Aug 12, 2016 | Article


Security sector reform (SSR) has become a key component of international donors’ efforts to improve security in conflict-affected and developing states. Its success, however, has been limited because program designers rarely fully comprehend, or ignore, how developing countries’ security sectors actually function. Instead, they approach the problem as if they were reforming a Western security organization, where there is political and organizational support and capacity for reform, and technical inputs (training, consulting, etc.) can be expected to deliver results. In practice, SSR programs fail because they are unable to deal with two barriers: 1) developing countries’ internal security forces are often subject to the patrimonial whims of their political masters, which are antithetical to reform, and; 2) where the state is weak, inadequately paid security actors are actively involved in predatory practices and organized crime.

The situation is now shifting as donors place more emphasis on the political drivers for reform and focus on realistic steps to resolve particular security problems, rather than overly ambitious and unrealistic measures to reform the sector in its entirety. Last year, for example, the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact produced a report critical of the UK’s security and justice programming, arguing that it suffered from unrealistic objectives, was too generic, lacked an overall strategy and was based on insufficient evidence.

Whilst welcome, like most of the research on SSR, the ICAI focused on an analysis of programs rather than the actors who are the subject of reform. On the basis of over two years of ethnographic fieldwork on security actors in patrimonial and low state capacity settings, I identify two areas, in particular, that require further attention. What is now needed is research which can guide practitioners on how to work with and around patrimonial practices, and how to counter corruption and organized crime caused by low state capacity.

Neo-patrimonial political elites

The first step to better understanding developing countries’ security actors is to better understand how they are impacted by the states which, ostensibly, govern them. Developing countries’ state structures are often dominated by neo-patrimonial practices; a patrimonial or informal channel runs parallel to legal and institutional ones, and services and offices are provided, not according to ‘needs’ or ‘what you know’, but ‘who you know.’ With an ineffective set of mechanisms to regulate elite competition and regime transitions, elites rely on patronage to control the major sources of power within the country, including economic resources and control of the state’s coercive apparatus.

The nature of neo-patrimonial states is replicated within their internal security structures. Such regimes usually require a repressive police force to maintain their positions. Furthermore, neo-patrimonial state leaders’ use of patrimonial selection and promotion procedures to control security forces undermines their legitimacy and efficiency. Reform efforts towards the establishment of equitable justice and security practices are therefore stymied because the very system relies on inequality to keep it running. These problems are further exacerbated where political elites run states that are basically large and self-legitimated protection racket schemes. Security actors replicate the political nature of the state and, where elites are kleptocratic, their security actors are as well.

The failure of the OSCE police reform program in Kyrgyzstan exemplifies the above problem. Active since 2003, the OSCE has sought to deliver change through technical capacity building and training (e.g. improving police investigations, drug interdiction capacities, setting up a call centre, etc.). What the OSCE has consistently failed to do is orientate its program to respond to the political economic reality of the country. Its efforts have been of very limited effectiveness because Kyrgyzstan’s rulers have relied on patronage to maintain their power. The country’s second president, for example, used patronage to appoint clients throughout the government and criminal justice systems whilst, at the same time, extending control over criminal activities, with two of his brothers involved in drug smuggling. Needless to say, it is impossible to establish fair and just police practices under such conditions.

Low state capacity

Low state capacity results in a series of internal security conditions and practices, which both pose a serious barrier to reform and are poorly accounted for by SSR programs.

Where the state is absent or weak, internal security functions may be performed by organized crime groups, vigilantes and private/community security groups. The former pose the greatest threat to SSR. When there are large sections of the economy or territories which the state cannot protect, internal security actors cannot impose their authority or enforce the rule of law. Disputes are ‘resolved’ by groups serving private, rather than public, interests.

Low state capacity also creates ideal conditions for active collaboration between organized crime groups and state security actors. In conditions of economic scarcity, the distinctions between the two, and between political and criminal agendas, can easily blur. Security forces in low capacity states are also often deeply involved in ‘predatory policing’, the material enrichment of security actors themselves, rather than the protection of the public or elites. Predatory policing includes racketeering and extortion and control of lucrative legal and illegal sectors of the economy, where security actors’ relatively unchecked powers co-exist with poor levels of pay.

The experience of security reform in the post-Soviet states illustrates the barriers posed by low state capacity. Effective SSR was impossible, when, in the 1990s and early 2000s, ordinary police earned no more, and often less, than US$100 per month. In the early 1990s too, organized crime groups stepped into the vacuum caused by the withdrawal of the state to control large areas of the economy and these were gradually usurped by security services, which developed into predatory pyramids of corruption and crime. One Russian crime journalist estimates that if 70 percent of protection rackets were provided by criminals in the 1990s, ten years later, 80 percent were done so by the security services. A Kyrgyz traffic policeman I interviewed in 2011 summed up the system of corruption, typical of such contexts, somewhat sardonically:

 ‘The whole system is bad. I take from the taxi driver, my boss takes from me. He gives to the minister. The minister gives to the president.’

Future research

There is a demonstrable need for more research on the effectiveness of SSR, as noted by the authors of a recently published DFID review of evidence on the topic. I identify two avenues for future research. First, we need a better understanding of how patrimonial practices in state and security sector bureaucracies impact upon security actors. SSR programs often focus on the formal legal and regulatory frameworks which specify security actors’ functions, powers and mechanisms of oversight. But how do political leaders’ informal influence over strategy and, often, operational and tactical options affect performance as well as recruitment and promotion? Second, we need research on developing states’ economic leverage over their security actors. Surprisingly, SSR programs rarely ask the question: how much are security actors paid in relation to local living standards?

We also need more critical advocacy as too many technical SSR programs are undertaken with little accounting for high-level actors’ involvement in organized crime, and where lower-level actors do not receive adequate pay. No context is devoid of patrimonialism or corruption, and future research should help to explore how practitioners can manage or work effectively around such practices, where they are not in extremis. Nevertheless, if the goal of SSR is to establish capable security sectors, operating on the principles of justice, we also need more honest, as well as more thorough, assessments of the fundamental mechanisms which actually shape the behavior of developing countries’ security sectors.


Dr Liam O’Shea is an expert in security sector reform, with a particular interest in SSR and political economy, corruption and organised crime. He has managed, and consulted on, projects on international security for UK members of parliament, government bodies and conflict-prevention NGOs. Liam holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and is proficient in Russian.