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Interview with Lisa Denney on Donor Engagement with Informal Actors in the Justice & Security Sector

My latest interview with author Lisa Denney is a must read for anyone curious to understand why donors in the justice and security sector struggle to engage with informal actors. Her newest book, “Justice and Security Reform: Development Agencies and Informal Institutions in Sierra Leone” will be released on March 5th and covers fascinating research on DFID’s experience in Sierra Leone. It also challenges readers to look at why customary officials may actually be more modern and better able to adapt to donor programming than the state itself. Check out the eye-opening interview below!

Lisa Denney is a Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute. In addition to completing her PhD on the challenges of engaging informal security actors in DFID’s policing and justice reform programmes in Sierra Leone, her work experience includes issues of disarmament, citizen security and youth education/reintegration in West Africa and East Timor. 

Credit: ODI

Credit: ODI

Why was it important for you to write this book about justice and security reform?

I was working in Sierra Leone in 2007 and I’ve seen that despite the fact that most people in the country obtain or seek their security and justice through non-state or informal mechanisms, international security and justice reform methods still seem to focus overwhelmingly on the state level. I was interested in exploring that disconnect and, in particular, finding out why that was the case.

In the book, you’ve provided some great insight into why donors, and DFID in particular, have trouble engaging with informal actors. Can you talk a little about these reasons?

My thinking on this evolved at the time. When I started out, before I really interacted with any donors, I thought they just didn’t know about this complexity, that they just weren’t aware that all these people were relying on these alternative providers and if only they knew, they could tailor their program accordingly. But after I spoke to the donors, I realized that they are aware of that complexity and they do know their programs are missing that focus on the customary level. The interesting thing is, why is it that despite knowing this, their programs still aren’t engaged. That to me, really led me to my argument that it’s the bureaucratic and political nature of donors. Even when they want to or know that they need to be doing certain types of programming, they’re not able to.

Bureaucratic Challenges to Engaging with Customary Officials and Informal Actors

To unpack the bureaucracy and the politics, we talk about bureaucracy as an organizational process that is devised to find solutions to common problems. The result is we come up with relatively abstract universal approaches to problems because we realize that we can’t reasonably account for every individual circumstance or context. This kind of bureaucratic culture is internal to most large organizations, including donors, and it really shapes the way they see the world. The problem is that approach doesn’t lend itself to complex problems that require a really detailed knowledge of the anomalies in each context like security and justice. It’s not that I argue that donor staff aren’t able to see the answers, I think they are, but I think acting beyond it becomes problematic. For instance, often donor staff know the importance of context, but staffing policies don’t incentivize the development of deep local knowledge. Offices are located in capital countries, staff are rotated out of country every 2-3 years. It’s not to say that no donor staff achieves this local knowledge, but they do so in spite of this bureaucracy in which they work.

Political Challenges to Engaging with Customary Officials and Informal Actors

On the political side, donors are part of government and they have to justify their work to government and ultimately to taxpayers and so even if donors themselves are convinced of the need to work with informal security and justice actors they actually have to convince their government, and by proxy, their own public that that’s a legitimate call to action. The way we’ve historically sold aid is it being this simple ‘we vaccinate children, we feed the hungry.’ It doesn’t lend itself to this more complex story, ‘well actually development, particularly in the rule of law sector, is about engaging with elites, and police forces, and potentially chiefs, and these customary actors as well.’ At the moment, there just isn’t very much room for us to be able to do that within the political relationship either.

Much of the book focuses on Sierra Leone as a case study. Why is Sierra Leone’s case important to understand DFID’s interaction with informal actors, and more broadly, the security and justice sector?

Sierra Leone has been particularly important in the UK context because it’s such a disproportionately large investment given the size of the country and it’s been a long-term engagement to the UK. There’s 15 years or more security and justice reform to look at in that particular context. It was also quite an early security and justice reform location. People can talk about the fact that it informed the development of our concept of security and justice reform as much as justice and security reform programs have informed Sierra Leone’s trajectory.

On the issue of informal or non-state actors, Sierra Leone has a high prevalence of these actors and that’s something we see in a lot of other contexts. The general consensus is that about 80% of cases in the global south are resolved by non-state mechanisms. A lot of what’s in the book in relation to Sierra Leone also speaks to challenges faced in many other contexts as well.

In the book, you talk about why DFID’s experience in Sierra Leone implementing security and justice programs was primarily developed by focusing on the role of state actors in causing the war.  Why was this approach problematic?

