Interview – Dylan Hendrickson on security sector reform

By Isobel Petersen:

Dylan Hendrickson speaking at a Conference in Kenya, June, 2014. Photo: APN/ Dagan Rossini (CC 2.0)
Dylan Hendrickson speaking at a Conference in Kenya, June 2014. Photo: APN/Dagan Rossini (CC 2.0)

Dylan Hendrickson is a Senior Fellow at King’s College Department of War Studies. He first joined King’s College in 1999 as Senior Research Fellow of the Conflict, Security & Development Group (CSDG) specialising in the study and practice of Security Sector Reform (SSR). He is currently a member of CSDG’s sister group, the Conflict, Security & Development Research Group (CSDRG) and acts as Senior Editor of the CSD Journal.

Security Sector Reform is a holistic approach to the transformation of security processes and organisations in conflict-affected countries. Dylan is a leading figure in developing this policy agenda, initially under the UK Department for International Development (DFID) but since for the UN, EU and donor-recipient bilateral partnerships on SSR programmes. His work has taken him across Africa and Asia, and he is currently doing major work monitoring the evolving situation in Burma.

Peace-keeping in post-conflict countries and regions is now a standard aspect of international relations and the globalised world. SSR endeavours to break down the barriers between security forces and human development in order to create long-lasting human security in fragile states. Dylan’s expertise in this field are unrivalled and here he provides insight and explanation that is applicable to the multitude of conflicts and peace-keeping operations going on today.


Your career path is a diverse and varied one, working from Cambodia, to the Congo to right here in London. It seems that you bridge the worlds of academia and policy-making smoothly and successfully. Looking back, has this been a challenge to bring the two together in practical terms?

It’s always a challenge. To be honest, I don’t really consider myself an academic. I edit an academic journal (Conflict, Security & Development), publish occasionally and I do a little bit of teaching. But what I really focus on is policy research and advice which is intended to inform the development assistance activities of the British government, the European Union and other donor actors. So in that sense, most of what I do is practically-orientated as opposed to academic.

Have you seen, with your own work, the two worlds as mutually dependent for issues such as foreign policy? Is the academic world more influential behind the scenes than we would see in politician’s speeches or press releases?

Yes I think it is, and I think that’s part of the reason why I’m still at King’s. The Conflict, Security and Development Group (CSDG), of which I was a member from 1999-2014, was set up with a grant from the British government, precisely because they wanted a policy unit that was based in an academic institution. The whole point was to bridge academic thinking and real world policy-making and operational activity. The UK government wanted to benefit from the thinking that was taking place amongst academics. So yes, establishing the bridge was very important, and certainly the work that CSDG did at the time, along with similar units in other UK universities, has had a huge impact in the way that the UK government delivers development and security assistance in conflict-affected regions.

Security sector reform (SSR) is an example of this and is at the heart of your own research. Could you explain a little about the concept of SSR and its place over the past 15 years or so in British foreign policy?

Until the late 1990s development actors were not very involved in delivering assistance to security institutions. Instead, this was largely seen as as the responsibility of defence ministries and other security actors. This was partly a legacy of the Cold War where security assistance was very militaristic in orientation. Following the Cold War and the outbreak of conflicts in many different countries in the so-called developing world, there was a recognition that we needed to rethink the way that we provide security assistance. We needed a much more integrated and holistic approach to rebuilding the security sectors in countries that had been affected by conflict. So the basic idea of SSR is the need for an integrated international approach that brings together security and development thinking and policy.

Is there a particular case study that you have worked on that illustrates this need for a new way of thinking and that has seen success?

A good example is Uganda, though I would not qualify it as a pure success. I worked in Uganda as a King’s advisor between 2002 and 2004 on a UK government-supported defence review process. The purpose of this defence review was to get the Ugandan MoD to analyse their security problems in a more holistic way, to recognise that the country faced a broad range of both military and non-military threats. As a result they needed to develop a more integrated government response to these security challenges which involved other security instruments besides the military. This was an international assistance programme that brought together the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. I was brought on as a governance advisor, with a developmental background, rather than as a military adviser.

During the 1990s international conflict manifested as complex, lengthy intra-state wars which resulted in varying degrees of military, political and aid intervention. To what extent do you think that intervention has become a guarantee in international relations?

I think it depends very much on the country and region. Quite clearly the international community takes more interest in certain countries than in others. That was plainly the case of Africa in the 1990s, which was afflicted by a whole range of conflicts that were largely ignored by outside actors. As a consequence, the engagement in Sierra Leone by the UK government in the late 1990s was in part spurred by a frustration on the part of many people that the UK and other Western governments had invested so heavily in addressing the crisis in Kosovo, which is a tiny territory, but had largely ignored what was happening in West Africa. The UK government felt that they needed to do more in Sierra Leone, with which it had strong historical ties. This is an illustration of how strategic interests shape the engagement of Western countries in the developing world.

