Succeeding with Security Sector Reform

How Important is Local Ownership?

Succeeding with Security Sector Reform : How Important is Local Ownership? - Karina Asbjørnsen


Externally supported Security Sector Reform (SSR) has developed into a key component of international peacebuilding agendas, but the outcomes have been mixed so far. This article examines the importance of local ownership in determining SSR results. Looking at the cases of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it argues that executive commitment to reform is the minimum requirement to accomplish satisfactory technical results. To achieve the political goals of SSR, a more comprehensive involvement of local actors is necessary. External actors should therefore carefully consider whether the political situation is ripe before committing resources to SSR processes.



Ensuring sustained peace and development in fragile or failed states emerging from violent conflict is a difficult task. Yet, it is one of the main challenges facing the international community today. Because the security institutions in conflict-ridden countries are often contributing to conflict rather than preventing it, Security Sector Reform (SSR) has developed into a key component of international peacebuilding agendas.1 In general, the aim of SSR is to increase states’ ability to meet the security needs of their societies in a manner consistent with democratic norms and principles of governance, transparency, and the rule of law. 2

However, the results of externally supported SSR processes have been varied. A key reason why successful SSR has been difficult to accomplish is that security reforms touch upon the very existence of a state and its monopoly of violence, and thus concern the most sensitive area of public policy. 3 As such, external interference is especially delicate and may create tensions between foreign powers and local governments if their objectives differ. If the external support is perceived to undermine local authority and priorities, this may have consequences for both the implementation of SSR, the probability of success, and the reform’s sustainability.  

In this article, I will examine the importance of local ownership in SSR by comparing the approaches to reform and the results achieved in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Inspired by the approach taken by Kühne and Pietz and Carlowitz in their work on local ownership in peacebuilding, I will evaluate the local ownership attained in each of the three cases by looking at the timing, degree and type of involvement.4 The goal is to shed light on how varying levels of ownership affect reform outcomes, and how comprehensive the involvement of local actors needs to be for reforms to succeed.  

This article finds that while comprehensive ownership was secured in Sierra Leone, only executive commitment was attained in Liberia. In the DRC, the external actors have not succeeded in ensuring local ownership at all. I argue that the executive commitment in Liberia portrays the minimum level of local ownership necessary to achieve satisfactory technical results, although a more comprehensive involvement of local actors may be necessary to accomplish the political goals of SSR. Because SSR requires significant changes in political culture and power relations, I sustain that it is a waste of money to embark on reform if the national government is not committed to supporting it. Several other factors affect the outcome of SSR processes, but top government officials acting as spoilers are a deal breaker for reform, as seen in the DRC. This conclusion implies that external partners should get SSR programs up and running as quickly as possible if the political situation is ripe, but spend their dollars elsewhere if not.

Security Sector Reform: A technical and political process

SSR was introduced in the 1990s as a holistic approach to reforming security governance, enabled by the lifting of political constraints on security-related assistance after the Cold War. Western donors used this opening to go beyond classical military aid and expand their involvement from training armies to establishing systems for democratic governance, oversight, and accountability in the security sector. The security sector is here understood to encompass “all the organizations that have the authority to use, or order the use of, force in order to protect communities, individuals, and the state.”5 Though SSR is relevant in other contexts, it is usually initiated as part of post-conflict reconstruction and/or transition to democracy.6 

The concept of SSR is grounded in a broad understanding of security, encompassing not only territorial integrity and state security but also security for individuals and communities. It can be described as a human rights approach to security issues, emphasizing the right of every citizen to a safe environment. The United Nations Security Council has affirmed that SSR should aim at consolidating peace and stability, promoting poverty reduction, rule of law and good governance, extending legitimate state authority, and preventing countries from relapsing into conflict.7 In other words, SSR aims to achieve both technical and political goals. 

Herbert Wulf divides SSR objectives into four broad areas: the political dimension of ensuring democratic and civilian oversight, the economic dimension concerning the allocation of resources for security purposes, the social dimension of guaranteeing the security of all citizens, and the institutional dimension of establishing functioning institutions that can fulfill their duties. This complexity explains why SSR has proven so difficult – it is not only a technical matter of restructuring and training security forces but also a process of altering cultures, attitudes, and behaviors. It is an inherently political undertaking that involves changing power structures and thus creating winners and losers among the stakeholders.8 This realization has led many actors to stress the necessity of local control over the reform process. Reflecting this notion, the OECD countries have agreed on making the development of local ownership a main objective of SSR, and stated that reforms should be “people-centered and locally-owned.”9 

There are both normative and practical reasons why the timing, degree, and type of local ownership in SSR are important. First of all, the UN Charter and other international legal documents stipulate the legal right to self-determination and the principle of national sovereignty.  Even under a Chapter VII intervention, unless there is an executive mandate, self-determination and sovereignty continue to be important guidelines for all international action.  Furthermore, peacebuilding efforts often fail because planning and implementation occurs without sufficient local knowledge and respect for local structures.10 And finally, local ownership and capacity is crucial for the sustainability of reforms, as locals must be committed to their continuation when external actors leave.11  Through the case studies, I will further illustrate how the level of involvement of local actors can affect SSR results.

