A Better Way to Improve Security
If you give a soldier in Senegal night-vision goggles and teach him how to use them, will that make his country safer? What if you provide masks to police in Tunisia so that they can deploy tear gas to control crowds—will that help maintain order and support democratic principles in their country, or will it just enable forces to act with greater impunity?
These are the kinds of questions that underpin the work of Querine Hanlon, F94, F99. She’s a leader in an international effort to reform governments’ security sectors, which include armed forces, police, ministries of defense and interior, prisons, and courts. Through her nonprofit organization, Strategic Capacity Group, Hanlon helps nations around the world develop more effective, transparent, and democratically accountable security forces and institutions. Her group’s recent projects have included helping Tunisia, Mali, and the Central African Republic modernize training in their military and law enforcement academies and aiding Libya and Egypt with border security issues related to illicit trafficking.
Through such initiatives, which are funded by the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Hanlon helps countries train and supervise police and soldiers whom civilians can trust—and punish them if they go rogue.
“The goal is to ensure that the military and police follow the rule of law and are perceived as legitimate by the citizens they are meant to protect—and that civilian institutions are providing appropriate oversight,” Hanlon said.
It’s a tall order, certainly, but proponents of security sector reform argue that the approach can deliver more long-term, sustainable benefits than mere “equip-and-train” efforts, which provide gear like goggles and masks and teach security staff how to use it.
Security sector reform’s focus on accountability is the key difference, according to Richard Shultz, Lee E. Dirks professor of international politics at The Fletcher School and director of its International Security Studies Program.
“It’s not enough to train military forces to be effective,” Shultz said. “They can be effective at behaving badly.”
Shultz was Hanlon’s advisor at Fletcher and the two co-edited the 2016 book Prioritizing Security Sector Reform: A New U.S. Approach. Shultz also serves on the board of Strategic Capacity Group.
The nonprofit, which Hanlon founded in 2013, is headquartered near Washington, D.C., and has a staff of sixty-five, with offices in Mali and Tunisia. It has received more than $23 million in contracts from the U.S. Department of State, the United States Institute of Peace, and private foundations, as well as government agencies in the United Kingdom and Canada.
Before founding Strategic Capacity Group, Hanlon served as an associate professor of international security studies and dean of academic affairs at the National Defense University and was a senior defense fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.
Here, Hanlon offers four lessons from her experience leading security sector reform.
Short-term results are easier to measure, but that doesn’t make them better. When a government like the U.S. provides assistance in the form of equipment, it’s much easier to say that we delivered X number of pieces of equipment and we’ve trained X number of officials, particularly when the funding cycle is a year or two. You can show measurable, quantifiable results.
But how can you say you have influenced and changed the institutional culture of an authoritarian police structure into one that embraces democratic service provision? It’s very hard to measure and show success. The other thing is that equipment transfers happen relatively quickly. The kinds of things that we’re talking about in security sector reform probably take a decade to start to have an impact.
Solutions must be created in collaboration. We resist the tendency to come in and say, “We have the solutions.” Our projects start with senior stakeholder engagement. The individuals who run these ministries know what their problems are and quite often they know what they need to do to fix them, but they don’t have the resources or the political will or technical know-how, or other things are blocking them.
We introduce what we think are potential approaches to what they perceive to be their challenges. That has generated a tremendous amount of engagement, good will, and trust. We tend to give them options: “Here are a couple of things other countries have done, or this is what other countries have learned, or this is what our three experts who have run their own internal affairs in these countries have done and how they put a reform program in place.” The decision of which way to go still resides with those stakeholders.
Role-playing gets people talking. We worked on a border security project in Mali, which brought security forces and local communities together. Many civil society leaders—a local mayor, local community leaders—said that this was the first time they had spoken to a police officer, and vice versa.
These events started with people sitting at opposite ends of the room. If you come in and say, “It’s really important for security forces and communities to cooperate,” they sit there and they nod politely, but they don’t really believe it or understand it. So sometimes when there’s that kind of resistance to working together, you have them do role plays or have them flip their roles so that civil society play police and police play civil society, or you give some kind of scenario that involves people talking together.
By the end, they’re debating and coming up with solutions. In a couple of locations in Mali after this happened, security forces started reaching out on their own to communities to start to develop some of the relationships further. As part of this effort, we learned that the security forces didn’t have the skill sets that they needed to communicate with local communities. Now, at the request of the Malian government and with U.S. government funding, we offer a program to help their academies improve their training.
You need local support to create change that sticks. In discussions of security assistance, the big question that always comes up is how to increase the likelihood of return on investment. To create sustainable impact, you need to make sure that the recipient can replicate what you’re doing when you’re gone. Does it fit within their own manpower and financial resources?
You need to embed equipment and training into a country’s system so that when those individuals you’ve trained are replaced, that information stays in new standard operating procedures. You need to make sure that those who manage and oversee programs, at the tactical command or ministerial level, understand why reforms were made and buy into that.
If the host country government, its leadership, doesn’t buy into the change, then nothing is going to happen, because ultimately the agent of change in security sector reform has to be that country itself. We can provide guidance, we can warn against pitfalls, but ultimately the decisions and the actions have to be undertaken by the organization itself. As a donor, you don’t control the calendar.
Heather Stephenson can be reached at email@example.com.