Do you think that’s a lesson to be learnt? Should there be a new way of approaching intervention? Do you think that if it’s going to keep happening, is there a way that it could be conducted more successfully?

Certainly lessons have been learnt. I think a key lesson that was learnt in the case of Sierra Leone is about the importance of addressing SSR early on. Clearly many of the underlying issues were ignored in earlier international interventions and there was no integrated, comprehensive approach to dealing with the country’s security apparatus. That’s why there were cycles of violence in Sierra Leone as well as neighbouring Liberia. This spurred DFID to think much more holistically about how to rebuild the security apparatus because for too long the UK and other donors had focused on simply demobilising soldiers.

You’ve advocated that military involvement can’t be treated in isolation from socio-political events. I was just wondering if you had any particular experience of this happening and causing problems, you’ve already mentioned Sierra Leone.

We see countries like Afghanistan and Iraq which admittedly are to some extent anomalies because they were serious conflicts that were directly impacted by American and European strategic interests. We didn’t really see SSR being promoted there; the focus was much shorter-term in nature – trying to win the war – which involved security assistance activities that were not very integrated in nature and certainly not long-term enough to make a substantive contribution to creating the new security institutions Afganistan and Iraq require. The activities involved working, for instance, with militia groups that were often part of the security problem for local populations. From an SSR point of view there were many contradictions in the way that the international community engaged in these countries, which of course in part reflected US and European domestic political factors.

Have you seen a real growth in post-conflict ideas such as civil society funding, transitional justice and civic education appearing separately to the grand concepts of security assistance?

Yes, those are certainly growth areas. In recent years there has been greater interest in the role of civil society, for instance, in security reform processes. But in many countries this has been an externally-driven agenda. That’s not to say that there is no foundation in developing societies for civil society to play a useful role, but I think one has to be realistic about how quickly localised non-governmental organisations or groups can have an impact on security reform processes in Africa and Asia, which are usually government-driven.

What role do you think that aid can play?

I don’t think that the solution is necessarily more aid; I think it’s about smarter aid. There’s always the assumption that with more aid we can change more things, but delivering aid effectively is not easy to do and sometimes countries need to resolve problems on their own. In my view we need to focus more on creating the space for countries to find their own solutions rather than always seeking to provide them with a solution. Just by doubling aid does not mean that we find a solution twice as quick. On the contrary, aid is often part of a problem. We often propose short-term solutions to countries which are not appropriate instead of letting them figure out what works best themselves. Conflict-affected countries need to chart a path to resolving their own problems.

The term ‘militarised development’ is floated around as a negative connotation of security assistance and development aid becoming too closely integrated. Have you experienced this? How do you propose tackling this problem?

Yes, I think that it’s a difficult balance to strike. Security is important in order for development and reconstruction to occur. The emphasis of the international community has often been on restoring stability predominantly through military means. This often leads to the strengthening of military actors to the exclusion of other security actors, including the civilian policy sectors. This can make it difficult to develop a more balanced, long-term approach to reforming the security sector. So yes, these are matters of concern.

Demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) is a concept frequently associated with SSR. Has SSR evolved beyond DDR or are they still mutually reinforcing in post-conflict situations?

DDR should ideally be seen as an element of a wider SSR process. The problem is that DDR has often been approached as a means of reducing the size of armies and other armed groups without thinking about what we are going to provide as replacement. In such contexts, SSR looks at how we can create new security institutions that are better geared towards peace-time security needs. This may mean, for instance, strengthening the police and a whole raft of other civil security mechanisms in order to provide security that benefits the population and prevent a relapse of violence.

Finally, SSR has a mission to try and prevent the kind of recurring conflicts that we saw in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Are localised movements and contributions to the post-conflict environment a positive route to take in order to succeed in this mission?

Any time you have a conflict affecting society there are many different actors and interests involved. To end a conflict, all these groups – both at local and national levels – have to reach some kind of agreement. It has to be in their interest to cooperate and collaborate. But if they’re doing it primarily because they’re under huge pressure from the international community to sign a peace agreement,then ultimately the agreement will break down. Lasting political settlements cannot be imposed from the outside and so the question for me is: how do we create space for these groups to reach agreement amongst themselves? I think that’s one of the key challenges for external actors working in a post-conflict context, to create the space for local solutions to emerge without seeking to fill that space. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

Isobel Petersen studied International Relations at the University of Exeter and is currently reading for an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. Her particular interest is post-conflict resolution with a specific focus on the Arab-Israeli crisis. Other distractions from her course are current affairs, aspirations of travel and writing. Isobel is a Guest Editor for Strife Blog.  

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