Reinforcing contextual knowledge in fragile contexts: Examples from DCAF’s SSR-G activities in The Sahel and West and Central Africa

by Anne Bennett · April 3rd, 2020.

If we are to collectively respond to the immense global security challenges states and communities face today, strategic and technical support should be based on empirical knowledge of where, when and how security sector reform can have the greatest impact. The need for evidence and informed analysis is especially acute in fragile contexts, in which the risk of conflict is particularly high and where multiple factors contribute to a state of insecurity.

For DCAF’s Sub-Saharan Africa Division three strategic questions are shaping our research agenda:

  • How can management reform such as public financial management translate into improved performance and effective service delivery in fragile contexts?
  • In contexts where there is an erosion of trust between the State and the population, how can we unleash SSR’s potential for strengthening social cohesion and the social contract?
  • Where access for experts and international researchers is limited, how can we develop innovative programs that support security governance that reach the most vulnerable populations?

We’re addressing these questions across a number of multi-dimensional research efforts, in particular in the Sahel, West Africa, and central African regions. By partnering with international, regional, and national research institutions and networks of national scholars, we areconducting perception studies, carrying out participatory assessments of national SSR processes, drafting case studies on the existing prevention of violent extremism frameworks, and developing SSR thematic policy tools. Research findings will inform policy and programming, support advocacy for a result-oriented engagement of the security sector and contribute to locally owned innovative solutions.

Management reform and good financial governance

Reform of public financial management and human resource practices across the security sector is often necessary not just to achieve greater efficiencies but also to mitigate opportunities for corrupt practices which squander scare resources and have a direct negative impact on the public trust. Within the framework of DCAF’s regional programme in Sahel funded by Denmark, DCAF is developing of a series of case studies (good practices; strengths and weaknesses, challenges and opportunities) on the management of resources allocated to the security sector. These studies will fuel debate and provide empirical data during a regional symposium to be organized by DCAF, to which key national institutions (representatives from the ministries, CSOs and ombuds institutions) from across the sub-region will be invited. The results of this conference will also enable DCAF SSAD to develop a multi-year support plan for these different stakeholders, for better management of security sector related resources and more transparency.

Support to regional and sub-regional organizations such as the AU and ECOWAS in the implementation of SSG/R policy frameworks and the inclusion of democratic security governance in political dialogue is a strategic objective for DCAF- ISSAT and the Sub-Saharan Africa Division. The need for transparency and good governance of public affairs is a pillar of ECOWAS policy and concerns all areas of public administration including defence and security. As part of our support to ECOWAS, DCAF-SSAD is finalizing a practical tool entitled Good financial governance of security and defence institutions. Aimed at practitioners and policy makers involved in the governance of the security sector at the executive and parliamentary levels as well as civil society and members of the media with an interest in public finance or the security sector. It draws on DCAF’s global experience and knowledge and brings together a number of illustrative cases studies from the ECOWAS region.

There’s always a concern with translating knowledge production to real change for population son the ground. In the framework of the Danish funded regional programme, DCAF is working with ECOWAS to define a sustainable methodology to carry out a regular review of the implementation of the ECOWAS Policy Framework on SSG. This exploratory work will be followed by concrete support to the drafting of periodic reports on the progress made by each of the three countries- Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso- to align their legal and regulatory frameworks with the ECOWAS standards.

SSR and the social compact

In Mali, opaque governance and security sector impunity are believed to be among the root causes of the outbreak of the 2012 crisis. DCAF’s multiyear programme, funded by the Netherlands MFA, puts emphasis on supporting the concomitant development of both internal and external control and oversight mechanisms and capacities, in an effort to foster a culture of effectiveness and accountability in Malian security institutions.

In late 2019DCAF selected the Harvard-based Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) to conduct a pioneer perception study on security needs in Mali that features a cross-perception of members of the population and internal security forces (police, gendarmerie, and garde nationale). The research team is working in close collaboration with the Ministry of Security to ensure access to security personnel as well as active participation and collaboration of security officials in the study. The research team of international and local researchers deployed to dozens of locations across four provinces of Mali including Mopti, Sikasso, Kayes, and Bamako. The focus of the study is on the management of the security sector, security services to the population, police-population relations, and reform priorities. The study also takes a fresh look at the security situation in Mali, the involvement of local actors and-armed groups, security forces response to insecurity, and related human rights abuses. Findings of the perception study will be released in an analytical report that should further facilitate constructive engagement with internal security forces (including targeted technical support), advocacy on SSR priorities, and cooperation among international partners.