Differences in approaches and results: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the DRC

Sierra Leone’s civil war started in 1991 and lasted for more than 10 years. When the war finally ended in 2002, the country embarked on a comprehensive SSR process with assistance from the United Kingdom and the UN. The state’s infrastructure was dysfunctional after the conflict, its control over the territory was incomplete and trust in the security forces was low. Although SSR started as a top-to-bottom process led mainly by UK officials, Peter Albrecht and Paul Jackson find that local ownership was extended significantly over time as the international mission handed over more responsibility to national government officials. Technical experts managed to transition from being implementers to advisers, and from 2006 onwards, civil society involvement increased in a comprehensive manner.  Moreover, members of civil society gained important oversight roles on Local Policing Partnership Boards and District Security Committees.12

Today, surveys show that the armed forces and police in Sierra Leone are no longer considered a security threat and enjoy higher levels of trust in the population.13 Although crime levels are worrying and corruption remains a problem, the SSR process is perceived to have been relatively successful. Albrecht and Jackson contribute the success largely to the leadership by a core of Sierra Leonean government officials, who provided a powerful consensus for reform and sustained the SSR effort over an extended period. Although other strategic and technical decisions are likely to have influenced the outcome, the case shows how local ownership can be important for SSR even when the government is very weak. 

The approach taken in Liberia differs significantly from that taken in Sierra Leone. After two civil wars lasting for a total of 14 years, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2003. While the Lomé Accord gave the Sierra Leonean government the formal responsibility for the SSR process, the CPA granted the Unites States a lead role in military reform. The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was responsible for reform of the police and justice sectors. The US government decided to outsource the task of reconstructing the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) to the private military companies DynCorp International and Pacific Architects and Engineers Inc.14 This approach proved to be problematic in several ways.

To commence, allowing the US to take the lead in such a key area of SSR meant that a foreign government was making important decisions about another state’s future security capabilities. For example, the US and DynCorp decided that the AFL was to be created from scratch and limited to 2000 soldiers, neither of which was the Liberian government’s initial plan.15  Moreover, the extensive involvement of private military contractors had serious consequences for accountability and transparency. For instance, DynCorp refused to report to the Liberian parliament, citing its contractual obligations to the US State department. The dominance of external actors led both Liberian government officials and civil society groups to criticize the reform process for lack of local ownership.16 

Interestingly, even though the Liberian approach was less comprehensive in its degree, timing, and type of local ownership than that of Sierra Leone, the results are quite similar. Surveys in Liberia find equal improvements in the public perception of the security forces, and the new AFL is now declared fully operational.17 A key reason behind the similar results may be the common denominator: executive commitment. The reforms in Liberia gained speed after the inauguration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in January 2006.  Sirleaf invested the country in the US led reconstruction efforts from the beginning.18 Similarly, the strong ownership by key public officials has been cited as a key reason for success in Sierra Leone.19

The level of executive commitment to SSR in Liberia and Sierra Leone stands in stark contrast to the experience in the DRC. After the Second Congo War officially ended in 2003, international donors have invested large resources in attempts on SSR. However, the national authorities have resisted these efforts and provided no overall leadership.20 Judging by the situation today, it seems that this lack of executive commitment may have been crucial for the reform outcome. Progress has been limited at best; Congolese security forces continue to pose a considerable threat to the civilian population and the state rests unable to control its territory.21 President Kabila’s government continues to be unwilling to change the power structures in the country. Thus, reform remains donor-driven and piecemeal with loosely connected activities, not resulting in the necessary structural or behavioral change.22 Further complicating reform, the external actors have been uncoordinated and incoherent, making them less effective in putting pressure on Kabila’s government. 

SSR and local ownership: What can we learn from the cases?

The cases of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the DRC highlight several issues concerning SSR and local ownership that are worth discussing further. It is necessary to realize that local actors do not constitute a homogeneous group, and it is clear from the cases that there is no coherent donor approach regarding which actors to include in the process. Therefore, which type of involvement is necessary for SSR to succeed? 

When considering this question, it may be useful to look separately at the achievement of the technical and political goals of SSR. The case of Liberia shows that it is possible to create functioning security forces with only executive commitment to reform, but the political objectives of SSR may have been sacrificed along the way. In fact, Desiré Nilsson and Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs find that Liberia still lacks effective democratic oversight mechanisms in the security sector today. This is logical, as one would not expect a parliament that was excluded from the reform process to suddenly fulfill its duties.  If one is subscribing to the OECD definition of SSR stated in the introduction to this article, solely achieving technical goals is not enough for reforms to be considered successful. Involving a broader spectrum of relevant political and civil society actors is necessary to make progress on democratic accountability and transparency. 

