Ask the Expert: New ACSS Scholar Talks Security Sector Reform

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 01/12/2012

TomDempsey2U.S. Army Colonel (ret.) Thomas Dempsey recently arrived at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) as the new Assistant Professor for Security Studies. He leads ACSS’ Security Sector Reform (SSR) Program, the center’s newest endeavor to help African partners develop innovative solutions to complex security-sector problems.

According to a working paper jointly authored by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the departments of State and Defense, SSR involves reform efforts in foreign countries that are directed at the institutions, processes, and forces that provide security and promote the rule of law. It is an effort being undertaken by the United States and major donor countries, along with the UN and other international organizations, to assist partner governments to provide effective, legitimate, and accountable security for their citizens.

A leading expert on the complexities of SSR in Africa, Dempsey answers questions about reform and ACSS’ contributions to solving the continent’s most pressing security sector challenges.

“…there are things that we can learn from our African partners—there is a lot of expertise there on collaboration between military and police forces, especially in austere and challenging operational environments.”

Q: How do you define SSR?

DEMPSEY: SSR is about how a state provides a variety of security services to its citizens. During the Cold War, when the defense community talked about national security, it was about defense and military affairs. Either you were with the Western democracies or you were with the Soviet Union and its client states. Democratic regimes were very much in the minority outside of the West. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended. These events allowed the transition to functional democracies around the world—in Eastern Europe and Latin America, for example. You’ve also seen progress in Asia and Africa, although to a lesser extent.

With that transition, there has also been a change in the definition of national security, broadening its focus from the defense and military sectors to include how the state provides policing services and justice, whether people can get jobs, whether they have access to education and adequate health care. This creates a much broader definition of security under a term generally called “human security.”

From this evolving definition, SSR emerges at the end of the 1990s. It’s a new way of how major donors provide security assistance to partner states, especially those emerging from conflict. It is a shift away from “train-and-equip” approaches, focused on how well the soldier or policeman can shoot, towards why are they shooting in the first place, and to whom that guy with a gun is accountable.

Q: What is the purpose of SSR?

DEMPSEY: SSR is designed to improve the way a government provides safety, security, and justice to its citizens. The objective is to provide these services in a way that promotes an effective and legitimate public service.

SSR has a strong normative component—a country’s security apparatus must respect human rights and the rule of law, it must be transparent, accountable to civilian authority, and responsive to the needs of the public. This is how we define what any security sector in the world—including ours—ought to look like and how it should function.

Q: Who are the main proponents of SSR?

DEMPSEY: Every state has a vested interest in improving how it provides security to its citizens. External partners like the United States share that interest, and have become important stakeholders in designing and implementing SSR programs. This is especially true in Africa, where SSR has become a major component of development assistance efforts.

Q: What are the largest obstacles to implementing SSR?

DEMPSEY: We need to develop more effective and affordable ways and means to implement SSR across the security sector. Most needed, in my view, are better approaches for reforming policing and justice functions, and strengthening the rule of law; these sectors are among the least developed in the current SSR toolkit. We have a much better grasp of how to rebuild a military than of how to rebuild a police force or a justice system. Expenditures on security have tended to be weighted heavily to defense and military, with police and justice systems being correspondingly underfunded.

We don’t have a very good grasp of some of SSR’s technical aspects. How should we sequence SSR activities? Do you have to address the need for security from military threats before you address basic issues of governance, or restore police services? Which takes priority? How do you replace or transform existing security forces in post-conflict or transitioning states? What should the relationship be between SSR and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former fighters? How do you balance existing traditional or customary justice practices with formal, codified legal systems?

Q: What countries in Africa are most in need of SSR?

DEMPSEY: I think every country in Africa has a need to continually assess its own security sector to identify where it can do a better job serving the needs of its people. That is a debate that we have in the United States on a recurring basis, sometimes leading to major reforms of our own security system. What priority SSR should receive, when funds are limited and there are other competing demands on the state’s resources, is a key issue that needs to be addressed by the executive and legislative branches of every nation. It is one of the reasons that governments craft national security strategies and policies.

Q: Where is it happening now?

DEMPSEY: I think SSR programs are underway, to a greater or lesser extent, across the continent. Priorities differ, and the level of resourcing varies significantly from country to country. I do believe, based on my discussions with our ACSS African alumni, that SSR is increasingly viewed as an essential component of development in the African context.

Q: What does it look like when it is being implemented?

