The domestic consequences of SSR: Real-world effects beyond external perspectives By: Ursula C. Schroeder and Fairlie Chappuis | Academic Spotlight | Sep 15, 2015

Local ownership has always been central to the theory of security sector reform (SSR) in post-conflict contexts – practically every policy concept in circulation among bilateral donors or multilateral institutions makes local ownership of the reform agenda a sine qua non for external support to SSR. But these calls for local ownership echo hollow against the underwhelming results and unintended consequences of external support to SSR across a growing universe of cases.


This article is the tenth contribution in our new Academic Spotlight blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals.

This contribution summarizes research originally published here:

Ursula C. Schroeder & Fairlie Chappuis (2014) New Perspectives on Security Sector Reform: The Role of Local Agency and Domestic Politics, International Peacekeeping, 21:2, 133-148.

As part of a partnership between the International Peacekeeping Journal and the Centre for Security Governance, this journal article is available free and open access through this link:



This well-known gap between policy and practice speaks to a deeper analytical failure to engage with the domestic consequences of external support to security sector reform (SSR). We argue that analysis of SSR has faltered in paying more attention to what external actors do to foreign security sectors at the expense of trying to understand the agency and interests of local stakeholders in the context of domestic politics. As a result of this analytical bias, the dynamics of interaction between external and domestic actors frequently remain shrouded behind facile references to the “political” nature of SSR. New directions in research are needed to understand the so far neglected role of domestic actors, interests and political power constellations in the places where SSR is attempted. Identifying such new directions in research is the task of our recently published edited volume, Building Security in Post-Conflict States: The Domestic Consequences of Security Sector Reform.

Building Security in Post-Conflict States sets out new avenues of research that can help to grasp the social complexity of domestic security governance and the impact of external engagement in the highly sensitive area of sovereign security. Reproducing the contributions to a Special Issue of International Peacekeeping published in 2014, the edited volume brings together eight thematic and empirically grounded analyses that demonstrate the usefulness of focusing on domestic agency and external-domestic interaction dynamics in the context of SSR.

Moving past external perspectives on SSR towards a deeper understanding of local agency in the context of domestic political systems means going beyond the famously vague concept of local ownership. Local ownership in SSR has come to be treated as a question about who external actors should deal with and how. These questions keep external perspectives at the centre of the analysis, while relegating local actors to a supporting cast of partners, heroes, victims, spoilers, belligerents or villains. Such an approach vilifies some while romanticizing others, all the while covering up the fact that local forms of political life may bear little or no resemblance to the institutional templates for peace and good governance that inspire external visions of reform. Failure to engage with the often informal nature of local political life has led to off-the-shelf reform strategies based on the misleading idea of generic institutional models, doctrines and templates that don’t fit with the social and political landscape onto which they are superimposed. Such an inflexible approach can only result in poorly adapted strategies for reform that fail when tested against a reality for which they are unprepared and often unsuitable. Several contributions in the collection illustrate this point in empirical detail while also demonstrating the usefulness of making local agency and politics the centre of the analysis (Berg, Hills, Marten, Denney among others).

Taking local agency and domestic politics seriously also entails a clearer understanding of how external and local actors interact. Focusing on the relative power and differential interests of both external and local actors unpacks the simplistic claim that SSR is a “political” activity generating “winners and losers”. At this early point in this research agenda various approaches offer ways to understand how external and domestic interests intermingle–or don’t; and the contributions in this volume put a number of these theoretical perspectives to work. Thus looking through a lens of contestation and resistance can reveal systematically conflictual relationships between external interests and domestic elites, offering a way to look at the so-called “spoilers” agenda from the other side: in our collection, Lemay-Hebert applies this lens to explain the failure of SSR in Haiti. Taking a different approach, the concept of ‘hybridity’ has proven an especially popular way to characterize the layering effects of security governance as external and domestic agendas push and pull against each other: Schroeder, Chappuis and Kocak apply the concept of hybridity to illustrate the results of SSR while Koehler and Gosztonyi dissect the minute empirical detail of hybrid security governance at the local level in Afghanistan.

But the shift in focus of the kind this volume argues for also requires research methods that will be able to deliver the data necessary to nourish new analytical approaches. Standard research approaches can be usefully complemented with fine-grained micro-level data that describe security at the level of local or inter-personal interactions. In our collection, Mannitz explains how ethnographic and anthropological approaches can be applied to problematize issues of agency and interaction at the local level, while Koehler and Gosztonyi demonstrate how such an approach can deepen the understanding and insights won in large-scale survey data.

While understanding SSR from the perspective of domestic politics and local agency is an effort that has attracted increasing attention, the results of such analyses have so far focused overwhelmingly on the wholesale critique of current approaches. This collection instead shows in a more fine-grained manner how resetting the analytical focus on domestic security governance opens up new perspectives on the agency of domestic actors –both state and non-state, national and sub-national. This shift in focus also reveals the often conflictual and asymmetric encounters between domestic actors and externals and how these differential power relations shape—and distort—reform agendas. Understanding how divergent interests and perceptions affect the consequences of international interventions provides a pathway to a clearer empirical and theoretical grasp of the local realities of reform. This type of analysis offers the best hope of breaking out of the mould of classical models of Weberian statehood that have dominated approaches to SSR since its inception.


Ursula C. Schroeder is a professor of international security at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany, and directs the research project ‘Exporting the State Monopoly on Violence: Security Governance Transfers to Areas of Limited Statehood’ at the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 700: Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood.

Fairlie Chappuis is a programme manager for the Research Division at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and a PhD candidate in political science at the Berlin Graduate School of Transnational Studies, Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany. 

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