Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 18:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 18:16 | SYDNEY

Security sector reform: The COIN dimension

18 August 2009 09:59

Peter Wilson is Director of the Libra Advisory Group, a consultancy in the security and justice sector.

We are beginning to see a convergence, in theory if not yet in practice, between security sector reform and counter-insurgency (COIN).

Security sector reform got started when the then British Development Secretary, Clare Short, visited Sierra Leone some years ago and decided that there wasn’t much point in working on health, education and other traditional development activities if they were undermined by a civil war every few years. The idea that security reform could underpin economic development took hold and was summarised by Hilary Benn, a subsequent UK Development Secretary as, 'development without security is not possible; security without development is only temporary.' 

In parallel, the World Bank’s 'Voices of the Poor' report emphasised that poor people valued security for its own sake – it is just as important to people as health and education, and deserves similar donor support to be delivered effectively and accountably. These strands have recently come together in the UK’s Department for International Development’s 2009 White Paper, which placed security and justice alongside economic growth and climate change as DFID’s top three priorities.

Coalition forces in Iraq were learning to do counter-insurgency better. General Petraeus shifted US priorities from defending his troops (a static concept involving force protection and curfews) to securing the population (a dynamic effort to ensure people can safely go about their daily lives). This was summarised by Petraeus’s adviser, the Australian academic and soldier David Kilcullen, as aiming to out-govern, not out-fight, an insurgency. Many of these concepts echoed earlier lessons identified from Malaya, Cyprus, Vietnam and Northern Ireland.

One conclusion emphasised by Kilcullen is that the military can learn from development experts, who have a track record of helping security agencies in developing and post-conflict countries to deliver more responsive and effective security to the people. But making this work in practice is hard. Governments tend to be stovepiped, and the defence and development communities often have significantly different mandates, cultures and practices. Reforming a security sector is highly political and the process above all needs to adapt to local conditions and be owned by local people, rather than simply representing the imposition of an external blueprint. 

Traditional military campaign plans or development donors’ logical frameworks are woefully ill-equipped to manage such complexity, and a more flexible, evolutionary process is required. We need a cross-disciplinary approach, involving counter-insurgency and security sector reform experts and learning from specialists in institutional development, change management, strategy and economics who have long studied the challenges of making strategy in complex environments.

There are few fora to have these discussions, but without them, the defence and development establishments will keep reinventing the wheel.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo, used under a Creative Commons license.