Cover: Building Security in Africa

Building Security in Africa

An Evaluation of U.S. Security Sector Assistance in Africa from the Cold War to the Present

Published Sep 13, 2018

by Stephen Watts, Trevor Johnston, Matthew Lane, Sean Mann, Michael J. McNerney, Andrew Brooks


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Research Question

  1. What impact has U.S.-provided SSA had on political violence in Africa?

The United States has sought to combat security threats in Africa principally by supporting partner governments, and security sector assistance (SSA) has been one of the primary tools it has used. Rigorous evaluations of the overall impact of SSA, however, have been extremely rare. A RAND Corporation study used statistical models to evaluate the impact that U.S.-provided SSA has had on political violence in Africa — in particular, the incidence of civil wars and insurgencies, terrorist attacks, and state repression. The authors found that SSA has had a mixed record. During the Cold War, SSA likely exacerbated instability, leading to a higher incidence of civil wars. During the post–Cold War era, it seems to have had little net effect, likely reflecting recipient-government failures to sustain the capabilities developed through SSA and to harness these capability gains to effective political–military strategies. When SSA has been implemented in conjunction with peacekeeping operations, however, it has had a consistently positive impact across a range of outcomes, including the likelihood of civil war recurrence, the incidence of terrorist attacks, and the extent of state repression. These findings have important implications for future U.S. policies in Africa and potentially beyond.

Key Findings

The United States deemphasized governance issues during Cold War competition

  • During the Cold War, the United States' primary goal was to maintain partnerships with governments in Africa and to prevent regimes from slipping into the Soviet orbit. Enhancing governance or human rights — or even maintaining peace and stability — was not the overriding goal of U.S. assistance in this period. SSA in this period went disproportionately to poorly governed states.

Security sector assistance in the Cold War appears to have increased the incidence of civil wars

  • U.S. assistance appears likely to have increased the incidence of civil wars in this period, likely by either exacerbating domestic instabilities or provoking proxy conflicts.

Most security sector assistance in most countries in the post–Cold War era appears to have had little net impact

  • Whatever "success stories" might exist are relatively modest in their impact on political violence, obscured by much larger amounts of inefficient spending or offset by counterproductive outcomes in other cases.

Security sector assistance has had significant, positive impact in peacekeeping contexts

  • Even when they controlled for the direct effects of "blue helmets," the authors found that SSA executed in the presence of UN peacekeepers has statistically significant, favorable effects on a range of outcomes. It decreases the likelihood of renewed conflict, terrorist attacks, and government repression.


  • Balance goals of achieving access and influence with governance concerns.
  • Adopt a comprehensive approach with persistent presence and oversight.
  • Conduct risk assessments.
  • Commit to rigorous monitoring and evaluation.
  • Improve the quality of SSA data.
  • Conduct in-depth evaluations of high-impact, high-risk programs.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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