Security Sector Reform & Governance: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

What is security sector reform?

Security sector reform (SSR) is a broad concept that covers a wide variety of activities associated with 'rebuilding,' 'reforming,' or 'transforming' a state's security sector under the framework of democratic governance. Despite the growing use of the term 'SSR' since 1990, agreement on the precise meaning of this concept is highly contested, as the actors involved and the relationships among various actors differ from country to country and from context to context.1 Many actors within the security and development community have simply renamed their existing security-related activities as SSR, without adequate consideration of what is distinctive and 'new' about this agenda.2

The majority of definitions attempt to merge the reform of defense, police, intelligence, and justice sectors of the state under one unifying concept, as well as to subsume SSR activities under the overall framework of democratic governance. A 2005 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the concept of SSR was still unfamiliar to a vast majority of government officials and members of the security forces, or otherwise used differently by donors heavily engaged in this area.3 Even the United Kingdom (UK), which is often credited with coining the term 'SSR,' does not have a clear definition or formal policy.

Go to Security and Public Order: Security Sector Reform and Governance - Definitions and Conceptual Issues:  Origins of the SSR concept

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SSR according to the security and development perspective

The principal aim of SSR, according to the security and development perspective, is to create a secure environment conducive to development, rule of law, good governance, and local ownership of security actors. According to the OECD, "This secure environment rests upon two essential pillars: 1) the ability of the state, through its development policy and programmes, to generate conditions that mitigate the vulnerabilities to which its people are exposed; and 2) the ability of the state to use the range of policy instruments at its disposal to prevent or address security threats that affect societys well-being."4 SSR is thus defined more broadly than the narrow focus on traditional security assistance (e.g., defense, intelligence, and policing). Non-statutory actors such as non-state actors and civil society are also taken into consideration.

It has been this broader notion of SSR that has had particular relevance in post-conflict situations, as countries in the aftermath of conflict tend to be characterized by the absence of direct state control over the security sector. Over the years, development donors have adopted the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) definition of SSR as the more ideal definition.

SSR as the reform of the security sector in transitional countries

This notion of SSR is narrow in interpretation and tends to reflect a traditional 'state-centric' understanding of security, focusing on public sector mechanisms responsible for the provision of internal and external security. The European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have referred to SSR in this sense, to include only the reform of the state's military and defense institutions in the image of western norms and principles, particularly in association with the transformation of the security sector in Eastern Europe.5

Other terms that denote SSR

In 2004, OECD decided to use the term security system reform to denote activities that international actors sometimes refer to as security sector reform. It implies a broader, holistic notion of SSR and refers to the transformation of the security system. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) addresses SSR together with transitional justice in developing countries.6

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also engages in activities related to various facets of SRR. As a result of a lack of an integrated concept, however, the organization does not formally recognize the activities under the concept of SSR. Moreover, the OSCE's SSR-related operational activities are exclusively designed to assist states in democratic transition in both post-conflict and non-conflict states.7Some actors use other terms to denote SSR, such as 'security and justice sector reform,' 'rule of law,' 'justice and security reform,' 'justice and security providers,' 'justice and security delivery,' and 'justice and security development.'

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Four elements of the security sector

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines the security sector as comprising four elements:8

  • Core security actors, such as armed forces; police service; gendarmeries; paramilitary forces; presidential guards; intelligence and security services (both military and civilian); coast guards; border guards; customs authorities; and reserve or local security units (civil defense forces, national guards, and militias).
  • Management and oversight bodies, including the executive, national security advisory bodies and legislative and legislative select committees; ministries of defense, internal affairs, foreign affairs; customary and traditional authorities; financial management bodies (finance ministries, budget officers, and financial audit and planning units); and civil society organizations.
  • Justice and rule of law, meaning judiciary and justice ministries; prisons; criminal investigation and prosecution services; human rights commissions and ombudsmen; and customary and traditional justice systems. Go to Justice and Rule of Law: Introduction
  • Non-statutory security forces, including liberation armies; guerrilla armies; private security companies; and political party militias.
The first three elements above are considered to be part of the state's mechanism for guaranteeing both internal and external security, whereas the fourth element has increasingly become an important factor in post-conflict environments, particularly in activities related to the demobilization and reintegration of former combatants and the role of private security. Traditional justice mechanisms also have their own non-state law enforcement, as state police may not be present all over the country and are often inefficient.

