Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation in Action for Security Sector Assistance

From the faltering of the Iraqi security forces in the face of the so-called Islamic State in 2014 to the current controversy surrounding U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, U.S. security sector assistance (SSA) to allies and partners has undergone significant scrutiny and reform recently. Jumpstarted by the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), one focus area of the SSA reform effort has been assessment, monitoring, and evaluation (AM&E). Long a core component of international development programming, the push to institutionalize AM&E in SSA programming is a result of recent congressional and executive branch efforts to increase accountability, transparency, and empirically-driven planning and design into SSA in the pursuit of U.S. interests and values.

AM&E is perhaps the weakest link of the SSA reform effort, yet it is the area that could most effectively help the U.S. government measure the impact and return on investment of the billions of dollars spent on SSA programs. The SSA goals, however, are ambitious—coordinating AM&E efforts and lessons across cross-funded, multi-year, multi-sectoral programs to address national security and broader foreign policy objectives. With policy and lawmakers’ attention focused on improving SSA, there is a window of opportunity for the primary SSA program implementers, the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of State (DoS), to leverage the lessons learned by the U.S. development community—including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) alongside other private and non-governmental organizations—to critically examine and strengthen AM&E for SSA.

Modifying Traditional AM&E for Security Sector Assistance

Although elements of DoD and DoS have begun to incorporate AM&E into their SSA programming after recent policy changes—examples being the 2017 DoD Instruction 5132.14: Assessment, Monitoring and Evaluation Policy for the Security Cooperation Enterprise, as well as DoS’ 2016 Program and Project Design, Monitoring and Evaluation Policy and the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act —these efforts are nascent and could benefit significantly from lessons learned from the development community including monitoring and evaluation frameworks, data collection methodologies, and feedback mechanisms.

Adapting traditional AM&E from the development community for SSA programming will not only require closer interagency coordination and dialogue around best practices but will also necessitate significant skill building and workforce development. These practices include shared fluency in the various roles, authorities, and capabilities that currently exist in the interagency around AM&E-type activities; iterative processes that build in adaptability and flexibility to change and improve as the environment necessitates; and a common lexicon around AM&E that DoD, DoS, and USAID can all leverage as they seek to coordinate AM&E in SSA programming.

AM&E is heavily dependent on data collection and synthesizing information. While DoD and DoS collect a broad array of data for SSA programming purposes, it is often inconsistent, incomplete, and difficult to share across agency lines. These issues are exacerbated by the complex realities often found in SSA country contexts. To mitigate such issues, the SSA community can learn from and leverage existing development models to design programs using multi-step data collection processes that incorporate cross- and multi-sectoral data to gather context specific data, such as environmental challenges, political environment, or gender-related issues. Doing so effectively will require SSA policymakers and practitioners to prioritize AM&E starting from the design and planning stages, not as an afterthought to action.

Assessing Program Impact in Complex Environments

The SSA arena is an increasingly complex space. On the one hand, the United States is far and away the most significant SSA player internationally. On the other hand, recent U.S. foreign policy decisions and scrutiny around return on investment in SSA is creating vacuums—real or perceived—amongst international SSA partners that competitors like Russia and China are seeking to fill. AM&E efforts in SSA programming will need to address these challenges to maintain U.S. strategic goals and avoid falling behind competitors.

The U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) places an emphasis on great power competition and working by, with, and through allies and partners to mitigate complex global threats. U.S. SSA implementers can leverage this emphasis and current political will around this competition to focus on engaging allies and partners in its SSA efforts, from including them in the planning stages all the way through program implementation. Sharing the SSA burden with partners would necessitate including partner assessments in U.S. AM&E efforts. Partners’ comparative advantages, institutional capacities, resourcing, human capital, and even more esoteric factors such as nuanced knowledge of ground dynamics and political favorability in the SSA recipient country could result from these assessments. Including such assessments in the broader AM&E effort will help forecast and eventually measure SSA program impact in complex environments where the United States leverages and burden-shares SSA efforts with allies and partners.

Complexity in SSA partnerships can also result from conflict dynamics in the recipient country—e.g., Afghanistan—and internal problems with negligence, corruption, or abuse that can jeopardize the partnership with the United States—e.g., Nigeria. Effective partnerships are also critical to SSA efforts in such environments. Before embarking on establishing SSA programs in conflict-stricken or internally problematic countries, the United States needs to incorporate assessing possible unintended consequences from program implementation into its AM&E processes and determine if SSA programming in those complex contexts—particularly if implemented alongside partners— will ultimately help or hinder achieving U.S. goals.

Additionally, AM&E processes should account for iterative processes and room for failure and remediation. Even with the best intentions, SSA recipients in complex environments will be more likely to make mistakes as they seek to rectify behaviors or operate in fluid environments.

Communicating Results to Affect Change

With competing priorities diverting the attention of the U.S. leadership away from SSA, SSA implementers should communicate results effectively. Doing so can affect positive change in AM&E for SSA programming; it can also have implications for resourcing. Strategically, connecting SSA goals to broader U.S. policy objectives and framing success from that lens is one way to accomplish this. It requires not only reconciling potential mismatches in objectives between the programmatic and strategic level but also to establish a common and cohesive operating framework and vision between planners and implementors, bridging the gap internally before then communicating with U.S. government leadership. Incorporating these elements into AM&E for SSA will serve not only as a forcing function for the SSA bureaucracy to get its house in order but could also provide examples of progress and success that can be shared with policymakers to affect change. Better AM&E for SSA can help the community tell its story more effectively.

Facilitating dialogue and communication within the interagency will be just as important as doing so with Congress. The interagency AM&E community must also work on better utilizing its monitoring data to inform course corrections and, one step further, communicate the process and results effectively to the strategic level. This will help illustrate the connection between programs and foreign policy goals at the country and regional level for Washington-based policymakers. This should also include communicating behavioral changes and perception changes to understand locally legitimate authorities and how trust is shifting on-the-ground. Taking advantage of moments of political and policy transition is also critical and will require leadership and coordination between the higher echelons of the SSA interagency. AM&E can provide real time feedback to make this coordination easier and more efficient.

Finally, communicating SSA results using the return on investment paradigm may create a greater impact amongst policymakers. The U.S. SSA community should leverage AM&E in a way that communicates the rewards of SSA programming reaped by the United States. This method should include demonstrating U.S. dollars are being put to good use through measurable progress in areas such as increased capacity and capability within the recipient country, improved political will to correct certain behaviors, co-investing from within the recipient country or through outside allies and partners, and the overall quality of recipient engagement.

The United States has long been a leader in SSA. It now needs to focus on assessing, monitoring, and evaluating those efforts to showcase this leadership, to have more evidence for critical decision-making, and to demonstrate that SSA can provide real return on investment given constraints at home and challenges abroad.

The CSIS Cooperative Defense Project and CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development co-hosted a private roundtable on AM&E for SSA in early 2019 with the generous support of the Dexis Consulting Group. That discussion inspired and informed this commentary.

Melissa Dalton directs the Cooperative Defense Project and is deputy director and a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS. Hijab Shah is a research associate with the International Security Program at CSIS. MacKenzie Hammond was a program coordinator with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Erol Yayboke
Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

MacKenzie Hammond

Hijab Shah

Melissa Dalton