Sustainability and the 2nd political dimension

by Alwin van den Boogaard · September 1st, 2016.

SSR is all about politics, we all know. Often this statement concerns the political dimension of SSR within the country where the SSR process takes place. Often forgotten or neglected is the fact that SSR is political in the donor country as well. This blog discusses some consequences of this, what I refer to as the second political dimension of SSR.

Reasons for presence of the second political dimension

It is difficult to prove, but it feels like support to SSR is more politically risky than the more known or easier to understand forms of traditional development aid. On one side there are the characteristics of SSR as a process of change within a society, such as: difficult to measure the results in the beginning, absence of linear positive development, the length of the process and the unpredictability of its outcome. These characteristics make it difficult to defend support for SSR. There are also the more obvious reasons like: the difficulty in understanding the link between support to security services and economic development, and providing assistance to a sector accused of human rights violations. And of course, a much greater risk that support might do serious harm in settings in which we know security forces are a key pillar of power in the first place, who do not tend to exercise this power in line with the values we’d like them to uphold.

Events, dear boy, events[1]

Although SSR has a political dimension within the donor country, this dimension does not always have the same magnitude. The weight of the second political dimension increases when negative events take place in the supported country, such as fraud, corruption, abuse of power and misconduct by supported security forces. Major negative events are politically sensitive for the governments both in the partnering country as well as in the supported country.

If setbacks occur within the SSR process—i.e. backlashes within the democratization process or a relapse into (limited) conflict lead to human right abuses—the second political dimension of SSR results in increased political vulnerability to the governments concerned in the donor country as well. It is easy to criticize the government for assisting an oppressive government or security forces. This political vulnerability might trigger hasty political decisions in order to defend the government’s position, without due consultation with the host country. Hasty decisions, based on these kinds of short term objectives, can quickly damage essential components of the SSR-process, like the fundamental principle of ownership. Repairing ownership is difficult, as trust and credibility of the international partner will be reduced and this will not be forgotten easily.

Train, build and equip

The second political dimension of SSR, as described above, reinforces the desire of partner countries to provide short-term support to the SSR process, in order to reduce the opportunities for, and manage the risk of, political vulnerability. Short term project cycles, especially the train, build and equip approach, fit well into this method of risk management.

Short project cycles also fit more easily into the standard sequence of political elections, with a potential change of government every four or five years. This encourages an irrational approach of cutting a process lasting a generation into bits and pieces of 4-5 years. It is neglecting the fact that a strategic approach of ten years is not the same as two successive approaches of five years.

Paradoxically these short term activities have a greater risk of doing harm by not adequately embedding and taking care of the governance of such activities.

Gaining public support or extending the cooperation

SSR is often described as support to the police or support to the army, as if there is no difference between technical assistance, as provided during the Cold War, and the SSR approach.

Support to security forces who are not up to international standards is difficult to understand if one does not note the difference between the mere technical assistance on the one hand, and SSR and the context in which SSR support occurs on the other. To begin with the latter: only a very limited amount of people are consciously aware of the relationship between security and development. There is also limited knowledge of the challenges within a fragile or post-conflict state. SSR and its characteristics are even less known to the public.

In order to (re)gain support for SSR, more efforts should be undertaken to inform the public of the donor partner about the objectives and mechanisms of SSR and the connection between SSR and the more eminent threats like terrorism, refugees and instability. Raising the awareness of the public about SSR might reduce the political vulnerability in case of relapse, conscious that the public of to-day will be the voters of tomorrow.

During setbacks within the SSR process it is of utmost importance to maintain a good and trustworthy level of communication between the governments concerned. Understandably setbacks, certainly in case of human rights violations, pose a dilemma for a donor partner government. The government is pressed to decline the support to an oppressive or violently behaving partner government while at the same time it needs to keep the communication with the same partner government open. Keeping the lines of communication open depends on the status of the government, gained during past periods, and it depends on the remaining value of the government during this crisis. There is no one size fits all solution for this dilemma, but some measures if taken in time might reduce the gravity of the dilemma. These include: regular analysis of the political context and scenario planning, agreement between the concerned governments on how to react in the case of relapse, mutual agreed indicators and attached positive and negative incentives, mutual understanding of the political reality within the partner country.

Another solution can be to engage in multilateral SSR support, with a group of countries with the same orientation towards SSR (like the Scandinavian countries, Great-Britain and the Netherlands) together support an SSR process in a certain country. If, due to political pressure, one of the countries needs to temporarily postpone the engagement the other countries can take over.

Of course these kinds of ideas need to be analyzed thoroughly, but in my opinion setbacks in the SSR process are likely to occur and, as the second political dimension will not disappear overnight, a creative search for how to make support to SSR processes more stable is necessary. In short: if one fails to plan how to react in the case of setbacks one plans the failure of the support to the SSR process.

In short

SSR is a politically risky endeavor for a donor government. SSR is also a process that lasts a generation. In order to be effective and sustainable this process must arrive at its end-state so the principles of good governance come to be accepted as standard norms. Ensuring that support to SSR does not continue as only short term engagements, and in order to prevent ending the support to SSR in times of political turmoil, we should try to find ways to support SSR based on a longer term basis.

[1] British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was once asked what was the most difficult thing about his job. ‘Events, dear boy, events’ was his now famous reply.

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