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Improving community security and access to justice in active conflicts: can it be done?

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

Kathryn Rzeszut, Design, Monitoring & Evaluation Manager, Integrity

Alexander Mayer-Rieckh, Senior Security & Justice Advisor, Integrity


Pilar Domingo, Team Leader – Justice and Security, Politics and Governance Programme, Overseas Development Institute

​In ODI’s first event in the new Security and Justice seminar series, “Security and Justice assistance in active conflict: can it be done?”, Kathryn Rzeszut and Alexander Mayer-Rieckh explored the debates around risks, challenges and opportunities of Security and Justice (S&J) programming in active conflict, drawing examples from their experience as third party monitors of a community security programme in opposition-controlled northern Syria.

The speakers began by contrasting the existing frameworks for the Security Sector Reform (SSR), as stated by the OECD, UN and EU with the reality of SSR programming. The frameworks suggest S&J is best considered as people-centred; the reform agenda for effective security provision is about service delivery and accountability to the people it serves; and the process of reform is inclusive and contextual. In reality, the record of SSR work is patchy. For example, S&J programming often takes the needs of institutions rather than the needs of people as a starting point; programming usually takes a ‘stove-pipe’ rather than a systematic approach, meaning the focus is often on a specific and limited problem rather than the system as a whole; programming often builds the capacity of institutions rather than their accountability; sustainability of S&J programming is not taken into consideration enough; programming tends to be externally driven rather than locally-owned and are often government-led rather than inclusive; programming also tends to replicate approaches from different countries, lacking contextual specificity.

There are several reasons why S&J programming is very challenging in conflict-affected countries. The characteristics of conflict make for a high degree of uncertainty, and dynamics shift from one day to the next. The trajectories of conflict are so unpredictable that meaningful S&J work is challenging. For example, even the social complexity encountered in conflict areas makes actor mapping highly context-specific, even down to regions within regions, each of which may have different actors, governance structures, legal systems etc.

S&J institutions in conflict-affected contexts are usually dysfunctional or have collapsed, and when they exist, they often have ‘porous boundaries’ and particularly informal processes. The militarisation of security provision, as military and armed groups take over areas and dominate the political agenda, causes additional challenges within S&J institutions. Finally, these institutions commonly suffer from legacies of abuse and distrust. Establishing trust between security providers and their communities in such situations is challenging. In opposition-controlled areas in Syria, civilian police officers working in their home communities—something that was not permitted prior to the conflict—have been able to build better relationships with the people they serve because of their pre-existing close ties with them.  

There are several risks associated with S&J assistance in conflict-affected contexts. Risks include that capacities that are built through programmes cannot be sustained. For example, a few trained officers working in a dysfunctional system are lost in the mass and affect very few changes. Capacities that have been built can be abused, for example through use in combat situations or redirected when police become or join an armed group. There are times when it is not possible to use the capacities that have been built through a programme, or even that the wrong capacities have been built for a given context. This was the case in Libya, where armed groups took the role of policing off the police, leaving officers unable to use the typical policing by consent capacities they had learnt through standard support programmes.

All these risks and challenges mean that traditional S&J programming, with rigid logframe approaches and too many linear assumptions, are not applicable in conflict contexts. They do not allow for the frequent revisions that are required in order to adapt to new circumstances.

However, there is still good reason to implement S&J programming in conflict contexts, but when doing so policy makers and programme implementers should take into account a number of features that can help to ensure that S&J programming is successful and conflict sensitive in such challenging contexts. Programming should:

  • Be continuously reassessed and adapted to the changing circumstances.
  • Set modest and short term goals in order to allow space for adaptation.
  • Start with realities not ideal futures and use best fit approaches rather than best practice approaches, based on community needs, resources and realities and move from there.
  • Be about empowering armed groups to do S&J a little better than more abusive actors. There are several ways to do this, including building police units within armed groups and separating military from policing functions; supporting the reference to International Humanitarian Law rather than Human Rights Law; identifying the ‘least bad’ options; supporting mobile courts; codifying the procedures being used).

Following the presentation the discussion covered some interesting issues, in particular:

  • How the gendered aspects of S&J programming in conflict contexts are, for example, related to the way that women and girls experience security provision in active conflicts and how young men are being forcefully recruited into armed groups.
  • The challenges involved in the notion that S&J programming can help to prepare for post-conflict statebuilding and the role they can play in legitimising certain actors.
  • What alternatives to the logframe approach may look like, including the use of smaller, more realistic and context-specific programme objectives and clear systems for documenting impact and challenges for achieving outcomes.

The challenges of access in active conflict contexts.

The potential costs of more agile S&J programming and the fact that such programming would require meaningful discussion between donors and implementers about how resources are best used.

The speakers concluded that there are often very good reasons for not engaging in S&J programming in conflict contexts and these reasons should be well assessed before commencing any programme. However, when there are reasons to engage in a certain context, it is important to ensure that programming is realistic and is designed and implemented in the knowledge that the programme will engage with highly problematic actors.


​International funding increasingly supports programming in countries experiencing active conflict, in line with evolving donor priorities. Due to the nature of these conflicts, typically such programmes are contracted at arm’s length through a range of local partners, who are often directly embedded in a fluid and dangerous local context. 

With such little to no direct access to the communities where programmes are implemented, it is difficult for governments to understand how effective such support is. There is an urgent need to learn from those who are conducting such programmes to ensure that funding aims to do no harm.

This seminar (part of ODI’s ongoing Security and justiceseminar series) asked:

  • What specific opportunities and challenges does security & justice programming in active conflict areas present?
  • What counts as ‘success’ in such contexts?
  • What factors support and act as barriers to community security in conflict?

This seminar explored these debates with reference to an ongoing programme in northern Syria. Kathryn Rzeszut (Design, Monitoring & Evaluation Manager) and Alexander Mayer-Rieckh (Senior Security & Justice Advisor) both work on third party monitoring for a community security programme in opposition-controlled northern Syria.