“You can’t sub-contract the politics of reform” – finding the right balance in working with the private sector

by Mark Downes · May 31st, 2012.

There has been much discussion recently on the increasing role of the private sector when it comes to implementing security and justice programmes on the ground. For instance, large programmes supporting security and justice reforms are currently sub-contracted out to the private sector in Liberia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The purpose of this blog post is not to label private sector engagement in SSR good or bad, but to stimulate discussion on how best to utilise the capacity and experience that the private sector can bring to the table, and what challenges exist in doing so when we are dealing with a process that is inherently political.

Let’s look at the issue of capacity first. This trend towards sub-contracting to the private sector has emerged largely because it is difficult to source large numbers of serving police, prosecutors, court auditors or judges to send abroad as part of either bilateral or multilateral peacebuilding missions. The argument often used is that these personnel are needed at home, and any government would face a backlash from the media and others if they deployed large numbers of government personnel abroad at the expense of service delivery at home.

Some countries have built in over-capacity in services such as the police, so as to be able to contribute to international missions. Norway for example has staffed it police service to 101% capacity, so that up to 1% of its officers can be abroad, at any one time, serving in police support missions, without it been seen as impacting on services at home. Other countries, however, have gone down the road of sub-contracting out programme implementation to private sector actors, not only private security companies but, increasingly, mainstream consultancy groups.

Both options for sourcing capacity have limitations and advantages. You often find that serving police, prosecutors and judges are not the best programme managers nor do they have experience in working in a development or post-conflict environment. While the private sector has a track record in managing programmes and funding, they face limitations when it comes to their role in political processes as they cannot, or should not, speak on behalf of the governments that contract them. Also, their relatively short-term, goal-oriented approach can often cause tension with the need to take a longer-term, iterative approach to security and justice reforms.

One lesson that recent reviews have highlighted is the need for governments to maintain a leadership role when it comes to the politics and the overall direction of SSR programme implementation even when such a programme is sub-contracted out to a semi-state body such as a development agency. This is all the more important when you consider that efforts for greater coordination amongst the international community could be hampered if private sector actors see knowledge gained, or programme experience, as a commercial commodity not to be shared with other actors in the international community.  The above could point to a need for changes in how private sector actors are contracted, either to include a role in coordination or in knowledge management, or possibly focusing their role on the supply of capacity and programme management skills, while programme and political leadership remains with the donor government department, Embassy or agency.

What is increasingly clear is that, if more civilian experience and capacities need to be brought into the reforms of security and justice services and institutions (and this is needed, see previous blog), then there is an even greater need to engage with the private sector to ensure that they are aware of obligations that the contracting government has signed up for, such as the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness or the UN or OECD DAC approach to supporting security and justice reforms. Some level of accreditation is required for all personnel whether they come from government agencies or the private sector, that are working to support security and justice reform whether in UN missions, regional assistance or bilateral programmes.

The role of the private sector in support of security and justice reforms is here to stay but, given the high risk nature of SSR, those government desk officers who are responsible for tendering out programme implementation should be wary of the relevance of a quote from Alan Shepherd when he said that “it is a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realise that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract”.

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