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Jul 15, 2014 | Commentary

It is broadly agreed that local ownership is one of the core principles of successful security sector reform (SSR) programmes. SSR projects that are not locally owned tend to result in security and justice sector institutions unaccountable or unresponsive to the needs of the people, and therefore lacking in public trust and confidence. This undermines the extent to which SSR and broader peacebuilding efforts can be successful. Similarly, it is increasingly recognised that mainstreaming gender issues and promoting gender equality in SSR projects is essential to programme success and is, in essence, a key factor in developing meaningful local ownership.

However, while the principles of local ownership and gender equality are intertwined, there can be a tension in cases where local actors may not share the Western liberal norms and values underpinning democratic governance, human rights and gender equality. There have been instances where gender equality and mainstreaming have been in conflict with local ownership: where local owners have been predominantly male and have not promoted gender issues, and where external actors have not intervened so as to avoid compromising the doctrine of local ownership.

In these instances, is it right that the principle of local ownership take precedence over the principle of gender equality? In other words, should we play down the role of women and minority groups to ensure the broader acceptance of a SSR programme and achieve the aims and objectives required by the international community and, perhaps, the elites of the host nation?

Yet what if, by doing so, women or other marginalised groups risk being further marginalised or victimised by a security reform process led by male-dominated political and security structures? In many countries, local counterparts in SSR programmes tend to be from among the state-level, male-dominated security and political elite. Rarely do either international actors or their local counterparts prioritise gender mainstreaming and equality, beyond perhaps initial consultation with women’s associations or non-governmental organisations. This occurs because gender issues are viewed as a lesser priority in the midst of tangible threats to security and the rule of law, or because of concerns about coordination, necessary expertise, the possibility of offending local custom, or the divestment of power and control.

It could, however, be argued that local ownership and gender equality can co-exist: indeed, it may be a truism that local ownership cannot exist without gender equality. It is axiomatic that local ownership needs to be meaningful and inclusive if institutions are to be genuinely responsive to the needs of the people, rather than the elite or dominant members of society.

In particular, SSR programmes should ensure that women are actively engaged, in order that their specific security and justice needs and concerns inform decisions about future security structures. It is especially important that women and other groups, which may be more vulnerable to security risks after conflict, are not further marginalised in the SSR process. Unless the specific security needs and concerns of the marginalised are addressed in SSR programmes, post-conflict security and justice will be illusory.

In order to bypass the tension that can exist between local ownership and gender equality, gender aware bottom-up approaches to SSR should be promoted alongside the more usual top-down methodologies, and consideration should be given to ensuring all demographic groups have a voice in SSR processes.

Rather than compromising local ownership, this approach – albeit more complex and lengthy – will broaden the concept of local engagement with security reform processes. The problems inherent in ownership by dominant and elite groups will be curtailed by a more inclusive and meaningful local ownership. Wider based local ownership can better pave the way towards the development of successful security and justice sector institutions and, thereby, sustainable peace.

However, tension can and does exist between local ownership and gender equality: gender discrimination and patriarchal values may characterise the local environment or the concept of gender may well differ from the western, liberal concept that drives international interventions in SSR. Indeed, there may well be a male–dominated bias to the international efforts driving a SSR programme. Nevertheless, tension between local ownership and gender equality is deceptive and merely serves to protect the power of dominant groups and disempower the marginalised. It can serve to disguise the power relations at play in post-conflict environments and avoid addressing the security needs of those who are often most at risk.


Anthony Cleland Welch OBE is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance. A retired British Brigadier-General, he holds a PhD in Security Sector Management and spent the past seventeen years working in post-conflict and developing countries.