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A political approach to security and justice programming: making it work in practice

Time (GMT +01) 17:30 19:00


Dr Andrew Rathmell, University of Exeter

In ODI’s first security and justice seminar in a series of six, Andrew Rathmell from the University of Exeter presented on ‘political approaches to security and justice programming - making it work in practice.’ The presentation is especially timely given the increasingly political discourse emerging from the field - discourse, it would seem, with a common appreciation of why working politically is important, but without clear understanding of how to do it.

Rathmell felt there are currently two clear assumptions behind security and justice (S&J) programming - that we must bring politics into programming, and that S&J is especially needed in fragile and conflict affected states (FCAS).

Yet despite this agreement, and further acknowledgment that S&J reform cannot be purely technical, injecting political elements has been difficult in practice. Too often, political economy analysis has been an add-on and the theory on working politically has outpaced the practice.

This is not a new problem. It is important to remember that S&J did not just emerge with DFID in the 1990s.Much of current thinking emerged from ‘modernisation’ theory in the 1950s and 1960s, especially around US-led police reform programmes in Latin America and Asia. 

Why else has it been hard to use political approaches? Often there are absurd theories behind S&J programming that claim technical reforms will fundamentally transform power relations in a given country. As well as being hubristic, this also makes it very clear that the gap between our theories and the reality of our programmes is considerable. Politics is both a goal and a method, and the methods are not matching the stated goals.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that theories do not actually engage politically, but stay peripheral and confuse what is meant by real political approaches. Another, building on the problem of hubristic theories of change, is that there is an inherent and long standing difficulty in reforming S&J institutions. Power dynamics are entrenched, and transforming them takes generations – not the short timeframes of donor programmes.

That said, there have been some successes (and some half successes) amongst the majority failures. In Sierra Leone, Liberia, Colombia, Indonesia and the Balkans we can see some successes that point to willing political actors (this is not to characterize these countries as complete successes – there are, of course, ongoing challenges). Conversely, in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, Rathmell argues, “an absence of this will meant S&J reform proved very hard.”

So, what methods have S&J actors used to try and act politically?

  1. Applying analytical tool
  2. Political engagement with stakeholders
  3. Demand side advocacy with media and political engagement
  4. Integrating with diplomats and secret services

Rathmell identified some common delivery problems that inhibit more politically informed programming, including: 

  1. Quality of understanding: for example Rathmell suggested we often do not have enough understanding of S&J challenges in their particular context and, for instance, jump to a police solution to policing challenges too quickly.
  2. Connected to this, some agencies are guilty of ‘templating’ delivery models and processes that ignore important contextual nuances.
  3. Quality of thinking - there is the worrying primacy of action over deliberation. This is not to suggest it’s not important to act quickly – but this must not be at the expense of good thinking.
  4. Technocratic solutions - this is reminiscent of development thinking from the 50s and 60s that “theorised uplifting skills could lead to improvements in S&J.” It didn’t work then and doesn’t now.

Rathmell continued to expand on the idea of Isomorphic Mimicry- a biological phenomenon whereby one organism makes itself look like another. “Crucially, however, it can never actually be the same.” It is a slightly worse version of the original, more often than not. Applying this to the S&J world, whilst there might be value in encouraging an institution to behave like a working institution, the problem remains that it still isn’t that institution and is merely a veneer. The worry is that this mimicry might be mistaken for genuine reform. More needs to be done to embed changes that are fit for purpose and context rather than transposed from elsewhere.

So how can we do this? 

  1. We need to make better use of emerging knowledge and embrace the complexity of the S&J field. We need to make use of networks and harness their power positively. Behavioural economics is emerging as very important and we can learn from this. Applied in more stable environments such as the UK, ‘nudging’ is encouraging us to behave in particular ways (to contribute more to the economy by paying taxes more efficiently, for example). There is significant potential for these developments that are yet to be explored on S&J programmes. Social science research must also be better learnt from. More robust political economy and conflict analyses require more attention and nuanced understanding.
  2. Emerging tools such as integrated approaches, systems dynamic modeling, analytical tools, PDIA adaptive management and campaign design can all be experimented with more. We seem to be doing the same things again and again.

“We also need to align capabilities, incentives and politics” to benefit the public, said Rathmell. These benefits come from more than one institution and are delivered through networks. We need to know more about these networks, about what the public expects, and about what incentives for change exists at the political level. 

Rathmell holds that we should understand S&J reform as a fundamental shift in power structures. To this end he recommends donors and agencies:

  1. Be honest about timescale, goal and rationale
  2. Take an integrated approach
  3. Always treat programmatic interventions as a step towards a broader goal
  4. Focus small, strategic high quality rather than large and manpower intensive
  5. Insist on ongoing, embedded and shared analysis and monitoring

For implementers and researchers he recommends they:

  1. Understand, monitor and shape incentives
  2. Refrain from a race to the bottom line
  3. Avoid recycling ideas and people
  4. Understand causation and correlation in how institutions deliver change


Discussion covered the following issues:

  • The balance between political and technical thinking – and whether the current emphasis on the political makes sense given that S&J programming is inherently unable to really act politically and plan long term? 
  • Whether Rathmell’s presentation was still too linear and whether the ‘nudging’ along approach actually works.
  • The need for realism in goals and what it is possible to achieve.
  • Whose ‘politics’ we are talking about – host countries or donor countries? While we have to understand the local political dynamics of the countries we are working in we also must acknowledge the influence of donor country politics.
  • Ownership and the relevance of the Paris Principles, including whose ownership we are talking about (government, beneficiaries, etc.) and whether ownership is really just a donor device that allows them to negotiate their way through development work.
  • The difficulty of translating good conflict and political analyses into practice and how to create the political will within donor agencies to engage with this. 
  • How to incentivize behavior change and the personal and institutional triggers that need to be deployed to encourage individuals to perform better.
  • Joint accountability and the repercussions the growing appetite for this has on S&J programmes. This is a particular challenge given the extent to which the UK delivers programmes multilaterally, which means working with others who do not necessarily have as much of an emphasis on trying to work innovatively. Stronger monitoring by independent actors like ICAI could help to push back against the conspiracy of inflated expectations that can emerge.
  • How theories of change can become more honest and realistic.
  • The role of the post-2015 agenda and its potential for providing a common message, despite being far from a panacea. 

Rathmell concluded that S&J reform was more often than not undermined due to: 

  • a reliance on template approaches rather than being context specific; 
  • being overly technical; 
  • not thinking enough and not applying that thinking to the programmes themselves; 
  • not integrating with other reform processes outside of S&J; 
  • short-termism by donors, matched by massively inflated expectations by implementing agencies that have become prone to hubristic theories of change. 

But most of all, it fell short for not being political enough. S&J reform inherently involves shifting mechanisms of power. It is perhaps inevitable that those shifts will be resisted unless there are incentives for change. However it is equally inevitable that S&J reforms will fail unless they are able to engage politically.


This first seminar in the Security and justice seminar series will explore how politically-informed programming can be operationalised.

While it is taken as a given that security and justice programmes cannot be effective if they focus purely on 'technical' interventions, injecting 'political' approaches into such programmes has proven a challenge. Political economy and conflict analyses are often treated as 'add-ons,' while demand and supply side approaches are often disconnected. This seminar will explore concrete steps by which political approaches can be effectively incorporated into security and justice programming in meaningful ways.

To register your attendance, please contact Claire Bracegirdle ([email protected]).