Towards Hybrid Security: Questioning Norms and the Political Dimension of SSR Programming

by Keryan Wurlod · March 5th, 2020.

Since its emergence in the 1990s, the concept of Security Sector Reform (SSR) has undergone significant transformation. As SSR became a central concept among security and development communities, a shift of approach, from a traditional state-centred towards human security, emerged with growing emphasis on the non-state sector and local ownership.

Among the SSR community of practitioners, the contextual nature of SSR programming is widely acknowledged. Yet, even though recent state-building approaches are more context-sensitive, “the end state is taken for granted, as are the means to be applied to achieve that end” (Ericksen 2009). In the case of SSR, this “end state” is usually a Weberian state that has the monopoly of security provision and of the legitimate use of force, and that includes “accountable” state security institutions overseen by democratic processes.

In recent years, the SSR community has called this paradigm into question with the concept of hybridity gaining more traction, leading to what is often called “second-generation SSR”. In this context, hybridity is defined by the “multiple ways traditional, personal, kin-based or clientelist approaches interact with modern, imported, or rational actor logics” of political authority and governance (Luckham and Kirk, 2013). Engaging in hybrid security and justice governance mechanisms therefore implies that SSR programming should start including non-state, informal and customary security and justice providers – such as militias, neighbourhood watch groups or traditional chiefs – in reform processes. However, this blog recognizes that the main challenge of a shift towards a more hybrid and inclusive reform processes are not technical, but rather political.

Normative Frameworks, Power Relations and SSR

Due to its holistic nature, SSR includes a wide range of concepts and is carried out in complex environments regulated by international norms. Against this context, normative approaches and modelling are key to understanding SSR policy design and implementation. Therefore, SSR can be examined as a framework for policy expansion, or as the “spread of specific instruments, standards, and institutions, both public and private, to broad policy models, ideational frameworks” (Gilardi, 2012). Here again, this does not mean that SSR processes are being replicated regardless of the context, but rather that they are subject to international policy undertones and assumptions, as well as, national social norms.

In all contexts where SSR programmes are being supported, pre-existing norms, accepted and recognized by local actors, define social dynamics. These constraints are often symbolic and intangible – in the form of norms, identities and beliefs – but they provide a “shared understanding of what is acceptable”, which is often reinforced by political power dynamics.

In reality, non-state security providers and traditional actors are sometimes perceived as more legitimate than state authority by the local population, especially when formal institutions do not have the capacity to provide effective and relevant security services. In those contexts, social structures and arrangements are not regulated by the rule of law or formal national state authorities. Implementing “traditional SSR” programming in such cases is therefore likely to be perceived as being imposed from the outside and non-legitimate. Theoretically, to be sustainable and effective, security institutions must be perceived as legitimate by local populations. In other words, SSR processes are likely to generate resistance if they are not built upon pre-existing social norms, beliefs, identities and interests, especially when they directly affect power relations.

From Theory to Practice

Understanding the political dynamics through which norms are disseminated is useful to examine how reforms are practically implemented at national and local levels. Questioning the conceptual framework of SSR suggests that greater flexibility and more creative solutions involving both state and non-state actors could produce more sustainable results.

In practice, the political nature of SSR implies that any reform process is likely to create winners and losers and that such processes are usually subject to different degrees of acceptance or resistance from the stakeholders involved. For this reason, hybrid SSR can only be undertaken when this political dimension is addressed. That implies that state actors have to understand the benefits of involving non-state, informal and customary security and justice providers in reform processes.  

The International community should start scoping more effectively SSR programming which contributes to developing entry-points for institutionalising the relations between state and non-state actors for improved effectiveness and accountability of security and justice provision. Through context awareness, inclusive approaches and whole of system support, hybrid security sector reform could lead to more effective and legitimate SSR processes.


Margaux Boffi
15.4.2020 11:39:23