Who’s afraid of plural security? New research on security provision beyond the state By: Megan Price and Bart Weijs | SSR | Nov 5, 2015

Security in fragile and conflict-affected contexts is provided by a multitude of actors, with varying relationships to the state (plural security provision). An October 2015 knowledge event offered academics, practitioners and policymakers a platform to present and dialogue around empirical cases of plural security provision at city level, focusing on how state and international development actors can engage with plural actors in ways that contribute to strengthening citizen security.

In fragile and conflict-affected contexts, the vast majority of people look to actors operating mostly outside the remit of the state to provide security. Cities as diverse as Beirut, Mogadishu, and Port-of-Spain present a broad spectrum of actors that make claims on the legitimate use of force, in varying degrees of competition or cooperation with state security providers. The complex dynamics of this phenomenon provided a rich topic for exploration in a recent knowledge event, Plural Security in the City, at the University of Amsterdam on 22 October.

The practical and political challenges associated with plural (described elsewhere as “non-state” or “informal”) security provision have vexed state authorities and the international community in many contexts commonly labeled as ‘fragile’. Bilateral and multilateral aid agencies from DFID to UNDP struggle to grapple with how to support security sector reform and stabilization assistance in contexts where the state is neither a preferred nor preponderant security provider.

Yet despite growing interest in the policy community, the event opened with an important reminder that plural security is nothing new. Etannibi Alemika (University of Jos) asserted: “In the African context, plural policing and plural security have always been the norm.” Alemika compared the relatively recent “discovery” of plural security arrangements by international actors to colonial-era explorers “discovery” of a great river near his hometown, known to his family for generations.

In a provocative presentation, Alemika went on to ask the question: “Who’s afraid of plural security?” It represents a form of order outside the state that persists in many contexts around the world. Alemika called for a re-assessment of international assumptions about “disorganized” and “fragile” societies, and for a sharper empirical understanding of plural security provision. He expressed concern that traditional forms of governance that regulated plural security providers and kept them accountable have waned; who controls plural security providers, and what kind of interactions exist between these actors and formal governance mechanisms, are key questions for future research.

Plural Security in the City was jointly organized by the Clingendael Institute’s Conflict Research Unit (CRU), the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law, and the University of Amsterdam. With 35 participants, the knowledge event explored the current frontier of knowledge and practice on plural security provision, with a specific focus on the dynamics of plural provision in cities and how local governments can engage with diverse security actors in ways that benefit citizens. In this regard, it carried forward a research agenda initiated by CRU and UN-Habitat at a 2015 roundtable in The Hague.

The knowledge event included presentations of field-based research by members of a distinguished academic panel. Some of the key insights from the morning session:

  • Alice Hills (Durham University) described how plural security in Mogadishu and Kano fosters competition between armed actors for scarce resources; bargaining plays a central role, and practices and behavior can be erratic. In many contexts, policing is a lucrative business for actors both inside and outside the framework of the state. Hills originally set out to map boundaries between police and plural security actors involved, but found these were very ambiguous and permeable.
  • Bruce Baker (Coventry University) described the elastic scope for cooperation between plural security providers and state authorities, as demonstrated in his case study of the taxi drivers’ association patrolling a bus station in Kampala. In such contexts, it is not necessarily technical expertise that leads to the effective maintenance of order, since “much of policing is essentially about social skills”.
  • Rivke Jaffe (University of Amsterdam) described the dominant role of political parties in security provision in Beirut, raising questions as to whether security provision should be described as plural or hybrid. She noted four key characteristics of plural security provision in Beirut—inter-scalarity, networking and functional division of labour, and quelling sectarian conflict, underpinned by high levels of social cohesion—as detailed in a recent paper.
  • Juan Salgado (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas) surveyed a range of policing and community-oriented security initiatives in Latin America, noting, for example, that even within the formal Brazilian police force, different entities behave differently according to the time of day— or even depending on the side of the street.

Breakout discussions in the afternoon explored the consequences for state and international development actors of engaging with plural security providers. These were facilitated by expert practitioners and policymakers representing DFID, the Danish Institute for International Affairs, and Trinidad and Tobago’s national Citizen Security Programme. That there are no blueprints for engagement, and what constitutes “success” is context-specific, were general conclusions from these in-depth discussions.

While the international development community has embraced pluralism in the justice sphere, welcoming the contributions of myriad local and customary providers to improving access to justice, the same has not been the case in the security sphere. Working with local arrangements is championed rhetorically as a good practice, but raises grave concerns about moral relativism and a derogation of international standards. Moreover, the highly political (and potentially lucrative) nature of security provision ensures that any reform or engagement will be complex and results will be circumscribed by local dynamics. Some participants pointed to the need for more realistic narratives to set out the risks and challenges of intervention.

In her summative remarks, Wilma van Esch from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted three key points:

  • Engaging with security providers of any stripe requires circumspect approaches as well as a deep understanding of local power structures and how they are negotiated;
  • Boundaries between security providers, politics and the private sector are often blurred, and this powerful combination of actors can skew attention away from the needs and agency of citizens on the receiving end of security arrangements;
  • Though most security interventions focus on technical prowess and training forces, strong governance is more important for ensuring security arrangements are both effective and equitable.

The knowledge event concluded with an exciting announcement about advancing this emergent research agenda. CRU’s Megan Price revealed that the Dutch scientific research fund, NWO-WOTRO, will make a significant investment in comparative analysis of the dynamics of plural security provision in Beirut, Nairobi, and Tunis. Beginning in 2016, the initiative will seek to foster more effective security and rule of law assistance by producing policy-relevant insights into how structures of local urban governance might interact with a plurality of local security providers in ways that deliver improved security outcomes for citizens. (More information on this initiative can be found here.)

For more information on the set-up and speakers, see the event announcement. Key quotes, takeaways and photos from the event can be found on Twitter (#SRoLcity), and now the conversation continues online. Speakers and several participants will publish blog posts building on debates from the event on the Knowledge Platform’s website and at The Broker. Additional inputs are welcome.


Megan Price is a Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute’s Conflict Research Unit. She contributes to research on international strategies for supporting security sector reform in challenging settings. Her current research focuses on security provision as a negotiated political process, and the role of informal and non-conventional actors in statebuilding.

Bart Weijs is Project Officer at the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law and focuses on the substantive support of the Platform’s activities. He has a broad interest in issues of resilience, local governance, fragility and the impact of aid interventions.




Tags: , , , ,