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Swedish Defence Research Agency

10 December 2019

Unpacking the buzzword of local ownership

Local ownership has become a buzzword when discussing capacity-building missions in conflict areas. An FOI report reveals the dilemmas that arise when applying the concept in practice.

Training of soldiers in Iraq.

An Australian soldier helping an Iraqian soldier. Photo: Paris Maxey/US Army.

A distinct trend in military missions is that many countries have shifted their focus from large-scale peacekeeping operations to slimmer missions devoted to training, advising, and educating foreign militaries. The advantage for the contributing states is that it is cheaper and safer, while the recipients find that being able to quickly raise their military capacity is an attractive prospect. In this type of mission, local ownership, where the activities are anchored in the host country and sensitive to local needs, is important. At the same time, it is characteristic of conflict areas that different groups compete for recognition as legitimate local owners.

“This clearly becomes a question of taking sides; someone is chosen and someone else is excluded. It’s critical to be aware that you are participating in an allocation of power when you choose who is going to benefit from the resources and knowledge you’re offering,” says analyst Elin Hellquist, one of the authors of FOI’s report, Local Ownership in Military Capacity Building.

Interviews with key persons

To collect material for the study, the authors of the report interviewed individuals in Sweden and in Brussels who have had key roles and insights from missions in for example Somalia and Mali. They also studied mission documents, which provided a good picture of how things worked on the ground.

“This study doesn’t result in any clear checklist for how you best establish local ownership. Rather, our point has been to unpack the concept,” says Elin Hellquist.

Three dimensions

In brief, taking local ownership seriously involves being able to answer three questions: Who owns “the local”? Who belongs in “the local”? Where is “the local”?

“These are three dimensions that you can’t escape as an external intervener. Everyone who works with local ownership must take this seriously and think it through on a deeper level, otherwise, rather than building security, you risk merely confirming and strengthening dysfunctional structures,” says Elin Hellquist.

Another important aspect to consider is that today there are a number of different actors that offer similar assistance, allowing recipients to engage in “forum shopping” and choose the “best offer” of the moment.

“A Russian actor, for example, might be willing and capable of providing assistance that EU has restrictions on. A national government, in that case, might play the actors off against each other,” says Elin Hellquist.

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