Capacity building within partner security sectors: The place of governance

Dennis Blease

1 August 2018

For much of the past decade commentators have been critical of the EU’s approach to Security Sector Reform (SSR). For example, the EU is alleged to have suffered from both institutional incoherence as well as the inability to match mandates with appropriate resources. Inger Buxton[i] suggested that the difficulties it experienced in adopting a Whole of Government Approach (WGA) is an example of the former and Giovanni Faleg[ii] indicated that the Guinea-Bissau mission was a prime example of the latter. The EU’s approach to SSR began to change, however, with the European Commission’s Joint Communication of April 2015 on ‘Capacity Building in support of Security and Development (CBSD)’, which was intended to address “… gaps in the EU’s ability to support building the capacities of partners in the security sector.” The 2016 publication of the High Representative’s ‘EU-Wide Strategic Framework to Support SSR’ continued this process and introduced the term ‘CBSD in Third Countries’. After a long debate, the EU then adopted an amended Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) on 7 December 2017, which foresaw more comprehensive assistance for security sector actors in all partner countries.

All these recent changes have been consistent with the 2016 updating of the OECD-DAC definitions that increase the SSR programmes that are now eligible for official development assistance (ODA) and the EU’s approach to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16). The EU’s aim and direction of travel is thus both laudable and, in my personal opinion, correct. So, why should this be the subject for a blog in EU-CIVCAP? Unfortunately, empirical evidence from other international organisations would suggest that there is a real danger that capacity building in the field of security tends to relegate governance to a secondary order of importance.[iii] The purpose of my blog is to examine this issue.

Governance is a slippery subject and one that is not widely understood. Scholars suggest that the concept of governance covers the whole range of institutions and their frameworks which are involved in managing a country. It includes accountable institutions which have appropriate levels of oversight and are transparent; ones that adhere to the rule of law and which have a zero tolerance for corruption. In short, these are all essential elements of a democratically accountable security sector and thus of SSR.[iv] The key for donors and partners is to support reforms that strengthen the capacity of government institutions and individual actors within the executive, whilst at the same time promoting the agency and participation of civil society in the governing process.

When discussing governance within the security sector, there tends to be a focus on the military. This should not, however, obscure deficits of good governance within civilian areas of a security sector. For example, it was the abuse of governmental power and a lack of oversight of the intelligence services in the Republic of Macedonia that caused a scandal about illegal phone-tapping and ultimately led to more than two years of political chaos in this EU candidate country before a new government was formed in June 2017.[v] Similarly, EU member states are not immune to such deficits of governance, as concerns over the recent activities of President Macron’s head of security may have highlighted.[vi] It is therefore not surprising that promoting good (or good enough) governance in developing and post-conflict countries has proved to be difficult.

It is perhaps worth drawing upon NATO’s experience in Afghanistan as an example where local capacity is weak.[vii] The Alliance’s support to capacity building programmes within the Afghan security sector has resulted in an emphasis on security, with development a distant relation.[viii] Notwithstanding the abundance of policy guidance to take account of local politics and to place governance at the heart of such capacity building initiatives, there has been a tendency to fall back on ‘train and equip’ approaches in such fragile and post-conflict countries.[ix] These programmes tend to be launched under the cloak of SSR, but have no mandate to improve the quality of accountability or oversight of the security actors involved. This creates the potential for a service that provides for the elite whilst delivering a poorer service for the people due, inter alia, to corruption and other predatory activities. It is therefore not surprising that results have been sub-optimal.

Ultimately, SSR should be focused on: “… ensuring a balance between increasing the effectiveness of security and justice actors, while ensuring that there is appropriate governance over how that enhanced effectiveness is utilized.”[x] There are numerous examples, however, where operational effectiveness has been improved but the standards of behaviour and the oversight of those actors has been ignored, which has undermined the overall impact of SSR.[xi]

This might then be a question for the EU to ponder: does it support capacity building in the security sectors of third countries which have a governance element or is it content to play down or forgo that governance aspect? In my opinion the former is SSR and the latter is not. The references shared at the start of this blog are clear: governance is an integral part of capacity building in support of security and development. Nonetheless, it may be that operational assistance in the form of ‘train and equip’ is acceptable to the EU and its member states in certain contextual, operational or political circumstances. However, the decision to proceed down this path should be made explicitly and not by default. In that way the EU, as an institution, could then be held to account for its decisions should the ensuing results be less than optimal.


[i] Buxton, I., 2008. ‘The Development of a Comprehensive EU Approach’, p31. In: Spence, D. & Fluri, P. eds., 2008. The European Union and Security Sector Reform, London: John Harper Publishing.

[ii] Faleg, G., 2014. When Knowledge Meets Practice: Learning Communities and the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, pp214-216. Doctoral Thesis: The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

[iii] Blease, D., 2017. NATO’s Experience of Supporting Security Sector Reform in the Western Balkans (1995-2015). Doctoral Thesis: Cranfield University.

[iv] Hydén et al 1999. ‘Governance and the Reconstitution of Political Order’, p185. In R. Joseph (Ed.), State, Conflict and Democracy in Africa, Boulder: Lynne Reiner Publishers, pp. 179–197; Ball N. & Fayemi, K. eds., 2004. Security Sector Governance in Africa: A Handbook, Lagos: Centre for Democracy & Development; and, Bell, S. & Hindmoor, A., 2009. Rethinking Governance, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

[v] DW, Macedonia Gets New Government 6 Months After Elections. See: (Last accessed 24 July 2018)

[vi] Reuters, Macron Fires Bodyguard Filmed Beating Protester. See: (Last accessed 24 July 2018)

[vii] For example, see: Sedra, M., 2013. ‘The Hollowing-Out of the Liberal Peace Project in Afghanistan: The Case of Security Sector Reform.’ Central Asian Survey, 32(3), pp371–387.

[viii] Jackson, P., 2011. ‘Security Sector Reform and State Building.’ Third World Quarterly, 32(10), p. 1819.

[ix] Egnell, R. & Halden, P., 2009. Laudable, Ahistorical and Overambitious: Security Sector Reform Meets State Formation Theory. Conflict, Security & Development, 9(1), pp.27–54; and, Van Veen, E., & Price, M. E., 2014. Securing Its Success, Justifying Its Relevance: Mapping a Way Forward for Security Sector Reform. The Hague: Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

[x] Keane, R., & Downes, M., 2012. Security-Sector Reform Applied: Nine Ways to Move from Policy to Implementation, p2. IPI Policy Paper. New York: International Peace Institute.

[xi] Fitzgerald 2012:308. Fitz-Gerald, A.M., 2012. Lest We Forget: The Centrality of Development in Security Sector Reform Interventions, p308. In A. Schnabel & V. Farr, eds., Back to the Roots: Security Sector Reform and Development. Münster: Lit Verlag.

Image details

Title photo caption: UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) is providing training and observations sessions on Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) for the Armed Forces of Liberia at Camp Ware in Careysburg, Liberia. An UNMAS trainer observes as a trainee places a plastic explosive that will be used to destroy a prop unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Title photo credit: UN Photo/Staton Winter

About the Author

Dennis Blease

Dennis Blease is a Senior Security & Justice Advisor and Director of DBA Security Sector Reform (SSR) Consultants Ltd.

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