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Aug 21, 2015 | SSR Initiative

This article is the eighth contribution in our new Academic Spotlight blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals. This contribution summarizes research originally published here:

Andrea Edoardo Varisco (2014) ‘The influence of research and local knowledge on British-led security sector reform policy in Sierra Leone’, Conflict, Security & Development, 14:1, 89-123.

As part of the partnership between the Conflict, Security & Development Journal and the Centre for Security Governance, this journal article will be available for six months free and open access exclusively through this link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14678802.2014.882607#abstract

Research on security sector reform (SSR) has rapidly grown over the last years, and numerous academic books and articles, case studies, ‘lessons learned’, and recommendations now enrich this burgeoning literature. Nevertheless, very few studies have investigated whether and how policy practitioners have used such research to develop and implement SSR policies in fragile, conflict-affected countries. Drawing from interviews conducted with policy advisers and researchers who worked on SSR in Sierra Leone from 1998 to 2013, the article “The influence of research and local knowledge on British-led security sector reform policy in Sierra Leone”, recently published in Conflict, Security & Development, focuses on the ways in which research has influenced and interacted with British-led SSR policy in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has often been considered as one of the first and successful examples of externally-led SSR. While most of the conditions that contributed to this success are unique and hardly replicable in other fragile, conflict-affected countries or in current, multilateral post-war recovery efforts, findings from the article highlight nonetheless several issues and themes pertaining to the use of research in SSR policy.

The article divides the history of British-led SSR in Sierra Leone in two periods: a first period (1996-2002) of ‘fire-fighting’ solutions designed and implemented during the conflict, and a second period (2002-2013) encompassing the post-conflict years. The use and influence of research on SSR policy evolved and improved over the years, fostered by two main variables: an increased stability in the country, and a progressive evolution of the SSR research and policy agenda at British and international levels.

During the conflict years, British advisers rapidly deployed in an extremely unstable environment lacked the necessary time and security to carry out detailed studies or research before taking compelling policy decisions. As a result, political acumen, necessity, and urgency shaped sometimes early SSR policy decisions more than research. Nonetheless, contextual information gathered through short-term research activities, studies, and reports was often critical for establishing most of the United Kingdom (UK)-led SSR programmes in the country and for steering the implementation of several security-related policies. Advisers in the country consulted historical and anthropological studies on Sierra Leone and made a direct use of ad hoc, policy-oriented research that analysed the nature of the issues facing the local security sector. Previous personal studies and professional activities also influenced directly or indirectly early policy decisions. Experienced advisers relied on lessons learned from previous deployments, implementing and re-adapting – not always successfully – to the Sierra Leonean reality policy models and ideas from other countries.

In the post-conflict years, a greater stability on the country, together with the progressive evolution of the SSR research and policy agenda at British and international levels, contributed to an increased use and uptake of research in SSR policy. The UK gradually formalized its emerging SSR policy agenda, progressively reinforcing its efforts toward a more joined-up approach to dealing with fragile, conflict-affected countries. Advisers in Sierra Leone maintained a high degree of autonomy in their decisions, but their relationship with their respective headquarters became more structured over the years. British Governmental departments enhanced their mechanisms to support SSR programmes with more research, and several academic studies influenced policy at headquarters level. In Sierra Leone, a more stable situation in the country, better access to the provinces, and greater production of SSR studies and research contributed to an increased and more systematic influence of research on British-led SSR programmes and activities on the ground. Over the years, British advisers built formal and informal professional relationships with a group of trusted researchers, who contributed with their studies to the design and implementation of some SSR policy programmes in the country. Local researchers hardly entered into this well-established network: their limited exposure and access to international advisers as well as donors’ tendency to commission research by international researchers limited the use of local research.

Interviews with British policy advisers who worked in Sierra Leone underlined at least three issues characterizing the use of research in policy that are also applicable to other contemporary SSR engagements in fragile, post-conflict environments.

First, the recent evolution of the SSR policy and research agenda has increased exponentially advisers’ and policy-makers’ channels of research use. Today, advisers in fragile countries can get acquainted with the latest research products through different institutionalized and more informal avenues. Nonetheless, the use and consumption of research among personnel on the ground remains personal and mainly depends on a person’s background, attitudes, priorities, and time.

Second, British advisers identified several barriers to a better use and uptake of SSR research in policy. The most common barrier is time. Donors working in fragile, conflict-affected countries experience a high turnover of personnel and are often under pressure to take quick and effective decisions in a short time frame. As a result, advisers on the ground lack the necessary time to read and digest long research findings and to implement them in policy. In such environment, empirically sound and focused outputs conducted rapidly enough to feed into the policy process have higher influence on policy decisions compared to academic research, which conversely requires a long time to be generated and digested. Other common barriers to the use of research in policy in fragile, conflict-affected environments are the existence of several competing processes in a country, problems of accessibility, availability, dissemination and communication, together with a lack of institutional memory, resources, funding, and capacity to commission research.

Third, some advisers noted how specific peculiarities of SSR hinder the uptake of research into policy. Among these peculiarities, advisers pointed to the normative and sometimes not sufficiently empirically-grounded findings of some early research and to the high political and sensitive nature of SSR. In particular, the highly sensitive dimension of SSR makes conducting good empirical research more challenging and can imply that, because of reputational risks or other political reasons, donors may be less open to research findings. Likewise, it is sometimes hard for donors to incorporate into policy SSR research prescriptions that are against entrenched institutional mind-sets or established patterns of operation of the security actors.


Andrea Edoardo Varisco is a field investigator for Conflict Armament Research, a UK-based organisation that identifies and tracks illicit weapons in armed conflicts. Andrea holds a PhD in Post-war Recovery Studies from the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit of the University of York, where he was part of the three-year Economic and Social Research Council/Department for International Development-funded research project ‘The influence of DFID-sponsored state building-oriented research on British policy in fragile, post-conflict environments’.