In the DRC, where no local ownership has been attained, reform has failed to achieve neither technical nor political goals. The case shows clearly how it is futile to embark on SSR without a minimum of executive commitment. Every peacebuilding mission will need to deal with spoilers in an effective manner. But when the spoilers include top government officials, the international mission risks not only to be undermined but also to secure more power for actors who will not contribute to sustainable peace.23   In this case, donors may experience a transition dilemma, having to choose between operating without local ownership or involving the very power structures that caused the conflict in the first place. One can argue that it is always better to do something than nothing, but in the case of the DRC, the scarce resources available may have been better spent on other causes.

First of all, the DRC experience shows how important it is to engage in SSR when the political situation is ripe, meaning that at least executive commitment to reform is present. Commitment may come from a sincere interest on behalf of the government or from a desperate need for tapping into donor money. In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, the post-war governments had little choice but to work with their Western partners. The fact that several administrative functions had ceased to exist also meant that there was less frictional resistance within the bureaucracy. In the DRC the situation is different, with no clear military victory ending the war and a government that is able to play donors off against each other due to the presence of actors such as China and South Africa.24 When the political situation is ripe, donors need to push for reform quickly to succeed.  However, without executive commitment, it may be wiser to wait for a window of opportunity. 

Secondly, not only the timing of reforms but also the timing of local involvement must be right. Like other peacebuilding measures, SSR is a dynamic process in which factors change over time. The correct degree and type of local responsibility at one point in the process may not be beneficial at another time. For example, in the case of Sierra Leone, UK officials found themselves having to take the lead on reforms immediately after the war, simply because the national government was not functioning.25  As described above, however, the international mission could hand over responsibility progressively. This was not the case in Liberia, where much criticism originated from the US controlling the process for too long.26

Thirdly, the successful transfer of responsibility is closely linked to the issue of sustainability. Lack of sustainability in peacebuilding efforts is one of the key problems resulting from lack of local ownership.27 Adedeji Ebo argues that the process must be driven by local actors to ensure the new security structures’ legitimacy in the future. Donors may experience an intrusiveness dilemma, as overly intrusive decision-making by external actors tends to alienate local stakeholders, while less intrusive measures may not suffice to improve the situation.28 The case of Liberia illustrates the tendency to posit a tension between efficient implementation and local ownership, and it will be interesting to see how sustainable reforms are in the long run. Either way, hurrying too much to achieve short-term goals may damage the long-term success of SSR. 

Lastly, one may ask if it is possible to achieve improved democratic accountability in a security sector without a process characterized by democratic accountability. If SSR is supposed to be a new and holistic approach to reforming security governance, donors must be willing to operate differently than they did in the era of classical military aid. This does not mean that international concerns and priorities are not relevant, but these will not be realized if SSR is unsustainable. If donors operate without legitimacy, any results achieved may be short lived. As such, external actors must manage to set a good example by adhering to the values for which they themselves advocate.


In sum, local ownership in SSR processes is not simple, but it is important. The case analysis in this article has shown how executive commitment is the minimum amount of local ownership necessary to achieve the technical goal of creating functioning security forces. If dominant political elites are set on obstructing reforms, resources spent on SSR are likely to be wasted. Furthermore, I argue that a more comprehensive involvement of local actors, such as parliamentary bodies and relevant civil society representatives, is necessary to realize the political goals of SSR – democratic governance, oversight, and accountability in the security sector. It may not always be possible to attain comprehensive ownership immediately, but both normative and legal reasons should motivate external actors to hand over responsibility gradually as soon as the situation allows for it. Otherwise, both the reform outcome and sustainability may be at risk if the process is perceived as illegitimate. 

This article is not arguing that local ownership is the only factor determining the success of SSR. Other variables, including the strategy chosen for reconstruction and training of the armed forces and police, the resources available, and the initial security situation clearly play important roles. Nevertheless, this article has shed light on how and why the presence or lack of local ownership creates a tipping point determining whether or not reforms will succeed. As the relationship between local and external actors remains one of the most difficult aspects of SSR, it is essential to improve policy and practice to ensure stability in the world’s conflict-ridden states and avoid wasting scarce resources on unsuccessful and unsustainable reforms. 

Karina Asbjørnsen is an MA Candidate at SAIS, concentrating in International Development. She holds bachelors degrees in Comparative Politics and Journalism from the University of Bergen and has previously studied international conflict at UC Berkeley. Prior to SAIS, Karina worked as a Program Officer at the Norwegian Embassy in Malawi. She has also served as a Political Adviser to the Norwegian Labor Party and the Mayor of Bergen.