Identifying and Mitigating Risks in Security Sector Assistance for Africa's Fragile States

by Stephen Watts


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Research Questions

  1. What risks does the United States face when providing security sector assistance to the fragile states of Africa?
  2. How can such assistance have adverse second- and third-order effects?
  3. How can these assistance risks be anticipated?
  4. How can these risks be mitigated?

This report explores the nature of the risks inherent in U.S. security sector assistance to the fragile states of Africa and how the United States might better anticipate and mitigate these risks. It examines these issues through a review of qualitative and quantitative literature from both the academic and policy fields and through interviews conducted throughout the agencies of the U.S. government. The quantitative literature suggests a stark dilemma for those responsible for U.S. security sector assistance to the AFRICOM area of responsibility: The countries that are most in need of assistance are usually the ones least able to make positive use of it. Case studies of security sector assistance in the fragile countries in Africa are used to trace multiple specific pathways by which such assistance can have negative second- and third-order effects. Finally, the report provides numerous recommendations about ways in which the United States can improve the processes by which it monitors and evaluates, plans, and implements security sector assistance in the fragile states of Africa and more generally.

Key Findings

Although the effects of U.S. SSA are generally positive in most partner nations, weak and autocratic states have trouble making positive use of assistance, which can even be destabilizing to them.

  • The effects, however, are highly dependent on types of assistance offered and characteristics of the partner nation.
  • Material assistance is more problematic than education or training.

The literature describes a number of ways SSA can be destabilizing to fragile states.

  • Undermining legitimate governance.
  • Exacerbating inter-communal tensions.
  • Diffusion of assistance to nonstate actors.
  • Abetting abuses.
  • Moral hazard.

Failure of SSA efforts can be harmful and costly to the United States.

  • The United States can undermine its goals in the partner nation of interest.
  • Domestic support of assistance policies may be undermined.
  • The United States' ability to execute similar assistance policies elsewhere may be jeopardized.


  • Develop common "theories" of security sector assistance. It's important to be clear on what changes the United States expects to see as a result of its assistance.
  • Improve risk identification. Systematic identification and monitoring of risks is almost completely absent from current SSA processes.
  • Improve planning to enable risk mitigation.
  • Improve execution in ways that mitigate risks, including through improved regional awareness, the use of embedded advisers, and improved processes relating to the use of contractors.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    The Problem of Security Sector Assistance in Africa

  • Chapter Two

    Risks of SSA in the Fragile States of Africa

  • Chapter Three

    Improving U.S. Security Sector Assistance Processes to Mitigate Risk

  • Chapter Four


This research was sponsored by the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, U.S. Army, and conducted by the Strategy and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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