Sustainability and the 1st political dimension

by Alwin van den Boogaard · August 25th, 2016.

Thomas Mann once said: “Alles ist Politik”, meaning everything is political. This not only includes SSR but even more: one can say SSR is politics. Whether we do train, build and equip, we discuss the importance of Human Rights or we assist the elaboration of a legal framework we influence or even change the political balance in a certain country. But an SSR process is not only political within the country where it takes place, it is also a political endeavor within the donor country. In this way we can distinguish two political dimensions of SSR: the first political dimension within the country where SSR is taking place and the second political dimension concerns the political weight and incorporated risks of SSR for the government of the donor country. In this blog I would like to highlight some of the consequences of this first political dimension.

Political support as condition for sustainable SSR

SSR is said to be only possible if there is a high level political engagement. Of course as SSR touches upon the political relationships within the country and deals with the power bases of the political elite high level political support to SSR is necessary in order to be successful.

However looking at political support from another angle there are questions to be asked around the likelihood of this high level political support to be omnipresent during the entire SSR process. SSR is about depoliticizing the security sector, in other words trying to create a politically neutral security sector. But often in less democratic states the state security forces are amongst the principal power bases of the ruling political elites. Especially in politically volatile circumstances, such as in a post-conflict or fragile state, losing one of the power bases is a dangerous adventure. If one adds the lack of democratic mindset within the political elites and the weak understanding of the principle of political neutrality of state security institutions one should ask oneself whether a high level political commitment to SSR is likely to be present.

And if this political support is there, such as it is at present in Madagascar, will this political commitment stay robust all through the process? Looking at the aim of SSR and the consequences of this approach for the political elites it is doubtful this support will continue to manifest itself. Does this mean the “SSR approach” is a dead end, or is likely to fail? I do not think so if SSR advances gradually, takes the time to develop to prove its value to a broad audience and is successful in creating a critical mass which can create leverage within the political elites. SSR should be more about planting a seed, convincing the rulers of to-morrow.

As the political elites and parties will be confronted with the consequences of a SSR process and as political parties will produce the political leaders of to-morrow, SSR should deal with political parties in an inclusive way. The political key players of SSR go beyond the ruling political elites.

Absence of political will

In an interview with Roel Bekker, a high ranking Dutch government official, he stated that within the Dutch political system it takes 20 years before a very political issue is taken seriously, discussed and decided upon[1]. This is something we often neglect when we demand that a government, which is executing SSR, decides upon highly political issues. We put pressure on it in all kinds of ways in order to advance or in order to show progress. Of course this pressure often has very positive reasons: e.g. showing progress might convince the partner country to engage more and more means, to stay longer or to accept setbacks. While doing so we are blind to the political volatility, the caused or feared shift within the power balance or the hidden political agendas.

Putting on pressure also might damage the feeling of ownership. Damaging the feeling of ownership damages sustainability. While executing the DSS-program as director I increased pressure on the Burundian Ministry of Defense pressing for approval of the results of a step within the Burundian Defense Review. I did so in order to advance the Defense Review but also in order to strengthen the Burundian position while entering the discussion around the funds for the next phase of the DSS program. I was convinced putting pressure on was in the interests of the Burundian partner. I understood that I was heading in the wrong direction when during a meeting the pressure on the program director was mentioned as a reason to approve the recommendations of the part of the Defense Review. At the end of the meeting the recommendations were not approved and there were no results to be reported. The absence of results was explained as absence of political will on the Burundian side. This, while looking back, was not the case. The recommendations had too many political implications and were put on the table while neglecting or ignoring the political situation Burundi was in at that moment. I was wrong.

Engaging politically, wherever and whenever possible

Absence of political will is often quoted as a reason for absence of progress[2]. Although one cannot exclude that sometimes the absence of political will is a reason one should more pay attention to a thorough analysis of the political situation in order to better understand the reasons for a delay. An in depth analysis of the political situation demands regular political engagement at all levels of the SSR program. All levels means:  from high political level (ministerial) down to the projects managers, disregarding their nationality. One should avoid using the “absence of political will” as a convenient way to externalize the causes of failure that may instead be due to flaws in design or implementation, such as going too fast, too much pressure, insufficient realization of political stakes and interests etc.

Political engagement should take place at all levels within the process, whenever and wherever possible and several forms of engagement should be used. These political engagements should be complementary to each other. Some examples could be:

  • High level regular engagements are necessary in order to better understand the political dynamics and to identify the stakeholders and their positions. High level contacts build trust between partners and can be exploited in times of setbacks. And as we all know setbacks are likely to occur in processes like SSR.
  • Talking about political analysis; this should be a daily process. Every change within the country has the potential to lead to political changes or tension. Analyzing the present political situation as part of daily activities in the office will assist in finding windows of opportunity, identifying potential threats and ultimately might lead to changes within the SSR program.
  • Engaging everybody within the SSR program also creates a way of transmitting the same political message on several levels and in different wordings. A minister will present a political message in another way and at another level than a project manager but the contents should be the same. In this way the messages will be reinforced and are more likely to have the impact one was looking for.

In short

SSR is a political process because it influences or even changes political relations and the relations between the political elites and security forces. There is no way a political process can be executed without doing politics. As politics runs through the veins of the entire SSR-process, from train, build and equip towards the system of accountability and the form of parliamentary control it is necessary that political engagement is a daily recurring activity at all levels within the SSR program. This will lead not only to better understanding of the context and the SSR process but is also a kind of investment in order to counter setbacks or resistance during the SSR process.

[1]  http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2680/Economie/article/detail/3522264/2013/10/06/Martin-Sommer-Tijd-was-altijd-een-ambtelijke-troefkaart-maar-die-raakt-op.dhtml

[2] http://www.berghoffoundation.org/fileadmin/redaktion/Publications/Handbook/Dialogue_Chapters/dialogue2_nathan.pdf

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