Contemporary debates on security sector reform (SSR) have increasingly focused on technical approaches to improving the capacity of security institutions and organizations, while ideas regarding the formation and operational aspects of local ownership are underdeveloped and often ignored. In their paper Security Sector Evolution: Understanding & Influencing How Security Institutions Change, authors Volha Piotukh and Peter Wilson argue that present SSR programmes tend to adopt a rationalist approach, often operating on the assumption that projects can be designed and implemented with a reasonable degree of certainty based on a high level of advance knowledge. Such an approach significantly underestimates the complexity of SSR and overestimates the degree to which reform can be planned in advance, leading to poor program results particularly in the areas of local-ownership and democratic processes.
Piotukh and Wilson champion an evolutionary approach to SSR – an overarching framework to enable the creation of a number of alternative models, selection of the most appropriate ones, and replication of those that have proved to be successful. The evolutionary model places greater emphasis on variation by seeking to introduce a range of new concepts and approaches that can be experimented with and adapted to the local context, seeking to ensure that selection mechanisms operate effectively, and useful initiatives are identified, rewarded, and sustained.
Divided into two sections, the report first provides a theoretical overview of approaches to institutional change. Then, using the cases of SSR in Sierra Leone and Iraq as examples, the report argues that the evolutionary approach to SSR can and does work in practice, allowing for reform process to be increasingly democratic with greater levels of sustainability and local ownership. The authors are clear in their scope and limitation, clearly indicating that their goal is not to provide a blue-print applicable to all scenarios but rather a framework for the development of SSR theories that will foster discussion and ultimately more effective and sustainable results in future applications.
Piotukh and Wilson begin the first section by describing the implications of the rationalist approach, noting that one of its greatest shortcomings is that reform programs are designed at the moment when external actors knowledge of the local context is at its lowest and when local capacity to contribute is at its weakest; the result is a process which is inherently undemocratic. A further limitation of this approach is that external reformers inevitably underestimate the local context’s complexity by prioritizing the institutional characteristics that donors wish to introduce over those already present in the local societies.
The second section provides, in great detail, numerous examples demonstrating the flexibility of the evolutionary approach. The authors pay particular attention to SSR programming in Sierra Leone, where they note that the absence of a well-defined strategy resulted in some productive creativity, particularly when specialists on the ground decided not to follow rigidly instructions from the donor capital.
In stark contrast to Sierra Leone, initial reform efforts in Iraq were not guided by the evolutionary approach. Piotukh and Wilson explain that reform planning in Iraq was based on a number of fixed assumptions that ultimately proved to be wrong; this initial shortcoming was worsened by pressure to find quick fixes to widespread insecurity. The end result was ill-informed decisions and policies that were neither locally-owned nor sustainable, ultimately sacrificing efforts to build capacity and institution.
In order for SSR processes to be truly democratic, programmes should focus on making the security sector more responsive to the needs and priorities of all citizens. Piotukh and Wilson conclude their arguments by highlighting the importance of the evolutionary approach, making the case that good governance is achieved primarily by helping institutions develop the capacity to respond to citizens, not solely by the creation and training of state-level oversight institutions or other high-level democratic reforms. Rich in theory and supported with clear examples, Piotukh & Wilson have certainly achieved their goal of creating a document that will enable debate and foster the exchange of ideas regarding the future of SSR processes.