Intelligence and security reform in a Middle Eastern country


An OECD member country initiated a programme of intelligence and security reform in a Middle Eastern country that had little experience of working with OECD countries and few trusting relationships with outsiders. The purpose of the reform was to rationalise a security sector bloated with many competing agencies, which led to wasted resources and potential instability. Some security officials were suspicious of the language of reform, which was seen as an attempt to impose alien cultural
concepts on a tribal political system. The country faced a number of trans-national threats including terrorism, people trafficking and arms smuggling, and was under international pressure to bring these activities under control.

Entry point

The country’s ministry of interior approached the OECD country’s donor organisation with a request for a wide range of capability-building activities across policing, justice and security. The ministry primarily sought exposure to international thinking on operational effectiveness, and the original requests were not couched in the language of reform.

Lessons learned

Modesty of ambition — The initial assessment found that the OECD member country had insufficient political knowledge of the country to credibly advocate or manage a comprehensive programme of reform, and was not trusted enough to be able to gain access to the most sensitive parts of government. The assessment recommended a small-scale, experimental approach consisting of a portfolio of government-to-government co-operation activities, while recognising that not all of these would necessarily prove successful. The aim was to build knowledge and trusting relationships and to identify what worked and what did not, to the point where a more sophisticated programme could be designed and managed in the future. The management team had to adjust its practices and expectations to implement a flexible, iterative approach that emphasised learning and relationship building rather than immediate reform outcomes.

Care with vocabulary — The word “reform” was banned by the practitioners’ team. Proposals were described in terms of their benefi ts to operational effectiveness and responsiveness to citizens’ needs, rather than to higher-level principles of democratisation.

Early delivery of results — Some senior security officials criticised the team for conducting “endless scoping studies whilst never delivering”. The management team attempted to rationalise the assessment process to avoid duplication of meetings and over-analysis, and sought to implement practical activities as soon as sufficient evidence became available that they might be productive.


The programme is still in its infancy; it is not yet possible to judge its impact.