DEMPSEY: It will look different in every situation depending on what’s needed. Most of the people who would be able to answer what it looks like would be inside the host nation, all the way down to local communities. It’s not just the national government that is involved, it’s also external actors who are stakeholders and who are providing resources and expertise, local officials and police who are actually responsible for delivering services, and the local communities who are the recipients of those services—the security sector “customers.” Building consensus across that diverse collection of stakeholders is a challenge.

Q: What can the U.S. and other major donors provide to countries in need of SSR?

DEMPSEY: The United States is only one player. Our ability to affect change is very limited. SSR is very labor- and capital-intensive. It needs lots of players and lots of donors.

One thing we can all do, including our African partners, is equip our military forces and police officers, our diplomatic corps, and our technical development advisors with a better toolkit to generate desired SSR outcomes more quickly and at more affordable costs. We can help our partners in Africa develop better mousetraps.

Q: How is SSR connected to U.S. national security strategy?

DEMPSEY: SSR is an integral component of U.S. approaches to engagement with our foreign partners.  The Statement on Security Sector Reform, issued jointly by our Department of Defense, Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development in 2009, clearly articulates the role of SSR in pursuing key elements of our National Security Strategy. With our partners, we confront increasingly complex threats that require us to address the linkages between security, governance, development, and conflict. SSR is designed to do just that.

Q: During presentations, you describe the rule of law as the rules of the road while SSR is the driver education course. Does the nature of the relationship between the two ever go in the reverse, where SSR requires changes to the way a country implements the rule of law? Have you ever seen SSR reveal fundamental shortcomings in the way a government operates?

DEMPSEY: Absolutely. In too many cases, rule of law doesn’t drive the train; but without it, the security sector loses its direction and legitimacy. Accountability, transparency, and legitimacy derive in fundamental ways from rule of law. Where SSR assessments reveal fundamental rule-of-law deficits, technical improvements in military and police capabilities frequently do not contribute to better outcomes, and in some cases can lead to negative consequences for citizens and the state itself.

But people are starting to get that now. They are realizing that the solution to a lot of problems is the police, not the army. And we’re slowly starting to realize that it isn’t just the police, but the justice system, and the rule of law. Don’t get me wrong, they still have a paucity of resources in terms of building police and justice system capabilities, but we are moving in the right direction.

In Colombia, for instance, the way the Colombian government got it right was by realizing that their justice system didn’t work. With our help, they went and tore it down and then rebuilt it. Strengthening rule of law as a precursor to comprehensive SSR proved to be a winning combination for them.

On the other hand, when you’ve got people shooting each other in the street, the rule of law isn’t on anybody’s mind. High levels of organized violence need to be addressed with military force, not police force. But once the military has dealt with that threat, how do you pull police and the justice system back into it? You need to get police and the military at the same table to talk. That’s something that ACSS is good at.

Q: What are your hopes for the new SSR program at ACSS?

DEMPSEY: I have worked with the Africa Center on many occasions since its founding and I regard it as the premier African studies academic organization in the United States.

Our African stakeholders are ahead of us on thinking about SSR. On the continent, you’ll see senior police at defense meetings. Meanwhile, ACSS is reaching out to start tapping into U.S. expertise and bringing these people to the table. The U.S. law enforcement community is the best in the world. We can bring that to the table. And there are things that we can learn from our African partners—there is a lot of expertise there on collaboration between military and police forces, especially in austere and challenging operational environments. ACSS promotes that type of substantive discussion with expert practitioners, crossing functional (police, justice, and military), sectoral (public and private) and national lines. It is one of the things that differentiates the Africa Center from other players in the field.

ACSS has already become known as a visionary center of excellence in the SSR field. It is a great example of where the most farsighted stakeholders in SSR are going. ACSS has moved the debate from focusing on the narrower national security interests to the broader topic of human security.

So most of the heavy lifting has already been done. We have moved the program from the military realm to the SSR realm. I’m actually quite lucky coming into a program where lots of the work has already begun. Being selected as a member of ACSS permanent faculty is a great honor, and I look forward to being part of the team.

Our focus for the coming months is in West Africa, where we will solicit input from our African partners about how to make SSR happen. ACSS goes where our African partners give us space to go. We bring a set of agendas, but they decide what they are interested in. Based on what I’ve seen so far, African partners across the board are interested in SSR, and those aspects of it that they feel are most important to their respective countries.

Civil justice, law enforcement, investigations, border protection—I’m seeing a growing interest in all of these subjects. Eventually you’re going to have to get past seminars and produce hard deliverables and put best practices into play in the field. But ACSS is just the facilitator. Africans have to make their own decisions, and solve their own problems. I am confident that they are doing exactly that.

View Additional Ask the Expert Interviews: