Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), a Challenge for Peace Research

By Kees Kingma.

For over two decades, I have been involved with numerous policies and programmes to disarm, demobilize and support the socioeconomic reintegration of former combatants.  Usually, this was in countries which were exiting a violent conflict.  My involvement has been a combination of research and analysis with operational work, supervision and advice – and for a number of (international) organizations, at various levels.  These disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes are now commonly referred to as DDR.  These days, however, I have some concerns about how DDR is being advocated and implemented.  It risks becoming too much based on blueprints, and those involved in the programmes do not allow themselves enough flexibility and creativity.  Here lies a clear role for peace researchers.

Since the 1990s, DDR programmes have been implemented in many countries, mostly in Africa, Central America and Asia; for example in Afghanistan, Angola, Colombia, DRC (Congo), Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Timor-Leste.  Most of them have been supported by the international community through the UN or other international organizations.  Over the years, lessons have been drawn from these experiences, which have found their way into policies and guidelines within international agencies.  The UN has developed its own, very detailed and elaborate, Integrated DDR Standards (IDDRS).  Also a number of training courses has been developed by various institutions on how to design, implement and monitor DDR operations. 

Indeed, DDR is seen as an important part of broader peacebuilding support, and receiving a great deal of attention among agencies involved in supporting stabilization and peace processes.  DDR has become almost a standard component of UN peace operations.  But it somehow risks becoming a victim of its own success.  Based on experience and observations, I see at least the following concerns:

  • In complex conflict situations, such as in Eastern DRC or the Sahel region, DDR is too often pushed from the outside as one comprehensive package, before an actual political solution (for example through a viable peace agreement) is realistically in sight.  Although DDR could often make an important contribution in peacebuilding and stabilization, and sensitization and preparation for DDR should start early, it should not be seen as a way to get to peace.
  • The UN system is set up in such a way that once supporting DDR is part of the official mandate of a UN peace operation the aim becomes to implement DDR, rather than more creatively helping to solve the essential problems at hand.  Such UN response, involving numerous agencies, generally tends to become too much based on a blueprint, and thereby also too complex (expensive) and too slow.
  • Also donors appear to find it more attractive to support a comprehensive DDR, rather than for example the complex process of reforming the security sector – including democratic civilian oversight – or than helping to address root causes of the conflict.
  • The ‘R’ (reintegration) is too often still seen as an element of the DDR which is ‘implemented for the ex-combatants’, rather than a broad set of socio-economic processes in which the ex-combatants themselves are the main actors, and which a project or programme could only support or facilitate.  Only recently, some gradual change has started to take place in that respect, also within the UN system.  Reintegration is increasingly recognized as a complex process, influenced by many factors and varying for different persons/groups and in different settings.  Also the role of the communities in which reintegration takes place is increasingly recognized.
  • It is acknowledged that providing targeted reintegration assistance (with individual entitlements) to ex-combatants has some advantages, but also significant disadvantages.  Too often, however, the latter are not considered seriously enough in programme design.  Singling out the ex-combatants for support could actually backfire on broader reintegration and peace processes.  Ex-combatants might be seen by many as the perpetrators of the violence, and many other groups have suffered and need (reintegration) support.  And the potential of genuine community-based reintegration support, by strengthening the capacity of the communities to ‘absorb’ the ex-combatants, is usually not sufficiently explored. 

There is thus a need to critically look at the current DDR industry.  In order to focus on the real challenges, rather than on implementing DDR, the above issues need to be considered early in each case where (support to) DDR appears to be required.  Starting with calling for a DDR might thus not be helpful.  The appropriate policy and associated support required might in fact be simpler, cheaper and faster than the roll-out of an entire DDR.  Valuable lessons have certainly been learned from experience over the past decades.  Most of them are well reflected in the UN’s IDDRS.  However, sufficient space should be ensured to think outside of the DDR box.  Moreover, procedures and responsibilities within the relevant institutions should be sufficiently flexible. 

Research has an important role helping the policy makers reflect on the whether and how of DDR – or related measures – in a specific situation.  But too much of the relevant research has in fact taken DDR programmes as the starting point for the research questions, rather than the deeper issues behind mobilization and demobilization, or the actual processes of reintegration into civilian life.  Or it has looked at questions only within the context of the external support provided to DDR.  More useful contributions could be made by critically looking at the actual issues at stake, such as the profiles of the combatants, reasons for mobilization, the role and dynamics of armed groups after peace agreements, transitional justice and the general perceptions of ‘post-conflict’ security and justice, the needs of former combatants and their communities, the actual threat of violence by ex-combatants, and the reintegration challenges for all war-affected populations.  And then, based on a more thorough understanding, one can weigh and suggest evidence-based policy options.  Indeed, peace researchers would always need to ask the additional questions, a level deeper than within the framework of the currently fashionable response to the problem.

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