There’s been a lot of debate about the causes of the war in Sierra Leone and in international circles we tend to gloss over them a little bit. In Sierra Leonean academia there’s still a raging debate about why it occurred. A lot of the international consensus focuses on things like diamonds and state failure and some of these certainly were elements and it’s clear the state did fail to protect its citizens and fulfill some basic government functions, but the interesting thing about Sierra Leone is that governance is much deeper than just the state. Drawing on colonial experience, the institution of chieftaincy plays a very strong role for most Sierra Leoneans and it’s actually the chief rather than the state that a lot of people look for things like security and justice and also other forms of service provision. Chiefs still collect government tax on behalf of the state. They play a really important role and if you’re looking only at the government role rather than governance breakdown, you actually have to recognize a much broader set of actors are involved in governance. In Sierra Leone, that breakdown occurred at the state level but also at these other levels and in attempting to address the causes of conflict, we also need to look at that level.

You also made a very interesting observation that the tendency to view chiefs and elders as people who represent ancient tribal traditions mischaracterizes their ability to be people who are highly adaptive to modern institutions. Can you talk a little about that and why you feel informal actors may actually be better placed to adapt to donor reforms in the security and justice sectors?

The fact that these actors have been around for so long…often we mistake that saying it’s because they’re static and unchanging. But actually the reason they’ve been around for so long is because they’ve been very successful at adapting and changing and continuing to make themselves relevant. Of course tradition is an important component of that. People in Sierra Leone see chiefs as a link to ancestors and tradition, and that’s important, but that shouldn’t be linked to thinking they’re outmoded or irrelevant. One of the things I’ve been interested in is the interaction between these customary forms of authority and the modern forms, as we tend to call them.

There’s an anecdote in a community where paralegal organizations started operating and providing alternative dispute resolution for women, which was more accessible and cheap and could lead to growing protection of women’s rights. That, actually in a competitive sense, triggered the chiefs to lower the cost of their informal arbitration and also try and be a little more sensitive to women’s rights. All of these things exist in an interactive system, they’re not discreet. As the reforms of the state justice and security sector and innovations in alternative dispute resolution happen, that also means customary actors are changing and are adapting to that environment. It’s good that there are multiple justice avenues available for people in the country. There are still big problems with accessibility to a lot of those and the quality of justice that can be achieved through them. It’s not that I would argue that they should only be using the customary system or that it’s better, but realistically it is what people use. In a pragmatic sense, I would argue that’s what we should be engaging with because that’s the reality.

What are some of the recommendations you make for donors that are struggling to find ways to engage with informal actors in the justice and security sector?

I come up with two conclusions. Either we need to accept the bureaucratic and political confines that donors operate within, in which case, we need to accept that security and justice reform is only ever going to make small dents in a much more complicated security and justice environment. Alternatively, we can try and overcome those boundaries and if we are going to do that, there are probably at least four things I think we can try and do.

First thing is donors need to try and create more political space to engage with informal actors by having an honest dialogue about what aid really entails. Recognizing that it’s fundamentally political work and it might need to involve working with non-state security actors. Secondly, they need to invest in, what I call in the book ‘thick analysis’, drawing on Clifford Geertz’s work. It’s not just about doing conflict analysis at the beginning of programming but an ongoing and iterative process in which programs constantly adapt to changing conditions and perhaps aren’t as bound by what can be predetermined and rigid logframes. Third, the thick analysis is going to require a different balance of skill sets in programming. I think at the moment we tend to privilege technical experts and project managers, who are obviously important, but there’s also room to include more anthropologists, sociologists, linguists. These people who I think can bring something to programming that’s not currently there. Finally we need to change some of the donor ways of working, getting out of capital cities to parts of the country where people tend to rely more on non-state actors. Shifting to a more varied catalogue of experimental projects and finally making sure what we know about what good programming entails is what drive our procurement process and not that our procurement process and rules drives what good programming looks like.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned when writing this book?

It was overcoming my own prejudices about the way we think about these systems. We often think about customary systems as being old-fashioned, traditional, or harmful to women, and don’t get me wrong, they sometimes are harmful to women. But I also met chiefs who had done master’s degree in international politics in the US or UK and attended every human rights training session that was around and took on their responsibility as a chief in a public service sense – that this was their responsibility to give back to their country that was recovering from war. Some of them were genuinely committed to finding ways to improve the lives of their people. I think that is something we can tend to overlook.

To read more about this topic, you can purchase Lisa Denney’s book here.

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This entry was posted on February 10, 2014 by in Interviews.

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