SSR and Conflict Prevention

by Alexander Burian · March 9th, 2018.

The renewed focus on conflict prevention – resulting from the WB-UN Prevention study – and the rise in intra-state and regional conflicts in recent years have thrust conflict prevention back to the centre of global security sector reform (SSR) discourse.

As highlighted in the 2017 DCAF report on ‘the Contribution and Role of SSR in the Prevention of Violent Conflict’, security and justice institutions are commonly the primary interface between states and the populations they are meant to serve. But their protracted ineffectiveness or poor governance and lack of integrity can leave the door open for conflict to escalate. It is therefore encouraging that we are going back to the roots of SSR and reassessing the role of SSR in conflict prevention. 

An effective and robust SSR process is an important tool for conflict prevention. However, the vast requirements and scope of SSR mean we often see that the greatest impact is achieved when SSR deliberately seeks to help prevent conflict. Overall, if we are going to use SSR effectively to prevent conflict, it is clear that business as usual approach to SSR is insufficient. We need to adapt our common focus areas, change the approach, but also actually apply the good practice we have collected over the years.  Our continued focus on institution and state centric approaches to SSR are limited in potential to help prevent conflict. We need to start seeking, analysing and monitoring drivers of conflict related to the security and justice institutions – including identifying entry points where those institutions can actively help reduce the drivers – but also start to apply a more bottom up approach to SSR in programming.

Usually, abusive or repressive security and justice institutions are directly responsible for triggering or fuelling conflict; corruption, torture, lack of integrity or politicization of security and justice services all undermine public trust. Despite wide acknowledgement at policy level that more must be done to make institutions more accountable, in practice donors only dedicate five to ten per cent of their overall support to strengthening accountability mechanisms. This issue is too pivotal to leave to chance.

It is not by chance that countries whose security forces are more gender balanced and ethnically representative are some of the most peaceful in their region. And this pattern is global– from Sweden to Nicaragua to Botswana. When Ukraine’s new police service improved gender balance, public perception of the quality of the service also improved. Yet we also need to explore gender equality at every level of the hierarchy. In many countries we find increased numbers of women in the police service. This is a useful first step, but it is not enough. The more nuanced picture often reveals that women are often absent from middle or senior management positions. Creating inclusive institutions takes a deliberate, concerted effort, including donors modelling the good practice by ensuring we deploy more women as heads of programmes and increasing the number of women in senior positions within UN Police components.   

It is well known that budget is an important driving mechanism for reform. Mismanagement of the budget process or insufficient spending too often causes SSR efforts to falter and sows suspicion and mistrust among the public. We have seen that even modest efforts to address financial mismanagement in the security and justice sectors can have important stabilizing effects on security institutions.

It is well established that in many transition or post-conflict contexts as much as 80% of the population access their security and justice needs through informal institutions, including customary justice and security providers. If we are serious about citizen security and preventing conflict at community level then the traditional reluctance to engage with such actors must be overcome, otherwise we limit the potential of our efforts and the relevance of SSR in helping to prevent conflict. 

In DCAF’s experience there are some key recommendations and observations that are critical to SSR being better able to contribute to prevention of violent conflict. These include the need to commit longer-term support at national and regional level. All too often, donors withdraw where the results are about to become apparent. Sustainable results cannot be achieved in just a few years: we need to apply more dynamic and long-game thinking to SSR. We need to understand the links between security and justice actors; address emerging issues such as the governance of private security companies; tackle the core budgeting issues that stymie efficiency or spawn corruption; include citizens in the delivery of security through participatory systems of security provision (e.g. community policing) and inclusive systems of decision making (through oversight bodies); and appreciate the importance of non-state and traditional security and justice institutions in the management and oversight of security and justice services.

This seems like a significant undertaking, but as the WB-UN report underlines, we can approach the issue of prevention from many different angles, with many different actors working together. And if we change nothing, then we can expect nothing to change.

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