States’ response to violent extremism, still widely based on a military and security-led approach, is gradually been supplemented by more comprehensive approaches involving political and civilian stakeholders in the action taken by defence and security forces. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and its Human Security Division, the Centre for Advanced Defence and Security Studies (CHEDS) in Senegal, and DCAF have joined forces to review and take stock of the conceptual, political, legislative, ideological and operational framework in place to promote the engagement of West and Central African Defence and Security Forces (DSF) for the prevention of violent extremism (PVE). This task will be performed by a team of regional and national consultants who will work alongside DCAF, Swiss FDFA and CHEDS experts. The following six countries have been selected for case studies: Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Central African Republic and Togo. Field work has been completed in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire.

This research project will enable West and Central African DSF to enhance their role in PVE and improve their understanding of the wide range of possible responses to extreme violence. It will also clearly define the support network, including the necessary political support to carry out their tasks, in reference to the structures and mandates by which they are governed. The final comparative analysis will lay the technical groundwork for a future regional workshop organised by the CHEDS and FDFA in the context of the Regional Conversations on PVE that have taken place regularly since 2017.

The findings of this study will be complemented by an additional ECOWAS toolkit this one dedicated to non-state security and justice actors which will address both concerns, challenges, and opportunities to including non-state actors in SSR-SSG processes. Over recent years, non-state security actors are increasingly relevant in security sector dynamics and local security service provision has been rapidly increasing in the Sahel-The Horn of Africa. The toolkit will map out important questions for SSG-SSR policy makers and practitioners, to highlight related engagement restrictions, and to offer practical guidance on research, advocacy, and programme development. The toolkit will provide a few case studies and provide concrete examples of non-state security mechanisms and across the West Africa region.

Partnership and innovation to bridge gaps in knowledge and access

Developing innovative methodologies and approaches to conducting assessments through increasingly working with local and national partners and using digital communications and data collection platforms is essential, even more so faced with what could be long term restrictions as the world faces COVID19.  For example, SSAD and DCAF’s Business and Security Division will partner with a civil society organization, local academic institution, independent national expert to explore the impact, and in particular the legal framework for governance, of the exponential growth in the number of private security companies in Burkina Faso. The partnership will enable the exchange of rigorous and ongoing methodological and analytical cross-fertilization and will depend in large part on digital tools to support this distance research and learning.

DCAF is also teaming up with the Africa Security Sector Network (ASSN), long-time partner to ISSAT and SSAD, to complete a participatory assessment of national SSR processes in three countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The assessment will provide a comprehensive stakeholders analysis, a review of recent dynamics, and an overview on the main obstacles and opportunities to advance SSR-SSG agenda. The assessment will be carried out by teams of two national researchers in each country and will be supervised by ASSN scientific committee and its executive coordinator. The three assessments will result in useful reference points and related baseline data for the project. In addition, the research will provide data for each national partner of the level of understanding on SSR related concepts in order to prepare targeted trainings. The research is expected to start at the end of April and is scheduled to take two months to complete. ASSN will produce three country reports and one regional report.


As states and communities in Sub-Saharan Africa face down the global health crisis caused by the spread of COVID19, we expect regions affected by chronic fragility to be especially hard hit. The combined impact of conflict, poverty and climate change is often most deeply felt in contexts in which the presence of the state or its capacity to carry out governance functions is limited.  While we are far from being able to count the human and financial costs of the crisis, we can expect to see decreasing aid budgets and government funds available to carry out planned reforms. As a result, management reform, including public financial management, is all the more urgent in order to maximize resources. This includes greater transparency around security budgets, and commensurate oversight and inquiry by lawmakers.

Early responses to COVID19 in Sub-Saharan Africa have confirmed the lessons from the 2014-15 Ebola crisis: namely that there is direct link exists between security sector governance, security sector reform, and the ability of the security sector to contribute effectively to combating an epidemic.  As the security sector steps into new or expanded roles in combatting the spread of the virus and the unintended consequences of quarantine, it will only succeed if it is trusted and respected and operates under full democratic control. Understanding and unleashing the full potential of SSR as a tool for building social cohesion and contributing to peacebuilding and conflict resolution is urgent. This will depend on our ability to rapidly mobilize new methodologies, approaches and partnerships to support our security sector and civilian oversight partners in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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