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Aug 14, 2014 | Commentary

Local ownership is widely considered to be one of the core principles of successful security sector reform (SSR) programmes. Nonetheless, a gap remains between policy and practice. Reasons for this gap include concerns regarding limited capacity and lack of expertise, time and cost constraints, the allure of quantifiable results and quick wins, and the need to ensure that other principles inherent to SSR are not disregarded. Even with recent improvements in promoting local ownership of SSR, the concept remains vague and, at best, narrowly interpreted – both in terms of what ownership constitutes and who the locals are. This is despite policy guidance underscoring the importance of SSR programmes being inclusive and local ownership meaningful.

Without ensuring meaningful and inclusive local ownership of SSR, state security and justice sector institutions will not be accountable or responsive to the needs of the people and will, therefore, lack public trust and confidence. This will result in the relationship between the state and its people being weak and people feeling divorced from the decisions that affect their security and their futures. All this will leave the state vulnerable to renewed outbreaks of conflict.

It is proposed that the requisite public confidence and trust in state security and justice sector institutions, and ultimately, the state itself, can be promoted by incorporating community safety structures into SSR programmes. Such structures exist in a number of post-conflict countries. They are sometimes referred to as district or provincial security committees, community safety councils, local security forums, or citizen security councils. Examples can be found in the local security committees established by women’s community support organizations in Haiti; Local Security Councils in Columbia and Guatemala; and the community-based approaches to building safety and security developed in the Balkans by Saferworld and its partners, the Balkan Youth Institute, the Centre for Security Studies – Bosnia-Herzegovina, CIVIL, and the Forum for Civic Initiatives, which have since extended to other conflict-affected environments, including Nepal, South Sudan, and Kenya.

However, while some examples of community safety structures engage local communities in decisions about their own security, these structures are rarely integrated into formal SSR processes, particularly at the early stages of SSR when key decisions are made about security priorities and subsequent capability requirements. Developing or supporting community safety structures are also rarely prioritized either by host governments or the international community, which tend to view security issues as a matter for discussion among security professionals, experts and elites, primarily associated with the state. Efforts to solicit opinions on security matters from people at the community level are generally infrequent and sporadic. They are rarely developed into structures and processes which put people at the community level at the heart of SSR, which would ensure that they can be actively engaged in SSR processes and inform decisions about their own security.

While supporting the establishment and/or integration of community safety structures into formal SSR processes is recommended, a number of risks and limitations should also be considered. Outside issues of funding, co-ordination, public awareness, and political will, chief among these is to recognise that community safety structures frequently reflect and reinforce the power relations of the wider society. They can, therefore, marginalise or exclude those groups that may be more vulnerable to security threats or injustices. Such risks and limitations need to be taken into account in order to ensure that the security concerns and needs of the most vulnerable are attended to, particularly because vulnerable groups (including women) are often marginalised in SSR processes.

It is also important to avoid imposing a template of community safety structures onto places without due regard for the context, to avoid undermining efforts to promote security and wasting valuable resources. As much as possible, the development of such structures should be driven by local communities with the support and engagement of others where required. There are also risks of incorporating community safety structures into formal SSR processes, which can undermine the very value of such structures by institutionalising and co-opting them under state-level control, where the power of bottom-up, community-based approaches are usurped and serve merely to add legitimacy to top-down, state-centric dynamics.

However, supporting and engaging community safety structures from the planning and design stages of SSR, throughout implementation and thereafter – while remaining attentive to the limitations and challenges involved – can help to create a security sector that is informed by and responsive to the needs of the people and one that enjoys their trust and confidence. It can also help generate a robust civil society and a citizenry knowledgeable about security matters and able to influence decisions about their own security. This could enhance security sector responsiveness and accountability as well as build domestic capacity to enable the successful and timely departure of an international presence. It can also build relationships between the state and its people, often overlooked in SSR and state-building endeavours, while helping to reinforce state legitimacy and resilience. SSR programmes are therefore more likely to be context-specific, people-centred, and locally owned – as intended – and more likely to be successful as well. As a result, the prospects of building a sustainable peace are likely to be considerably higher.

Engaging people at the community level in such processes can be costly, time consuming, and carry risks. SSR and wider peacebuilding processes should be seen, however, as complex and long-term processes – ones that are instrumental to SSR outcomes. If SSR and wider peacebuilding efforts are to be successful, it is vitally important to ensure civil society and the wider public comprise the ‘local’ that should ‘own’ the processes and outcomes of SSR. Continued focus on top-down, state-centric approaches and a narrow interpretation of who should be actively engaged in SSR processes does not build state resilience, avoid the risks associated with multi-actor co-ordination, or expedite the reform process. Rather, state resilience, an effective security sector, and a sustainable peace are all, in large part, built upon the extent to which people can influence decisions that will shape their security and their futures.


Eleanor Gordon developed and delivers the distance-learning MSc programme in Security, Conflict and International Development (SCID) in the Department of Criminology, University of Leicester (more information on the website and SCID Blog). This post is a summary of my argument contained in: Gordon, E 2014. Security Sector Reform, Local Ownership and Community Engagement. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 3 (1): 25, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/sta.dx.