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Security sector transformation, transition, governance, or reconstruction

SSR in both the scholarly literature and policy discourse is sometimes known as 'security sector transformation,' 'security sector transition,' 'security sector governance,' or 'security sector reconstruction.' Security studies scholars Neil Cooper and Michael Pugh argue that security sector transformation more accurately reflects the process of addressing a wide range of socio-political dynamics of civil-military relations in the security sector than the more narrowly perceived term 'SSR.'9 For instance, the authors assert that SSR narrowly focuses on disarmament and demobilization, reform of uniformed security branches of aid recipients, and training for civil servants. Although the terms security sector reform and security sector reconstruction are often used interchangeably, security sector governance expert Heiner Hänggi clarifies that security sector reconstruction is understood as a specific context of security reform: SSR in a post-conflict environment.10  

Select Definitions of SSR

United Nations:

"Security sector reform describes a process of assessment, review, and implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation led by national authorities that has as its goal the enhancement of effective and accountable security for the State and its peoples without discrimination and with full respect for human rights and the rule of law."11

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Development Assistance Committee:

"Security sector reform is the transformation of the security system which includes all the actors, their roles, responsibilities and actions, so that it is managed and operated in a manner that is more consistent with democratic norms and sound principles of good governance, and thus contributes to a well-functioning security framework."12

United Kingdom Department for International Development, Ministry of Defense, and Foreign Commonwealth Office:

"SSR is a broad concept that covers a wide spectrum of disciplines, actors, and activi­ties. In its simplest form, SSR addresses security-related policy, legislation, structural and oversight issues, all set within recognized democratic norms and principles."13

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Regional dimensions of SSR

SSR has increasingly taken on a regional, sub-regional, and trans-regional dimension. Some SSR activities are constituted by multilateral military, policing, and intelligence, inter-governmental security organizations, inter-parliamentary assemblies, and supra-national judicial bodies.14 For instance, a regional approach was required for countries located in the Mano River Union (Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea), where conflict spilled across national boundaries and obstructed SSR efforts in each individual country.   

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Origins of the SSR concept

The term 'security sector reform' was first coined in a public speech in 1998 by then UK Minister for International Development Clare Short to draw attention to the need for comprehensive reform of the security sector.15 Subsequent speeches by Short and policy statements issued by her department, the Department for International Development (DFID), launched the term onto the international agenda.16 DFID's decision to include SSR in its development domain was a product of a shift both conceptually and normatively in donor thinking on activities in the security and development sectors. DFID's policy statement outlined the rationale for focusing on security sector issues: "Because security sector problems tend to be a symptom of the broader social, political, and economic challenges facing poorer societies, there is a strong argument for adopting a more holistic approach to development that incorporates security sector concern."17

Since the end of the Cold War, government and inter-governmental organizations have increasingly sought to integrate security and development programs in policy interventions in post-conflict situations. Whereas security and development sectors were previously two somewhat distinct policy areas, there has been increasing overlap in the actors, organizations, and objectives of post-conflict peacebuilding. Since the end of the 1990s, and especially after 9/11, the framework of the so-called 'security-development nexus' has often been hailed as a way of integrating national and international policy making interventions in non-western states.

The broadening and widening of the security discourse, which has shifted from a state-centered to a human-centered security approach, has also encompassed the conceptual aspects of SSR. This normative shift has been a reflection of the changing nature of conflict and the emergence of so-called 'new wars,' which have been characterized by structural violence, development failure, the privatization of security, indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and the spread of armed conflict across national boundaries.

Naturally, activities such as democratic control of armed forces, defense reform, and defense modernization date back further than Short's 1998 speech. The original underpinnings of the SSR concept can be traced back to a number of international commissions, United Nations conferences, and studies published during the 1970s and 1980s.18 The main assumption was that excessive military spending during the Cold War stressed the interdependence of developed and developing countries. Bilateral assistance at the time was aimed at promoting western foreign policy goals and political stability in developing countries. As a result, it became associated with increased militarization and little attention was paid to the broader question of democracy and good governance. From this understanding--namely that SSR should not seek to resurrect dependent security assistance relationships but rather aim to develop partnerships for fundamental reform and local ownership process--the term 'SSR' was born in the late 1990s.19

Go to Security and Public Order: Introduction

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SSR and human security

While the concept of human security has spread considerably--at least within the discourse and writings on the topic of SSR--it is questionable to what extent it actually extends beyond rhetoric. The coercive responses in the aftermath of 9/11 and to the terrorist attacks in Bali, London, and Madrid have marked the resurgence of traditional national security (state-centric) thinking. Indeed, terrorism has become the new focal point of national security concerns in many states.

