Running out of excuses: Better security and justice programs are within reach

by Erwin Van Veen · May 12th, 2016.

Development is a highly complex process of social change at multiple, interrelated, levels and dimensions that may unexpectedly regress or progress in function of either accumulated change or windows of opportunity that suddenly arise. There is no area for which this is truer than the organization and delivery of security and justice in fragile societies. This is because such societies are typically characterized by high levels of personalization of rule, low levels of institutionalization, as well as fault lines that can easily be mobilized for violence (consider religious identity or inequality). It is also because state security institutions are often tools that ruling elites use to acquire and maintain power and hence highly resistant to change.

In these contexts, security and justice programs generally profess or aim to improve the quality and quantity of either for ordinary residents – the poor in particular - as these often draw the short straw in how their interests are served by existing security and justice arrangements.

In addition to the complexity of the context, the last decade has made it abundantly clear that the ability of security and justice programs to interact dynamically with their environment is critical to their chance of ‘succeeding’. Recent case study analysis of how nine externally supported security and justice development programs across the globe sought to organize their interaction, and how they adapted to change while delivering on (oftentimes shifting) objectives suggests four characteristics are key:

  • Programs need to be able to engage politically - on a daily basis. This means that they should have the ability to continuously assess, and act in response to, political developments;
  • Programs need to be 6-10 years in duration – as a minimum. This means they require long-term political commitments from donors, supported by shorter-term financial arrangements;
  • Detailed long-term results should be developed as part of a program – not upfront. This means that only intermediate results should be put in place at the start of a program, together with a process to jointly develop longer-term results. Inception phases are not enough.
  • Program implementation must be adjustable – not cast in stone. This means that program resources and adaption rules must be flexible and capable of adjusting to both environmental developments and implementation lessons.

The best finding of the research is, however, that programs featuring one or several of these characteristics already exist. This suggests it is do-able for international and local actors to design and implement such programs. The problem is that examples remain rare and relative successes do not seem to lead to replication and/or scaling up. This, in turn, suggests bureaucratic inertia – or resistance - within donor organizations that prevents the required change from happening, despite the accumulating weight of evidence.

In consequence, progressing the state of security and justice programming ultimately appears to be a matter of leadership, in addition to disseminating evidence and good practice in ways that compel. This is especially the case because realizing the above characteristics in programs does not generally require new policies, new competences or radically different procedures in donor organizations. They do, however, require an improved corporate understanding of what a good program looks like, altering incentives that influence staff behavior, and fostering a culture of organizational learning. In consequence, one might say that the key issue to monitor for the next few years therefore is whether senior decision-makers in donor organizations are able to take three concrete actions:

  1. Authorize a more permissive programming environment that does not penalize failure or requires rapid results, so that staff can innovate, design and implement programs that have more of the above features;
  2. Create higher standards of accountability for program design and implementation as well as better monitoring functions so that incentives and pressure are created for quality improvements;
  3. Create greater corporate openness to learning so that these improvements are only the starting point of a longer-term process of maturation.

The elaboration, evidence and examples for these points are available in this OECD report (pdf).

Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow in Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit

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

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