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Mar 27, 2013 | Commentary

The RAND Corporation recently published a monograph on United States security assistance efforts since the end of the Cold War. The monograph questions how the U.S. Department of Defense can increase its effectiveness in building partner capacity, and what approaches are effective under what circumstances.

The RAND study compares data on 29 cases of U.S. capacity building efforts with partner nations from 1990 to 2009. The study aims to explain the determinants of effective and ineffective capacity building across different security assistance contexts — an important, yet trying goal of security scholars and professionals to date.

The research project occurred in four stages. First, the authors systematically selected 29 of 184 cases of U.S. security sector capacity building efforts in which some form of capacity building took place between 1990 and 2009. The report does not provide a complete listing of the selected cases, but notes that Iraq and Afghanistan were excluded from the final set and that discretion was necessary due to the classified nature of several cases.  Second, the researchers broke down each case into two to four phases over 20 years indicating major shifts — exogenous events (e.g., 9/11), changes in U.S. priorities, or changes within the host nation government — resulting in 100 total phases for analysis.  Third, the authors wrote up individual case narratives (by phase) and then assessed them on a set of inputs (i.e., expenditures, capacity building activities), contextual factors (i.e., strength of economy, internal/external threats), and case outputs using a modified Defense Sector Assessment Rating Tool. Finally, using Qualitative Comparative Analysis, the authors evaluated each “case-phase” against four hypothesis clusters on factors believed to play a contributing role in effective capacity building: inputs (funding and activities); local ownership; baseline partner capacities; and the broader international context (e.g., regional neighbors).

The study finds that if capacity building “is consistently funded and delivered, supported and sustained, well matched to partner capabilities and interests, and shared with a partner that supports the effort and is healthy economically and in terms of governance; prospects for effective [capacity building] are very good” (p. 89). This claim predictably echoes much of the existing statebuilding literature on factors leading to better capacity building — namely, donor and host nation goal alignment, host nation capacity and ownership, and sustained donor commitment.

Interestingly, the authors find that low initial host-nation absorptive capacity was not an impediment to ministerial development. Save ministerial development, low absorptive capacity correlated highly with low effectiveness on all other security assistance objectives. The authors argue that “ministerial capacity building itself can help improve absorptive capacity and does not require as much of a baseline from which to make improvements” (p. 77). This significant finding suggests that ministerial development should precede, or at least take high priority among, other capacity building efforts.

Given the authors’ omission of individual case narratives and case-specific indicators, it is difficult to evaluate the reliability and comparative consistency between phases and across cases. The authors note, however, that the narratives “provide a number of interesting insights that extend beyond the project hypotheses” (p. 83). They devote two pages to summarize a few of these insights, noting that effective capacity building is a protracted endeavor, that regional partners have an important say in outcomes, and that more narrowly targeted efforts are less dependent on contextual factors (pp. 83-84).

Overall, this report provides sound advice to donors and policymakers viewing capacity building through an investment lens — play your best bets and when you do, more is better. But for those working in more challenging environments, it mostly adds to the laundry list of macro-level best practices. This shortfall, however, is more in the level of analysis than the research itself. Cross-national comparative studies on statebuilding are growing redundant. The reality is that nations in the greatest need of security assistance are typically the least conducive to it. Knowledge of what works in these environments is highly valuable, yet highly challenging to discover. As the authors duly recommend (p. 92), future research should strive for granularity and nuance with greater focus on the level of human interaction in security assistance partnerships.

To access the full report, click here.


Nick Armstrong is an Associate of the Security Governance Group.