Good money after bad: Time to overhaul U.S. security assistance

The United States has made security assistance and security cooperation a centerpiece of its global engagement. Security, U.S. leaders often argue, should come first in coping with such challenges as terrorism and insurgencies. However, U.S. security assistance programs routinely fail to achieve their goals, in part because they are too small, reward “bad behavior,” are treated as an entitlement and, most importantly, do not recognize the critical link between security and governance.


There are four major deficiencies in U.S. security sector assistance:

  • Small amounts of assistance go to too many countries to make a difference or provide leverage. The U.S. State Department’s FY2016 budget provides $8 billion for the security sectors of over 130 countries. More than three quarters of these funds are “earmarked” for Israel, Egypt, Colombia, and Jordan and half of the remaining countries receive roughly $2 million each.
  • Programs throw good money after bad, rewarding “bad behavior,” including corruption and coups. This is especially true for assistance to some of the world’s most poorly governed countries. The target should be states that can actually achieve positive results with U.S. funding.  
  • Too many countries treat our assistance as an entitlement. Over the last decade, the overwhelming majority of countries receiving foreign military financing (FMF) were allocated roughly the same amount of funds each year, regardless of security sector performance or security outcomes. Moral hazard results: If a government receives funds regardless of performance, it has little incentive to seek results.  
  • The measurements the United States makes of country performance and results focus on inputs, not outcomes. Over the past several years, according to the Fund for Peace, the security scores of almost all recipients of U.S. security assistance worsened slightly from what they had been before the investments started.

A new paradigm

Fundamentally, U.S. security assistance programs promote failure by putting the security cart before the governance horse; however, as a growing body of research suggests, “governance before security,” should drive U.S. policy.

To realign U.S. security assistance programs more closely with governance objectives, U.S. officials can take a lesson from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). MCC assistance is more selective and conditional than traditional assistance. It requires potential recipients to measure up to 16 indicators of good governance before they are eligible for an MCC “compact.”

Because MCC funds are limited and the program is highly selective, prospective MCC partners are, in effect, challenged to compete for funding with other countries on the basis of governance performance. Once countries sign a compact, the MCC applies stringent performance and evaluation controls to monitor and hold MCC partners accountable for results. Poor country performance in meeting commitments under their compacts can and has been penalized by the termination of the compact. In sum, MCC countries are incentivized to improve their policy performance to meet standards that both improve governance and advance U.S. national objectives.

The MCC experience offers a useful model for U.S. security assistance programs. Broader governance criteria, as well as criteria specifically related to security sector behavior, would determine the initial eligibility of countries for assistance. The United States would establish a “challenge fund” consisting of the bulk of U.S. security assistance funds for which potential recipient countries could compete. To be successful, the stewards of this fund would need to establish stringent performance standards both for overall governance and security sector performance competing countries would have to meet before they are declared eligible and selected for participation in the fund. For example, governments should:

  • Be committed to civilian-led accountable institutions and have a military that only acts under civilian command and with clear and transparent rules of engagement;
  • Make military/security capabilities, budget data, and weapons procurement transparent to civilian authorities and not allow the military to own productive resources in the civilian economy;
  • Require military/security training to include human rights, accountability to civilians and civilian institutions, and adherence to rule of law and prohibit military/security forces from detaining individuals indefinitely or without trial;
  • Have defense and interior ministries headed by civilians appointed through an accountable process, with low measures of corruption, as MCC uses;
  • Have legislatures with capacity for effective oversight of military/security ministries and with budget/appropriations role for these budgets;
  • Have a free press allowed to scrutinize and report on military and security force budgets and activities without repression;
  • Have clear rules of engagement for dealing with internal unrest that meet international standards and do not use military/security forces for internal political repression; and
  • Make an adequate investment of resources for training in the areas of democratic and community-oriented policing and have an investigatory framework that does not rely on torture and forced confession.

Stiff winds

Moving away from a “business as usual” approach to improving governance and security sectors is likely to face strong bureaucratic and political headwinds. An effective, governance-linked strategy will require strong, top-down leadership, policy integration, and coordination from the White House—and in particular the State Department—as well as much closer integration of Defense Department security cooperation programs. Such an approach inevitably threatens organizations with a vested interest in maintaining a status quo that gives them greater influence in the bottom-up development of country programs. Moreover, senior officials in the national security agencies and at the White House value the flexibility to use foreign assistance to promote short-term and tactical diplomatic goals or respond to unexpected emergencies, which puts a premium on maintaining easy access to funds that are not committed to long-term programs to build better governance and security sectors. 

This post is an adapted version of two recent articles on the Lawfare blog, “Governance and Security Sector Assistance: The Missing Link” (Part I and Part II).