Lessons learned from security-related programming in stabilisation and conflict-affected contexts


This request concerns efforts conducted in contexts where long-term reforms have not necessarily been possible but where there might have been some shorter-term initiatives in the security sector (primarily formal but also informal to a certain extent).


The challenging environment that ongoing conflict presents means that evidence based analysis of security sector initiatives is hard to find (Ball and Walker, 2015, p. 3) and the evidence base uncovered by this rapid literature review is small. Interviews with experts suggest that there may be more documented cases and lessons which are not publicly available.

Security sector initiatives which have taken place in ongoing conflict and stabilisation contexts include:

Overarching approach:

  • Security sector stabilisation: a holistic political-security approach, incorporating state and non-state elements, and supporting the primacy of the political process. Activities include train and equip programmes, salary payments of security forces, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, and police mentoring. This has been carried out in a variety of contexts and by a variety of actors.

Country case study initiatives:

  • The Access to Justice and Community Security programme in moderate opposition parts of Syria: supporting nascent public institutions in delivering increasingly effective, responsive and accountable security and justice services and improving communities’ access to them. Activities include training and support to police, developing police accountability to the community, and supporting local staff who provide vital civil documentation and notarial services.
  • The ‘Complain In Order Not To Lose Your Rights’ campaign in opposition areas of Syria to encourage citizens to express any concerns they may have about the behaviour of armed groups in their areas, and initiate action or dialogue to improve interactions between civilians and armed group members. Activities included putting in place complaints boxes and organising meetings between citizens and armed groups.
  • Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs): small, joint civilian-military organisations led by the United States and their allies whose mission was to promote governance, security, and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Activities included training, technical assistance, and equipment for the Afghan police; and joint security patrols and backing to the Afghan security forces.
  • ‘Islands of Stability’: areas that are liberated and secured and where state authority would be restored, education and health provided, and economic prosperity promoted. This approach has been criticised for not dealing with local conflict drivers.

Lessons include the following:

  • Political and military efforts need to be approached together, with consensus on the direction taken.
  • Security sector issues must be treated not as a purely ‘technical’ issue, but as an integral part of the political process.
  • The long-term goal needs to be kept in mind to ensure short-term actions do not undermine it.
  • Programmes need to be adaptive and responsive, and based on a thorough understanding of the context.
  • Good leadership and willingness to make hard judgement calls, especially about which actors to work with, and what red lines are, is required.
  • Train and equip programmes carried out in isolation are not sufficient substitutes for developing comprehensive host nation security sector and governance capacity.
  • Justice institutions should be supported alongside the police (civilian and military).
  • Justice and security initiatives generally require the tolerance of local armed groups to be successful.
  • Local ownership should be encouraged and, where possible, security and justice initiatives should build on existing systems.
  • Working with the informal or non-state sector can create great opportunities for change.
  • Local participation in security forces can be subject to capture by local power brokers.
  • Accountability of formal and informal security and justice actors is very important.
  • Vulnerable groups should be involved early on in the process and care taken that their engagement does not place them at risk.


Suggested citation

Rohwerder, B. (2016). Lessons learned from security-related programming in stabilisation and conflict-affected contexts (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1353). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.