Safety from below: is non-state security the way forward?

Many communities in countries torn apart by violence look beyond the state for their protection, to neighbourhood watch groups, civilian patrols or self-help associations. Interest in these non-state providers has risen sharply in the donor community, but can the risks of supporting vigilantes and criminal rackets be contained?
Maria Derks
14 October 2011

Security is a scarce good in many of the least developed, fragile and conflict or post-conflict countries across the world. Violence and crime levels are high, while police and other security forces are seen as ineffective or are simply absent from the areas most in need of their presence. Or worse, they are corrupt, complicit with criminals, or discriminate against ethnic, religious or cultural groups. Elsewhere, they are a direct threat to public security, given their involvement in repression of dissenting opinion, their partisan role in a conflict, or their flagrant and systemic disregard for human rights.

In many places, people turn to sources other than the state for their security, including neighbourhood watch groups, community development groups, NGOs or workplace associations. As the international community frets about how to support justice and security in the most violent and poorly governed states, this fact has reappeared in some donor circles as a sort of policy gift. The new vogue is to think of how human security can be boosted by assisting groups other than the state.

Incorporating non-state security actors into justice and security development programmes, however, also courts serious risks, either by reinforcing harmful practices or upsetting local power balances. Finding who to support, and how to do so, is essential.

The workplace associations of Burundi

Examples from around the world show the diverse roles non-state security actors play. One successful example of non-state security would appear to be the Taxi-Cyclists Association of Burundi, a country that finally emerged from civil war across most of its territory in 2005. Cyclists providing taxi services had been deeply concerned about police brutality. Most of them are unmarried, young men, many of whom are reputed to be ex-combatants or to have been involved previously in illegal activities.

The association is dedicated to ensuring that cyclists can safely engage in their trade, which initially meant protection from police abuse. As that challenge was settled, concern moved towards minimizing the involvement of criminals in cycle services. Now, if a cyclist is accused of theft, the customer is likely to go to the Cyclist Association rather than the police.  Many members of the association repeated in interviews that they now feel proud and respected. “I manage my life the way I want to now,” said one. “I am in control of my life.”

A slightly more ambiguous example in the same country can be found among the 2,000 owners and tenants of palm oil plots in the region of Rumonge. The Palm Oil Guard Association protects the land plots from thieves by hiring unemployed young men as guards: one guard admitted that before joining up “we were jobless, thieves, street kids and ex-combatants.”. The latest reports indicate that theft has certainly decreased.

A fine line in Cali and Congo

Colombian features numerous examples of community security initiatives. There are many poor and middle-class neighbourhoods in urban areas – for example Cali, Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena - where the police cannot or will not go. Violence is often high in these neighbourhoods, and drug cartels, illegal armed groups, and gangs are ubiquitous.

Local residents have responded by organizing their own community security systems, often through community development councils - state-endorsed, locally elected councils that work towards community development and have a mandate on security issues - NGOs, or other community groups. Their schemes include installing public alarm systems that enable communities to respond to crimes, hiring a security guard to protect parking lots or organizing neighbourhood watch groups consisting of young men equipped with whistles and bikes, who patrol the neighbourhood and provide other services, such as medical transport.

In one neighbourhood in Cali, households agreed to pay a small amount of money to cover the costs of a bicycle watch consisting of six former gang members, who patrol the neighbourhood from Monday to Friday and keep an eye out for crime. But on Saturday night, the most violent time of the week, they are not on duty.

Meanwhile, in an eastern city of the Democratic Republic of Congo young educated people have sought to improve the safety of their neighbourhood in an extremely fluid security environment. Faced with rising insecurity and crime in the city of Bukavu, educated young people created an NGO called SAJECEK in 2005. Out of this NGO a neighbourhood safety group, Forces Vives, was created in one part of the city two years later. The participants, most of them in their late 20s and early 30s, organized themselves to defend their neighbourhoods. The police, in their view, were corrupt, and afraid of being attacked by criminals or of stopping mobs “killing those they didn’t know or like”.

A senior representative of the group observed that from its inception, the neighbourhood watch initiative has had to walk a fine line since it is “caught between three sides - criminals, popular justice, and the police.” When an alleged perpetrator is detained, or a group member finds goods that were reported stolen, the culprit is brought to the police and the goods are returned to the victim. But this relationship with the police is not entirely unproblematic.  One interviewee claimed that the police feel “they are in competition with us, and they feel humiliated because we have more success and legitimacy.”

Donor support: challenging but necessary

One should undoubtedly be careful about romanticizing these groups. Since they are not necessarily subject to the law, mainly consist of volunteers, and are sometimes premised on ethnic or tribal affiliations or religious ideas, doubts and questions proliferate over the extent to which they are accountable and to whom. Moreover, not all of them observe international human rights standards: some groups engage in practices that would be qualified as barbaric, such as tying offenders to stakes for a number of hours, or beating thieves. Others have ties to criminal organizations, or engage in corruption and racketeering.

This raises thorny questions for donors who want to include non-state security providers in their attempts to improve human security. The general public in donor countries may not look favourably on support for groups engaged in unlawful and harmful behaviour. Yet the inclusion of “bad apples” is difficult to avoid. Donors also face the risk of damaging their relationship with the recipient state, since supporting non-state security actors may be perceived by the government as an intrusion on its sovereignty. Assistance for these groups may also upset delicate local power balances between non-state and state security actors, or between different non-state security actors, sparking competition and instability.

Confronting these challenges requires, first, detailed knowledge at the community level about  which groups genuinely provide security, and which are mere protection rackets or criminal organizations; which engage in human rights abuses and which don’t, or are at least amenable to changing their practices; and the local power balances and relationships between all the security actors at play.

This knowledge will help donors make informed decisions about where and how to provide assistance, allowing them to assess the risk of supporting groups that undermine security. Addressing these challenges requires a much greater focus on risk management, including investing in the political relationship with the leadership of the recipient country, monitoring local power dynamics, and a communication strategy towards the donor’s domestic audiences to explain the risks being taken.

In spite of their potential flaws, many community groups have helped people establish a modicum of security in extremely unstable and unsafe conditions. They have a direct impact on people’s lives: they make dangerous neighbourhoods more secure, and provide a service the state is unable or unwilling to do. These are often the only groups that people trust. Investing in knowledge and risk management is the price to pay for donors who are serious about improving the human security of those living in the most unsafe places of the world.


This article draws on the findings of a Clingendael Conflict Research Unit project on the role of non-state actors in security and justice development programmes. The research for this project was carried out by Eric Scheye, with the involvement of Sylvie More and Maria Derks. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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