Why should we get local actors involved in conflict and complex security issues? Are they capable of dealing with large-scale insecurity, violent conflicts and oppressive regimes? Is the state not responsible for security, and is it not up to state security actors to provide security? And if these states are not willing or able to provide security, are international organisations such as the UN, NATO and the like not the most capable of dealing with insecurity in states? Based on my recent research in Sudan, Burundi and DR Congo, I would argue that this is not necessarily so.

An important question is: whose security interests do these states and international organisations pursue? When looking closer at what security really means to people, it becomes clear that security is first and foremost something personal. When asked what security is, the answers people give are varied, broad, and diverse. To some it is the absence of violence and war, to others it is being able to travel freely or work on their land, and again others include access to schooling and health provision. In general, people define their security in terms of what academics and practitioners refer to as ‘human security’. And the particular aspects of security they prioritise depend on their personal situation. Security is about what security needs are most vital, and what aspects of their security are threatened by their context. Based on how someone defines security needs and interests, and depending on context and position, people determine (consciously or not) their strategies in pursuit of their various security needs. This process can be referred to as the ‘local dynamics of security’.

A process in which people constantly redefine what security is to them, and how they pursue their security needs, means that these local dynamics of security are characterised by a constant struggle between different perspectives on security. Whose definition gains dominance over others? And based on these various definitions, what strategies in pursuit of their security do people deem appropriate?

Definitions and strategies can conflict, as what is security for one person can mean insecurity to another. Having been in the bush for years, where they were part of a social structure and able to obtain food, ex-combatants often find it difficult to reintegrate economically and socially in the civilian community. The social and economic security offered by the armed group falls away, and in their reintegration process they are expected to find different strategies to fulfil their needs. When they fail to find new (legal) strategies, they may opt to return to an armed group or criminal gang. As an ex-combatant in Burundi explained:

I was in the first year of primary school when I went into the militia and now going back to school is difficult. They should help me learn a trade. Now I’m in a situation where I sometimes think I’ll start stealing. Maybe find some friends with guns and form a group to steal.
Such a choice in pursuit of personal security clearly poses a threat to the security of others.

Also, state security actors at the local level are part of these local dynamics of security. In eastern Congo someone explained:

We are concerned with justice, and the police want money. We have no money, and the police are not interested in justice.
Police officers, too, define their own security needs, and strategies to pursue these needs. When their salaries are not paid, for example, they might use opportunities available to them to fulfil their security needs and harass the population for money.

The state security forces can contribute to security only if it adds to security as people on a local level define it. And where state security actors are seen to be oppressing or incapable of security provision, people find alternative ways to provide their security. For instance, in South Sudan where the LRA is attacking the local population, the South Sudanese army (SPLA) is not very active in protecting the civilians. In reaction to this lack of security provision, local chiefs have called on the youth to use their hunting skills and form a vigilante protection force.

To sum up, security is open for interpretation, there is a constant struggle over what is defined as security and what strategies people find appropriate to pursue their security needs. However, taking the local level as a starting point to look at security does not necessarily mean that the local level provides all the answers to the security problems that are encountered. As shown by the above example of an ex-combatant pursuing his personal security needs by re-joining a militia, what is the ‘right’ definition of security, and the ‘right’ strategy in pursuit of it, is in the eye of the beholder. Being involved locally is therefore not a panacea. It does, however, provide a better insight into how these security dynamics develop. And without understanding local security dynamics, how can an intervention bring about a positive change in security?

Also, taking the local level as starting point to look at security does not mean that the impact of national policies and international interventions can be neglected. On the contrary, national, regional and international actors are part and parcel of the local dynamics of security. State practices in security provision may make particular security strategies available, for example by providing a functioning police that acts in favour of local security needs. The state may also limit such strategies, such as when the police work against local interests, or when the state prohibits traditional structures of security provision.

Likewise, international organisations and donor countries can influence local security. This can be through the programmes they implement on the ground, such as by initiating an anti-guns campaign. It can also be through lobbying with the government of a country of intervention, for instance by pushing for security sector reform in diplomatic talks. Thirdly it could be through changes in national policies in the donor country itself, such as regulating the export of weapons.

Clearly, national, regional and international actors play a large role in the dynamics of security. But the effect of outside interventions on local security dynamics is often poorly understood, and this is problematic. Development projects can have unintended side-effects. For instance, rebuilding a few schools after conflict, at first sight sounds like a great project. But what if these schools were only situated in regions where a particular ethnic group lives? Without building new schools elsewhere, rebuilding these schools may risk reinforcing inequalities that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. Also, strengthening police capacity in a post-conflict country seems good, as often the police are ill-trained and poorly equipped. But for instance in Burundi, improving the capacity of security forces can also create security problems for the population, as its government is becoming increasingly authoritarian. An analyst in Sudan criticised such security sector reform interventions by international donors, and complained that such security interventions never have anything to do with democracy: training and equipping soldiers is done, but what does it bring? Shoot people better, kill better, torture better.

International organisations often argue that local actors have ‘capacity problems’. For example, they may lack particular skills in financial management or organisational planning. Therefore international organisations often design and manage projects themselves, and let local organisations implement projects under close supervision. It is true that capacity problems among local actors do exist. On the other hand, there is a capacity problem on the side of international organisations and donors - to truly understand the local context. What impact does a project have on the local security dynamics? How can a project be designed so that its impact is positive? These are questions that need local insights, and hence need local actors.