Issue 17 - Article 24

Security-Sector Reform: A Work in Progress

June 4, 2003
Dylan Hendrickson
8 min read

An increasing number of development agencies are becoming operationally involved with security-sector reform (SSR). Spearheading this new ‘sector’ of assistance is the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Its policy statement, ‘Poverty and the Security Sector’ published in March 1999, reflects government-wide consensus on the rationale of SSR as a development issue, and Whitehall-wide coordination in implementing this policy.

Recent donor experiences in Cambodia and Sierra Leone suggest that providing security-sector assistance presents unique and difficult challenges. In particular, the haste with which the new agenda has been operationalised has not allowed for adequate consideration of its many complex policy dilemmas. Unless donor assistance is provided within a coherent policy framework, there is a risk that the new agenda will end up being little more than a ‘crisis-management’ response to deep-seated security-sector problems.

That development actors have until recently largely steered clear of direct involvement with the security sector is an indication of the immense political (and legal) barriers they face; the conviction among many that this is not a legitimate area for development assistance; and a corresponding reluctance to develop the requisite capacity. However, it is precisely these factors, coupled with the urgency of SSR as a development issue, that suggest the need for a more constructive and open debate.

Policy debates and dilemmas

The security sector comprises those bodies – both civil and military – responsible for protecting the state, and communities within it. SSR seeks to address how the security sector is structured, managed and resourced, and the obstacles governments face in bringing security institutions to account. Underpinning the SSR agenda (and also providing the rationale for aid agencies to work in this domain) is the principle that achieving effective security-sector governance is both a civilian and a military responsibility.

The SSR agenda represents a move away from the rather simplistic and mechanistic focus on military expenditure that has characterised past interventions in the security sector by international financial institutions (IFIs) and certain bilateral donors. A narrow focus on reducing security spending is not always consistent with the need to enhance security, or to create conditions conducive to poverty reduction. Reconciling competing demands on public resources between the social sectors and the security sector is therefore a central policy dilemma.

While officials in developing countries have generally welcomed donor interest in SSR, the views expressed at recent international conferences highlight concern about the lack of clarity regarding donor motives, and the policy assumptions underpinning the new agenda. This was, for example, the general message that emerged from a DFID-sponsored symposium on security-sector reform and military expenditure in February 2000. There are concerns that SSR may be a back-door to donor conditionality aimed at down-sizing, rather than ‘right-sizing’, the security sector.

Security-sector reform also raises fundamental questions about the role of the state in providing security. While the SSR agenda is predicated upon regarding states as the primary actors in providing security, this is clearly at odds with the current situation in some developing countries, and there is a risk that the question of who will provide security and protect human rights in the absence of effective state capacity will be overlooked. The privatisation of security services in many countries does not bode well for the welfare of the poorest segments of their populations.

In Africa in particular, citizens have long sought solutions to the problem of personal security outside of the state arena. This is not simply due to the fact that state capacity has been undermined, but also because politics is organised along very different lines than in the West. This has important, but poorly understood, implications for security-sector reform. Even if a society decides to emulate a Western security model, there is a huge gap between the kinds of reforms being proposed by donors, the capacity of governments to undertake and sustain them, and the levels and quality of international assistance being provided to fill this gap. Without resources to pay the salaries of security personnel and fund institutional reforms, human-rights training – to give one example –is unlikely to increase professionalism.

Operational challenges

In Sierra Leone, the UK-supported SSR programme, which was temporarily halted when fighting resumed in May 2000, has attempted to address some of these issues by complementing military-training assistance with help in reforming the police, restructuring the Ministry of Defence, strengthening mechanisms of civil oversight and elaborating a new national security policy.

While the ideal ‘pre-conditions’ for reforms rarely exist in any country, the Sierra Leone case suggests that consolidating peace agreements and restoring political stability are pre-requisites for the structural reform of the security sector. Other concerns relate to the appropriate balance between external and local visions for reform, the role of civil society and the pace of reforms in the context of the state’s overall institutional fragility. A recent report suggests that, in the haste to initiate the reform process, some of these dilemmas may have received inadequate attention.

In Sierra Leone, the prevailing security threat provided justification for direct British support to bolster military capacity. In Cambodia, however, most donors have taken a ‘deficit-reduction’ approach in order to avoid direct engagement with the military. For the first time since the 1960s, a Cambodian government does not face a significant internal or external military threat. This, combined with the surge in crime since the peace agreement of 1991, suggests that there is a need and an opportunity to reorient military spending (currently 30–40 per cent of the national budget) towards internal security functions and the social sectors.

The IFIs are currently placing heavy pressure on Cambodia to cut military spending rapidly. Reducing the size of the army has been identified as the best way to achieve this, but the demobilisation programme has been delayed by a lack of government capacity and commitment, and general donor reluctance to fund its reintegration component. Demobilisation has not been closely linked to the Australian-supported defence review, and no real promises of assistance to reform the army have been forthcoming from donors. Such pledges would have provided the best incentive for the military – which enjoys significant autonomy – to support the down-sizing process.

Mainstreaming SSR in development policy

There are no easy answers to the dilemmas raised by security-sector reform, particularly when it involves security forces in countries with a culture of impunity. Nonetheless, development agencies cannot avoid engaging with these issues. This view is consistent with the vision for security-sector reform laid out by Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development, when she launched DFID’s policy statement in March 1999. But if the promise is to be fulfilled, SSR will not only need to be mainstreamed in development policy, but also incorporated into the overall foreign policy of donor countries. This was the key message of a report prepared in July for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – Development Assistance Committee, whose members are engaged in a consultation process intended to culminate in a new policy note on security-sector reform.

Due to the immense institutional and political barriers to mainstreaming SSR in development policy, the onus is on those promoting the agenda to demonstrate how it can benefit normal development activities. DFID has asked the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College to produce a set of ‘security-sector assistance guidelines’ identifying practical ways in which development assistance can help countries strengthen security-sector governance. Such guidelines should also help to identify ways in which DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence can work more effectively together on the ground in support of SSR, as well as contributing to a more informed debate.

Perhaps the greatest challenge development agencies face is striking an appropriate balance between reflection and action. There is a tension between the need to invest in the internal capacity required to analyse and develop appropriate policy to address security-sector problems, and the need to become operational as rapidly as possible. SSR is new terrain for development agencies, and it is through their experimentation on the ground that they will learn the most. But SSR is also a vastly ambitious and politically-sensitive agenda. This underlines the need for development agencies to learn from their mistakes – for mistakes there will be – and consult closely with countries receiving assistance.

Dylan Hendrickson is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London.


Nicole Ball, Spreading Good Practices in Security Sector Reform: Policy Options for the British Government (London: Saferworld, 1998),

Malcolm Chalmers, Security Sector Reform in Developing Countries: An EU Perspective (London and Ebenhausen: Saferworld/Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2000).

Comfort Ero, ‘Sierra Leone’s Security Complex’, CSDG Working Paper No. 3, Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, London, July 2000.

‘Poverty and the Security Sector’, DFID Policy Statement,, 1999.

Security Sector Reform and the Management of Defence Expenditure, DFID Discussion Paper No. 1,, 2000.

Supporting Security Sector Reform: Review of the Role of External Actors, DFID Discussion Paper No. 2,, 2000.





























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