More disturbingly, 'freedom from fear' has acquired a new meaning in the post-9/11 political environment, spurred almost entirely by fear of terrorist attacks. The so-called war on terror led by the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), and the 'Coalition of the Willing' has sought to address the problem of terrorism by using the right to human security of threatened populations as the necessary rationale for attacking the enemy (e.g., Afghanistan and Iraq). This is possibly the clearest example of co-opting the concept of human security to suit states agendas.

Human security experts Richard Jolly and Deepayan Basu Ray note that while the merits of using human security as a framework are clearly evident, criteria must be established to prevent the misuse and distortion of the concept.20 In addition, while the framework of human security is widely propagated by donor countries in developing or least developed countries, it is ironic how none of the donor countries has adopted the analytic concept within its own foreign or domestic policies.  

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Linking security and development agendas

The utility of linking security and development activities has been played out in numerous debates between analysts and scholars. Proponents of linking the two sectors mention that security is a precondition of sustainable economic development and vice versa. Some detractors are wary of combining the two sectors, suggesting that the agenda risks sacrificing development and poverty reduction to the security needs of major powers, in particular the US in its 'global war on terror.'21

Instead, some critical security scholars, such as Mark Duffield, as well as David Craig and Doug Porter, argue that the development and poverty reduction agenda already has been subordinated to western security concerns, and that the shift from macro-development approaches to 'good governance' and 'sustainability and poverty reduction' already contains aspects of the securitization and subordination of the development agenda.22

The fact is that the increase in public statements by governments and inter-governmental organizations calling for a policy 'nexus' are based on assumptions that have little empirical evidence of causation. A 2004 International Peace Academy (now International Peace Institute) report even questions the assumption of a positive correlation between security and development.23 

Nevertheless, SSR, as security expert Michael Brzoska notes, is generally understood to "connect one concept, the opportunities of expanding development assistance to security-related fields and the challenges of new demands on development donors, and to provide both with a common vision."24 Thus, the term 'SSR' places related concepts such as governance, public sector reform, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding under one conceptual umbrella.

Some experts have questioned the utility of linking SSR with development policy, citing SSR's inability to address insecurity in developing countries in its current form and the tendency to an overly optimistic expectation that external manipulation of political and social forces will solve the problem.25

Peacebuilding scholar Susan Woodward argues that external interventions have been motivated by a policy of 'containment,' aimed at protecting Western European democracies from the effects of instability in the region.26 Arguably, the post-authoritarian experiences of post-Communist countries have caused many policy makers to think more broadly about the concept of SSR. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, SSR has been seen to be part of the broader democratization process, whereas in many African countries it has been a matter of advancing peace and development.

SSR policies have been part of cease-fire agreements during interim administrations (e.g., in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone), and they have contributed to ending collectively organized and large-scale armed conflicts (e.g., in Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Northern Ireland). In some cases (e.g., Sri Lanka, Western Sahara, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), the failure of peace processes has been linked to the absence of security reforms.27  

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Objectives and key pillars of SSR and governance

Security and democratization

Security experts Gavin Cawthra and Robin Luckham point out that "state control or civilian control of military and security structures is not necessarily equivalent to democratic control. . . . It is perfectly possible to have civilian control of the military that is non-democratic, anti-democratic or even militaristic."28 Herbert Wulf notes, therefore, "Democratic, civilian control over security forces is crucial for the provision of security in the interests of the population. Democratic decision making requires transparency and accountability. Thus, the public at large needs to be involved. However, democratisation is no guarantee of improved security. The fact that democratisation has so often been associated with rising political violence is probably no coincidence since it challenges established privileges and raises political expectation which are not always fulfilled. Hence, the crux of the reform of the security sector is the development of both effective civil oversight and creation of institutions capable of providing security."29

