Each year, the United States spends $19.5 billion a year on security cooperation and assistance, more than 130 countries and territories in the world spend on their entire defense budgets. Not surprisingly, in the period since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. funding has increased markedly for security partnerships focused on countering terrorism and addressing internal security challenges in partner states.

Such external support for government-controlled security institutions has a direct bearing on local political and social dynamics, regardless of the intention, especially where governance is poor and human rights violations are rampant. Yet the vast preponderance of decisions relating to U.S. security cooperation and assistance programs are made through arrangements between the U.S. government and its government partners, with scant local engagement with others who would be affected inside the partner country, including independent civil society.

The U.S. and other external supporters have long rationalized their failure to involve local civil society with the argument that these arrangements are matters of sovereign concern between two countries or that doing so would confront too many challenges and risks (including that of exposing civil society to government reprisal). But a growing body of experience and expertise suggests that policymakers and program managers should increase the role of local, independent (i.e. not affiliated with government) civil society in defining public security needs and to consult with civil society while planning, implementing, and monitoring security cooperation and assistance programs. In a recent report, “Having Their Say: Guidelines for Involving Local Civil Society in the Planning, Design, Implementation, and Evaluation of U.S. Security Assistance and Cooperation,” we attempt to reconcile the benefits of engaging civil society in U.S. security cooperation and assistance decisions with the legitimate challenges of doing so.

The absence of civil society in U.S. security assistance decisions and processes is somewhat baffling, given what is known about the value civil society provides to effective governance and accountable security institutions. Security forces that operate without appropriate oversight and accountability make much less reliable partners, and are less likely to sustain improvements in performance, compromising the effectiveness and return on investment of U.S. taxpayer-funded investments.

Worse, without the accountability encouraged by independent civil society, security institutions in partner countries may lack the appropriate mechanisms for restraint or control, and U.S. security assistance risks exacerbating the likelihood of human rights abuses and corruption, or it might undermine democratic institutions altogether. In Egypt, activists, prominent members of civil society, and opposition figures face the risk of disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture, or even execution. Yet Egypt benefits from $300 million in U.S.-funded security assistance. And since the 2014 military coup in Thailand (which receives at least $53 million), civil society organizations (CSOs) have been targeted by a host of legal regulations criminalizing freedom of expression and public assembly that are enforced by security institutions. Military courts, where judges often dole out harsh sentences, have tried citizens for violating laws criminalizing participation in civic activities. Limiting or even cutting security assistance altogether in these environments could be an important way to stem the tide of restrictions faced by civil society globally.

Critical Perspective, Essential Insights

In countries where civil society is able to operate more freely, its constituent elements can provide critical alternative perspectives on security issues, including essential insights into local security realities or governance concerns that can inform the U.S government’s understanding of how best to address security challenges with its partners. As renowned security sector reform expert Sarah Detzner writes in the preface to our report, “the kind of highly specific contextual information needed to address the security challenges that leave partner states weak and perpetually unstable – illicit trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, insurgency, and more recently environmental degradation and the spread of disease – is only obtainable with the active cooperation of ordinary citizens of these states.” Meaningful consultation offers an opportunity for civil society to voice preferences, concerns, and priorities related to their own security needs, which may differ from those of their government, especially of course in less-than-fully democratic countries.

This doesn’t mean the United States is obliged to undertake a direct consultation with civil society for every program it designs or implements, nor that doing so would be wise or constructive. Nor do we suggest that civil society can always or reliably represent the totality of public needs or interests. And certainly the partner government has the primary responsibility for ensuring appropriate public participation, including with local, independent civil society, in questions of security policy.

In cases where the partner government’s formal security sector is transparent, governed by democratic institutions that invite public participation in decision-making, and subject to oversight and accountability, the United States may be reasonably satisfied that the partner’s security policies already incorporate adequate public participation. That might make direct engagement with civil society on matters of U.S. security cooperation and assistance less urgent or necessary. But given the few places where security services could be characterized this way, and considering the severe restrictions civil society faces in many environments, the U.S. government has a greater responsibility. It should also see the benefits of engaging more directly with independent, local civil society to best ensure that the full range of its security assistance and cooperation programs are well-suited and appropriate for addressing local needs and properly evaluated for their effect.

