogue, to conduct SSR with non-NATO countries along the Mediterranean. However, the MD does not include Libya, so this is something that will need to be set up with the new Libyan government, when it is ready. Moreover, NATO does not tend to look at governance aspects of the security sector until countries request accession to NATO, which is not the case for MD countries.

One of the reasons that SSR waits for the end of fighting is because there needs to be a certain amount of stability in place in the governance of the security sector. Without this, SSR can end up reinforcing the problem (by creating a more efficient state security apparatus without suitable oversight) rather than developing a sustainable and accountable solution.

SSR/G can take place without a conflict first. And it never stops. Even in the US and Western Europe SSR/G continues every day with strategic defence reviews, a shake up of governance of intelligence agencies, etc. Arguably, if Libya (and Syria) had been one of the MD countries prior to the Arab Spring, then maybe these countries would be in a better position now to deal with the conflict they are currently facing.


Ross O'Reilly
21 Mar 2012, 16:52:44

Thammy thank you for the great post. I look froward to reading the book in its entirety. Time permitting I have tried to read parts that are online. I dont have an example but I do have a question for debate and this may be covered in the book I am sure.My question is at what point does SSR begin and what point should it end. I am aware of the cycle and suggests SSR activities happen shortly after a brokered peace settlement and after fighting ends, but is there (and I refer specifically to Libya) an opportunity; or should there be an opportunity to engage much earlier, particularly with intervening forces such as NATO, and with the interim council to create awareness of the impact their actions would have and the difficulties in implementing SSR in the future? If we look at Libya today it appears as a complex environment where militias rule. Could some of the problems we are seeing emerge in Libya have been foreseen and managed differently if SSR activities were engaged earlier?