1. Dylan Hendrickson and Andrzej Karkoszka, "Security Sector Reform and Donor Policies," in Security Sector Reform and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, ed. Albrecht Schnabel and Hans-Georg Ehrhart (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2005), 22-23.
2. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC), Security System Reform and Governance (Paris: OECD, 2005), 61.
3. Ibid., 60.
4. Ibid., 16.
5. Ibid.
6. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Security Sector Reform and Transitional Justice: A Crisis Post-Conflict Programmatic Approach (Geneva: UNDP, March 2003).
7. Victor-Yves Ghebali, "The OSCEs SSR Operational Activities: A Piecemeal Approach with Limited Results," in Intergovernmental Organisations and Security Sector Reform, ed. David Law (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2007).
8. OECD uses the term 'security system' rather than 'security sector.' OECD DAC, Security System Reform and Governance.
9. Neil Cooper and Michael Pugh, Security Sector Transformation in Post-Conflict Societies (London: Centre for Defence Studies, February 2002).
10. Heiner Hänggi, "Conceptualizing Security Sector Reform and Reconstruction," in Reform and Reconstruction of the Security Sector, ed. Alan Bryden and Heiner Hänggi (Geneva: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2004), 9.
11. "Report of the Secretary-General on Securing Peace and Development: The Role of the United Nations in Supporting Security Sector Reform," UN Doc. A/62/659-S/2008/39 (January 23, 2008), para. 17.
12. Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC), The DAC Guidelines: Helping Prevent Violent Conflict (Paris: OECD, 2001), 38.
13. Department for International Development (DFID), Security Sector Reform Policy Brief (London: DFID, November 2003), 2.
14. Hänggi, "Conceptualizing Security Sector Reform and Reconstruction," 3-4.
15. Clare Short, "Security, Development and Conflict Prevention" (speech given at the Royal College of Defence Studies, London, United Kingdom, May 13, 1998).
16. Clare Short, "Security Sector Reform and the Elimination of Poverty" (speech given at the Centre for Defence Studies, London, United Kingdom, March 9, 1999); Claire Short, "Developing the Security Sector Reform Agenda" (speech given at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, United Kingdom, February 4, 2002).
17. Dylan Hendrickson, A Review of Security Sector Reform (London: Conflict, Security and Development Group, 1999), 9.
18. See, Brandt Commission, Our Global Neighbourhood: The Report of the Commission on Global Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Palme Commission, Common Security (Stockholm: Palme Commission, 1982).
19. Damian Lilly, Robin Luckham, and Michael von Tagen Page, A Goal Oriented Approach to Governance and Security Sector Reform (London: International Alert, 2002).
20. Richard Jolly and Deepayan Basu Ray, National Human Development Reports and the Human Security Framework: A Review of Analysis and Experience (Sussex: Institute of Development Studies, April 2006).
21. International Peace Academy, The Security-Development Nexus: Conflict, Peace and Development in the 21st Century (New York: International Peace Academy, 2004); Robert Picciotto, "Aid and Conflict: The Policy Coherence Challenge," Conflict, Security and Development 4, no. 3 (2004): 543-62.
22. Mark Duffield, "Social Reconstruction and the Radicalisation of Development: Aid as a Relation of Global Liberal Governance," in State Failure, Collapse and Reconstruction, ed. Jennifer Milliken (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 291-312; David Craig and Doug Porter, "Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers: A New Convergence," World Development 31, no. 1 (2003).
23. International Peace Academy, "Strengthening the Security-Development Nexus: Assessing International Policy and Practice since the 1990s" (New York: International Peace Academy, 2004).
24. Michael Brzoska, Development Donors and the Concept of Security Sector Reform (Geneva: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, November 2003), 4.
25. Jane Chaana, Security Sector Reform: Issues, Challenges and Prospects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Herbert Wulf, Security Sector Reform in Developing Countries: An Analysis of the International Debate and Potentials for Implementing Reforms with Recommendations for Technical Cooperation(Eschborn: GTZ, October 2000); J. Kayode Fayemi, Comments on the Human Security Aspect of the Poverty Reduction Guidelines (London: Centre for Democracy and Development, 2001); Robin Luckham, "Democratic Strategies for Security in Transition and Conflict," in Governing Insecurity: Democratic Control of Military and Security Establishments in Transitional Democracies, ed. Gavin Cawthra and Robin Luckham (London: Zed Books, 2003), 3-28.
26. Susan L. Woodward, "In Whose Interests is Security Sector Reform? Lessons from the Balkans," in Governing Insecurity: Democratic Control of Military and Security Establishments in Transitional Democracies, ed. Gavin Cawthra and Robin Luckham (London: Zed Books, 2003).
27. Charles T. Call and William Stanley, "Civilian Security," in Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements, eds. Stephen John Stedman, Donald Rothchild, and Elizabeth M. Cousens (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002), 309.
28. Gavin Cawthra and Robin Luckham, "Democratic Control and the Security Sector: The Scope for Transformation and Its Limits," in Governing Insecurity: Democratic Control of Military and Security Establishments in Transitional Democracies, ed. Gavin Cawthra and Robin Luckham (London: Zed Books, 2003), 305.
29. Herbert Wulf, Security Sector Reform in Developing and Transitional Countries (Berlin: Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 2004), 2.

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