Mark Sedra at the Center for Strategic Studies

By Sarah Detzner

On March 5, the Center for Strategic Studies hosted Dr. Mark Sedra for two events as part of our “Engaging Practitioners” and “Research and Policy Seminar” series. Sedra is the President and Research Director of the Canadian International Council and has held numerous leadership positions in the field of peacebuilding and the study of conflict-affected states. His work focuses on security sector reform (SSR) and his most recent book, Security Sector Reform in Conflict-Affected Countries: The Evolution of a Model, was published by Routledge in 2016.

Sedra’s career, at the nexus of policy and practice, is an aspirational model for many students at The Fletcher School. His discussion in the Engaging Practitioners session of his professional trajectory thus provided useful insights for our master’s students. His remarks focused on the importance of grounding theory in practical experience, based on his own decade-plus engagement with SSR efforts in Afghanistan. He further spoke of the importance of writing frequently for a general, in addition to specialist, audience in order to build a profile and publicize one’s expertise. In response to students’ questions, he reflected on the importance of resilience and the ability to make career mis-steps and weather unfavorable political conditions without giving up long-term goals.

During the evening’s Research and Policy Seminar, Sedra discussed his recent paper, “Adapting security sector reform to ground-level realities: The transition to a second-generation model,” published in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. His paper posits that SSR as an approach has entered a period of uncertainty, sparked by its weak record of success and an increasing belief among practitioners that “SSR in its current form is too utopian, technocratic, state-centric, and donor-driven to succeed.” However, the underlying aims of SSR remain essential. Sedra suggested that the field must work toward a second-generation of SSR derived from the lessons of recent years, in particular the need for engagement with non-state actors, more modest objectives and time frames, and a focus on bottom-up approaches.

The paper’s discussant, Sarah Detzner, largely concurred with Sedra’s diagnosis but sought to press him on specifics based on her own research on the role of popular participation in SSR. In particular, she focused on the need to define, in an easily communicable form, what SSR success looks like and how it should be measured. She further discussed the unresolved challenges of engaging non-state actors, including histories of co-option by authoritarian states and the potentially problematic endorsement of illiberal “traditional” practices such as the marginalization of women.

Other seminar participants also raised important points, such as the question of how new approaches to SSR are to be implemented when one of the largest donors, the United States, has never fully bought into the model and may be undermining progress through massive investment in purely military solutions.

Overall, both events were extremely productive and illuminating. The Center thanks Dr. Sedra for his engagement with both our students and our Fellows and looks forward to having him back in future.

Sarah Detzner is a former speechwriter for the U.S. Department of Defense, a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and a Senior Ph.D. Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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