The practitioners we spoke with during our research describe a set of common and legitimate challenges. Program managers and diplomats described deeply rooted institutional discomfort with the idea of seeking public input for security assistance decisions as a complement to the partner government’s own assessment of its needs. Others are understandably reluctant to expose civil society to government reprisals or wary of privileging elite groups or individuals through the act of consultation. Moreover, program managers fear alienating NGOs or religious leaders, should security assistance programs proceed in spite of reservations or concerns.

Navigating the Challenges

As such, we offer recommendations to assist the U.S. government with navigating the challenges involved with creating a more prominent and consistent role for civil society. We recommend differentiating among acts of consultation, informing, involving, and supporting. A process-based analysis can help determine in which stage to employ each tactic most effectively, i.e. during planning, implementation, and evaluation. By taking this approach, the U.S. government can ensure that the right people, with the necessary authority, engage at the right time.

For example, the U.S. chief of mission in any one country could undertake meaningful consultation with civil society during a stage of strategic planning for the entire spectrum of U.S. government security assistance programs;  a program manager in the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement can involve independent civil society during the assessment and evaluation phases; State’s Department of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor or the U.S. Agency for International Development can support civil society to play its oversight role relative to security forces; and a Defense Department public affairs officer can inform local civil society about the purpose of a military exercise.

Because of the highly distributed nature of U.S. security assistance and cooperation programs, generalizing recommendations to all of them presents a challenge. As such, certain principles and guidelines can help steer policymakers and practitioners in the process. For example:

  • Limit the amount and kinds of security cooperation and assistance in restrictive environments: It may seem obvious, but the U.S. government should temper the kinds of assistance it provides or refrain altogether from supporting security forces or institutions, especially those that serve an internal security function, in countries where civil society is subjected to explicit or implicit restrictions from serving a government oversight function. (If talking to civil society about basic security policy would result in local government reprisals, the U.S. government should think twice about whether it should be providing security assistance. ) When proceeding with assistance in these contexts, the U.S. government should use its political influence to advocate on behalf of civil society (and the freedom of association and expression).
  • Consult in good faith and with meaningful intent: Should the U.S. government undertake consultations with civil society, it must do so in good faith, and commit to incorporating the input and feedback provided while also keeping civil society informed, or risk the appearance that the United States is simply using civil society partners as props.
  • Engage civil society throughout the process: The U.S. government should invite the participation of local and U.S.-based civil society at every stage of the program lifecycle, especially during the planning process before decisions have been made.
  • Take affirmative steps to achieve inclusivity and representativeness: The U.S. government should ensure that its efforts to inform, consult, involve, and/or support civil society are inclusive by taking steps to mitigate the risk of bias or exclusion.
  • Do no harm and ensure informed consent: To the best of its ability, the U.S. government should adopt a “Do No Harm” framework for engagement with civil society, which assesses the risks of engagement to these individuals and organizations (including the risk of reprisals), ensures their informed consent, and allows the U.S. government to take mitigations steps to ensure security.
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities within the U.S. government: The U.S. government should consider what kinds of engagement are most appropriate and valuable at each stage of a program or programs. This will also aid in clearly identifying the most appropriate agency, office, or individual to lead.
  • Support and strengthen existing channels for public participation: The U.S. government should support, encourage, and strengthen dialogue and consultation between the partner government and civil society in that country, where safe and credible.

So long as security assistance remains a permanent fixture in U.S. national security policy, the U.S. government will have its fingers on the scale of internal politics and governance in countries all around the world. Giving a more prominent role to those who stand to gain or lose most in the process seems like a reasonable demand.

IMAGE: Members of the Wayuu ethnic group watch as a US army helicopter arrives for a joint exercise in the “Tres Bocas” area, northern Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on March 13, 2020. Military personnel and doctors from Colombia and the United States carried out joint exercises near the border with Venezuela, aimed at facing hemispheric threats and humanitarian crises.  (Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images)